everyone. I am having immense difficulty determining how to correctly state these two sentences:

By the way, I recently noticed that most of the letters that I sent you over the past four months are not nearly as good as they could have been. In my message on birding, for example, I hardly described its significance in my life.

This is specifically what is stumping me—

“I sent you over the past four months”—Should the present perfect be used instead of the past simple? Is it even correct to use the past simple in this sentence?

“Are”—Would it be incorrect to change this to the past tense?

“Could have been”—Should this then be “could be” or “could have been?”

“Described”—Should this be changed to the present tense? Is it acceptable to refer to letters in the past tense?

Any help would be greatly appreciated.

  • [confused by two sentences]
    – Lambie
    Oct 17, 2022 at 15:30

1 Answer 1


You're right in each case, that the tenses you suggest would be correct and natural in that context and retain the same meaning. But the entire passage is also correct and natural as written -- you have found alternatives, rather than improvements or corrections.

When talking about things that were created in the past, but still exist now, we can often choose from among both the past and present tenses, including present perfect.

So we can use simple past or present perfect to refer to writing or sending letters. We can use any of the three tenses to refer to the existence of letters ("are not", "were not", "have not been"), and the past or present form of modal verbs to describe unreal possibilities ("could be", "could have been").

In particular, the phrase, "[the letters] are not nearly as good as they could have been" seems problematic, but it's fine if you read it to mean that the letters, which still exist, are not nearly as good as they could have been written to be.

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