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Example 1

Every father behaved very boldly before they got married.

Example 2

Every father behaves very boldly before they gets married.

What are the nuances between them?

My interpretation:

Example 1 seems to refer to fathers that exist at the moment. So the verbs are all in the past tense. However, the implication, in my view, can mean it is a general thing and can be applied to future fathers, etc.

Example 2 seems to not refer to all the fathers at the moment but including fathers in the past and future, like in a general sense. So the verbs are all in the present tense.

Do I understand them correctly?

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    Were they fathers before they got married? Also, "they" wants a plural verb, "get". Dec 7, 2023 at 14:39
  • Apart from "gets should be get" in #2, these sentences are syntactically fine. But semantically I think they're decidedly weird. It's like saying Every corpse enjoys life more before he dies. Dec 8, 2023 at 15:31

1 Answer 1

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Given the choice between the two sentences in your question:

Sentence 1:

"Every father behaved very boldly before they[*] got married."

Sentence 2:

"Every father behaves very boldly before they[*] gets married."


*There is another issue here, besides the one you're asking about. The subject, verb and pronoun in your sentences don't all agree in number. This stands out more in the second sentence than in the first, because of the 3rd person singular and plural forms being distinct in the present tense (gets vs. get). Please refer to the bottom section of this answer for alternatives that fix this problem too. As it currently stands, the second sentence in particular is not idiomatic - a native speaker would not use that phrasing.


You are correct that the second sentence (the one using the present tense) implies a general statement, while the first (which uses the past tense) refers to specific, past events. As matter of fact, to most [all?] listeners, your first sentence cannot be a general statement, and can only refer to something that actually happened prior to now.

Reading your second sentence, one gets the impression that it is meant to refer to the actions of fathers in general (real or hypothetical), and not just to some particular individuals at a given time.

Your first sentence does not convey this same level of generality. Instead, the reader would think you were talking about the actions of a specific set of real people (who happened to be fathers) at some definite time in the past.

The difference in signification between the two sentences is due to the difference in the tenses you use. The simple present tense is the one which is most commonly used for statements of general truth in English. According to this source: https://academicguides.waldenu.edu/writingcenter/grammar/verbtenses, "the simple present ... describe[s] a general truth or a habitual action," while "the simple past tense ... describe[s] a completed action that took place at a specific point in the past." Note, however, that the simple present is not the only tense that can be used for general statements: the future works as well (see the comment by FumbleFingers under this answer for an example of a future tense general statement).

If you intend to make a general statement, you should definitely choose the second sentence over the first.

If you're looking to express the same idea as in Sentence 2 using a different tense, you might say:

Every father will behave very boldly before he gets married.


Although this isn't directly related to your question, there are also number agreement issues in both sentences. The word "every" is grammatically singular, even though the meaning being expressed is plural! If you want a (both grammatically and semantically) plural subject, you should use "all" instead of "every." (Reference: https://www.ef.com/wwen/english-resources/english-grammar/using-each-and-every/)

Example (plural subject, verb and pronoun):

All fathers behave very boldly before they get married.

Or else, if you want to keep "every," the pronoun should be singular too:

Every father behaves very boldly before he gets married.

Another alternative would be to avoid the issue altogether by rephrasing:

Every father behaves very boldly before getting married.

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    OP's example 2 is completely invalid (should be ...before they get married). Dec 7, 2023 at 13:35
  • @FumbleFingers Are you saying I shouldn't have restated the original, incorrect versions of the sentences in my answer? Normally I like to start with the exact quotes from OP before making any changes, to avoid confusing the main issue (here, the tense difference) with other differences. But, I did address the number mismatch in the last section of the answer. If you think the other issues with the quoted sentences detract from the answer though, I would be glad to edit it and fix them at the beginning and not the end. Dec 7, 2023 at 21:37
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    Yes, I recall noting that you did "address" the number issue. But my comment was because I thought it was such an egregious error it should have been addressed (no matter how briefly) before launching into the much more substantial part of the answer. Which in any case misses its mark, I feel. OP's idea that Past tense even could imply the general case is daft (unless you're an ardent traditionalist, demanding that nothing must ever change! :) But we certainly do use Future for "eternal truths" sometimes. Boys will be boys comes to mind. Dec 7, 2023 at 23:31
  • @FumbleFingers Edited. Now the answer is longer than I would have liked and seems kind of rambling, but hopefully I resolved the lack of clarity around the past tense and number issues (I do agree that the first version of my post was lacking there). If you can think of a better way to structure it to avoid such abrupt transitions, your edit would be greatly appreciated. Otherwise, I'll call it good enough :D Dec 8, 2023 at 1:54
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    I cancelled the downvote when I saw your additional text at the beginning of the answer, then upvoted after seeing the extra stuff at the end. I must say though that I do think this one is a peculiar sentence in which use Future for "general truth" - I think because of the confusing temporal implications already present (presumably they're not yet "fathers" before they even get married; it's a bit odd to be using Future to refer to what they did before becoming fathers). Dec 8, 2023 at 4:48

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