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a. She was happy to see her mother.

Does this mean

a1. She was happy when she saw her mother.

a2. She was happy that she'd seen her mother.

a3. She was happy that she was going to see her mother.

?

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b. She was happy to win the contest.

Does this mean

b1. She was happy when she was winning the contest.

b2. She was happy that she had won the contest.

b3. She was happy that she was going to win the contest.

?

It seems to me that (a) corresponds to (a1), and (b) corresponds to (b2). But maybe there's some ambiguity in these sentences.

I wonder if (b) could be said of her state of mind long after the contest was over.

Would this one work?

c. Three years after the contest, she was still happy to win it.

Many thanks

  • 2
    It's ambiguous and only determined by actual context. She was happy to see her mother can also mean she was happy to be able to see her mother or she was willing to see her mother. – Jason Bassford Sep 11 '18 at 19:07
  • I am happy to answer this question, if I can. Yesterday, I was happy to answer this question. In other words, answering this question is OK by me. – Lambie Sep 11 '18 at 22:14
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I accept Jason Bassford's comment that 'She was happy to' + 'verb' contains an inherent ambiguity as to which definition of 'happy' the writer intended. I will proceed on the assumption that the writer intends 'happy' to refer to 'feelings of pleasure or enjoyment' and not 'openness or willingness to do something'.

Having removed this obstacle, there remains another significant issue with the OP's question. Sentences A2 and B2, and A3 and B3 are congruent in form, i.e. the structure and tenses used in both sets of sentences are identical. The same cannot be said for sentences A1 and B1. To make B1 congruent with A1 we would need to change B1 from:

She was happy when she was winning the contest.

to

She was happy when she won the contest.

This now negates the OP's statement:

It seems to me that (a) corresponds to (a1), and (b) corresponds to (b2).

Now, if we accept that (a) corresponds to (a1), then we logically have to say the (b) corresponds to (b1). However, does (a) only correspond to (a1); I don't think so.

In sentences (a) and (b), the verbs 'to see' and 'to win' are both written in the infinitive form. As a consequence they do not contribute to the tense of the sentence - the infinitive of a verb is not inflected by tense. This means that we can only determine the tense of these two sentences on the basis of the finite verbs contained in each, i.e. 'was' as in 'she was happy'. As this is in the past tense, we must assume that both sentences are in the past tense.

In my opinion, because both (a) and (b) are in the past tense, there is a poor fit between them and (a3) and (b3) which both look ahead to a future event. I accept that this could be a future in the past tense, ie the event that was anticipated was in the future at the time 'she was happy', but that 'future event' could have occurred between her being happy and the present time. Nonetheless, the future aspect does not sit well with a sentence that is fully in the past tense.

In my opinion, again, (a) corresponds to both (a1) and (a2), and (b) corresponds to both (b1) and (b2). So, she was happy when she saw her mother, and continued to feel happy when she recalled having done so. Similarly, she was happy when she won the contest, and continued to feel happy when she recalled having done so.

  • Thank you so much Jason and James. How about 'She was happy to be seeing her mother'? Would you agree that that sentences would correspond to a1 and a3? – azz Sep 12 '18 at 9:35
  • I would say that your sentence corresponds more closely to a3 than a1, although even then the correspondence is not exact. There are grammatical differences between all three sentences. '[T]o be seeing her mother' is in the present progressive tense; 'when she saw her mother' is in the past tense; 'she was going to see her mother' is a future in the past tense. If you could provide some context to the situation it would be much easier to determine the correct usage, e.g. Is there a reason to keep saying 'was happy' instead of 'is happy'; did she see her mother in the past, present or future. – James Sep 12 '18 at 16:07
  • Thank you so much! The past tense is interesting because it highlights the ambiguity. She saw her mother in the past, and was happy in the past. Or, she was going to see her mother in the past, and was happy about it... The sequences of events is what is of interest to me. 'To be seeing' seems odd if she was happy when she saw her. However, 'to be walking' wouldn't. "She was happy to be walking in the park." So it is quite true that the verb can change the meaning. Thanks again. This is more complicated than it seems! – azz Sep 12 '18 at 19:13

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