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I found that in discourse, "that" or other pronouns can refer to many things. Sometimes it is an idea or it can involve specific elements in the discourse.

But because I am not a native English speaker, I ask my questions here to make sure I understand the nuances.

Also, I want to know the differences between using "was", "is", and others such as "will be".


Examples I came up with:

(a)

A: John cheated on his girlfriend.

B: That was/is/will be wrong.

Question 1: What are the differences in meaning between using "was" and "is" and "will be"?

Question 2: Does "that" refer to the action of cheating on someone in general or John's cheating on his girlfriend?

I ask (2) because I think B might've replied, "That was wrong. But if John's girlfriend were bad-tempered, the cheating thing would not be wrong." But I am not sure my understanding is right. I need your help.


(b)

A: Nick took off his clothes and showed his body on the streets.

B: That was/is a crime.

Question 3: What are the differences in meaning between using "was" and "is" and "will be"?

Question 4: Does "that" refer to the action of one's taking off clothes and showing the body in general or Nick's taking off clothes and showing the body?

I ask (4) because I think B might've replied, "That is a crime. But if Tom Cruise did that, it wouldn't be." But I am not sure my understanding is right. I need your help.

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(a) 'That (John's action, which has already happened) was wrong.'

'That is wrong' would refer to infidelity in general. B's finding an excuse for John is irrelevant.

'Will be' is quite inappropriate, since the action happened in the past.

Exactly the same considerations apply to (b), and if public nudity is a legal offence B's opinion is irrelevant.

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  • According to your considerations, "that" can refer to different parts of the speech, am I right? because in case (a) you said "that" can mean infidelity in general or the specific case by John. Do you think it is related to the tense? Or it isn't related? As for "will be", imagine infidelity will be a legal offence in the future and we know it. Then after hearing "John cheated on his girlfriend", we can say "that will be a crime." Do you think this is acceptable? – vincentlin Jan 11 at 11:04
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    That means whatever the speaker intends it to mean. "That is wrong [behaviour]" (a general statement), or "That was wrong of John" (a comment on this case). If the government is about to introduce stricter lockdown rules, we could say "That will be illegal after tomorrow", where that refers to something we can do at the moment. – Kate Bunting Jan 11 at 14:10

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