8

In my English classes, I was taught that never should not be used with past forms, only with present perfect forms; this is also what I read in a grammar book I bought some years ago. (I bought the book in the USA; I guess the book is about American English grammar, but I don't have any reason to believe there is any difference between American, and British English in this case.)

Is it correct to use never with the past tense?

I never said that.

I have never said that.

12

This is the sort of 'rule' that teachers employ during early studies to prevent beginning students from making certain likely errors. In this case what the rule is fighting is things like:

  • I never visited Italy, when what the student means is that she has not yet visited Italy
  • I never saw Citizen Kane, when what the student means is that she is unfamiliar with the movie

This is the sort of proposition a beginning student is likely to encounter or use. But once the student masters the notion that past events (or non-events) with effects in the present are discussed in the present perfect form, the rule can be qualified: when you are speaking only of the past effects, the past form is appropriate:

  • I lived in Europe in the 90s, but the entire time I never visited Italy.
  • I never saw Citizen Kane until our school's Welles Festival last year.
  • I never said I would give you my car. I said I would lend you my car.

ADDED:
To distinguish between use of the present perfect and use of the past:

I have never said I like hats means “Right up to the present moment I have avoided saying I like hats”; it suggests that you continue to avoid saying you like hats.

I never said I like hats means only that “During some [past] period [defined by the context] I avoided saying I liked hats”; it does not say anything about whether at some subsequent time you did say you liked hats, or whether you now deny or assert a liking for hats. It is silent on the topic.

  • "have never" conveys different meaning, maybe it's just informal usage? For example: "I don't like hats, I have never said that I like hats" – Deco Feb 16 '13 at 17:04
  • 2
    Have never alone doesn't have a different meaning; have never said has a different meaning because it is using the present perfect. – kiamlaluno Feb 16 '13 at 17:43
  • A similar and possibly related problem occurs when non-native speakers use ever in the present tense: “Today is the first day I ever see/saw that.” Clearly it needs to be “first day I’ve ever seen that”, but I don’t know quite how to explain why. – tchrist Feb 16 '13 at 21:40
  • @tchrist I've been puzzling over that one, and haven't resolved it yet. I think it's a matter of aspect with Today is and I see and of the limitations on English present-form use. "First ever" designates an achievement. "Today was ... saw" works fine, and "Today will be ... see". – StoneyB on hiatus Feb 17 '13 at 0:06
  • if "I never said I like hats" is about a period in the past why they don't say "I had never said I like hats"? – Ahmad Jul 30 '15 at 10:00
1

Never implies a time period, then if your statement can expand to now (or future) you may use present perfect

I have never visited Italy

I have never liked to play football

But if your statement was true in a period in the past you may use a past tense

I never liked to play football until I watched a match between Brazil and Germany.

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