6

I am curious about whether the word 'was' implies a situation which is no longer the case. I was under the impression (and still am ;)) that it did not carry a hard logical implication of that nature, but have always been aware that there is a soft implication to that effect. Here is an example:

Fred was funny

Does such a statement necessarily entail that Fred is no longer funny? I agree that most would infer that, but have always assumed that this conclusion is not assured unless specified. There are other variants with qualifications which one could also consider:

Fred was funny at that time

I feel like this most certainly cannot imply that Fred is no longer funny, since otherwise statements like "Barrak Obama was president in 2010" would be incorrect.

Much gratitude.

EDIT:

I have received many thoughtful answers, all of which I greatly appreciate. But I think the question may benefit from additional clarity. Consider the following conversation:

Joe: Sarah, it was good knowing you
Sarah: What do you mean? Are we terminating our relationship?
Joe: Not at all. It continues to be good to know you, just as it always has been
Sarah: But what you said implies that you will no longer be knowing me - that I'm going to die or that we'll be parting ways or something ...
Joe: Not strictly speaking. It merely implies that during some interval in the past, I evaluated the process of knowing you as good. I've said nothing about my current or future evaluations of the process, nor anything about whether the process itself continues or will continue.

In the strictest sense, which of Joe and Sarah is correct?

  • Your edit makes this focus much more on implications in common conversation (and context), while your title and original question seemed to be about absolute meaning and logic. Joe's response makes me think of xkcd.com/1475 - does it even matter if he's technically correct? – Cascabel Apr 17 '15 at 19:27
  • Most questions on ELL would benefit from "additional clarity." Unfortunately, many O.P.'s would rather ask a vague question than a specific one. What they get are vague answers. I'm glad you clarified your question. Hopefully, though, in future questions, this will inspire you to provide more information right from the start. (Oh, and Joe should be saying, "It's good knowing you – you're a great friend." If the friendship is ongoing, say so in the present tense.) – J.R. Apr 17 '15 at 20:08
  • @Jefromi I like that comic! And yes, it is similar to the thrust of the question :) As for whether it matters, I would say that it is of interest to me because I like thinking about questions like this. I'm not sure that it matters to the world/community though unless others are also interested in these kinds of questions. Definitely not on the order of more weighty issues though - if we see a bug that should take center stage :) – Rookatu Apr 17 '15 at 20:18
  • @J.R. Thanks, I will try to be more proactive in the future :) I agree that if Joe wants to be clear/ informative/ non-confrontational he should find another way to say what he has said. However, I'm more trying to get at a consensus on whether what he said (in his last statement) is technically correct. Such questions could be important, for instance, in contracts or in a court of law, or merely in understanding the meanings of words as precisely as is possible. – Rookatu Apr 17 '15 at 20:27
  • 1
    Assume Joe needed a friend's help one year ago and Sarah was there to help him. Then Joe might indeed say that it was good knowing her back then, whereas it doesn't matter if it is good any more. – Hagen von Eitzen Apr 18 '15 at 14:46
11

Fred was funny.

What does the "was" imply? For starters, it could mean that Fred is no longer funny:

Fred was funny, but now he's just a bitter old man.

Or it could mean that Fred is no longer with us:

Fred was funny; too bad he died last year.

It could mean that Fred was funny at a certain time, with the mutual understanding that Fred is probably going to be funny again:

Fred was funny. Just like always, he was the life of the party last night.

Or it could mean that he was funny at a certain time, and that he's not usually one to be funny:

Fred was funny. That was so odd; he's usually quite shy and reserved.

And it could just be alluding to a single moment in the past:

Fred was funny when he told us that story yesterday morning.

You're right, though, just because a sentence is in the past tense doesn't mean the condition isn't true today, or won't be true tomorrow. Consider:

The sun was shining brightly yesterday.

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7

Not necessarily. Let's say Fred is a comedian. We went to his show, and we really enjoyed it. So as we walk out of the show, I say to you:

Fred was so funny!

This doesn't mean Fred isn't funny anymore.

If you say Fred was funny at that time, it definitely implies that he isn't any funny anymore, but it doesn't have to mean he isn't funny anymore.

I wouldn't recommend saying "Barack Obama was president in 2010" unless the emphasis is on the year 2010, for example:

who was president in 2010?

Barack Obama was president in 2010.

EDIT

Sarah is right. It sounds like Joe thinks they won't be friends anymore. The saying "It was nice knowing you" is commonly used, and it sounds like the person you are addressing is going to die. It can even be used sarcastically.

If Joe want's to express that he appreciates their relationship, and that Sarah was and continues to be a good friend, he should change two things.

1) He shouldn't say "It was good/nice knowing you. Since this is a common expression. He should instead say "You were a good friend."

2) "You were a good friend" still sounds weird, it almost sounds like he's talking to her after she has died. He should change it from past tense to present perfect tense. "You have been a good friend."


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  • Thanks! I'm trying to get away from an analysis based on what things "sound like" though. As a native English speaker I am fully aware that the implication is there, and that it is heavy. But I also believe that it is an implication in the informal sense, not the logical/mathematical sense. Since language isn't as precise as all that I understand that this may be up for debate, but has this question been addressed authoritatively? If not, maybe the post can serve as a poll, so long as it isn't polling what people think it typically means, but rather what it must mean. – Rookatu Apr 17 '15 at 18:07
  • It sounds like Joe is trying to say "It was nice seeing you." That would be the more idiomatic way (in US-E) to express gratitude for a particular meeting between the two. – GalacticCowboy Apr 17 '15 at 19:04
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    @Rookatu I don't think you can avoid "sounds like". Connotations and implications and context are part of how we understand each other. You can't really make a universal statement about what "was" implies. Unless Sarah and Joe are pretty unusual people, Sarah is not going to take Joe's statements as a pure logical one the way Joe seems to expect. – Cascabel Apr 17 '15 at 19:32
  • @Jefromi as an analogy, one could think of the word "or". In everyday speech many people take it to be exclusive or (e.g. "you can go to the store or you can eat pie" is interpreted by most to mean "one or the other but not both"); in actuality the strict meaning is inclusive or. So, similar to the example of the post, the speaker could claim "I never explicitly stipulated an exclusion: my directive admits both activities", and this would be correct. Not sure if that helps at all. – Rookatu Apr 17 '15 at 20:13
  • @Rookatu Sure, but it'd be the kind of correct that makes people roll their eyes at you and not take you very seriously. – Cascabel Apr 17 '15 at 20:33
1

Consider a firetruck coming down the street with its sirens blaring. After it passes, you might remark to your friend, "that was loud", even though it still is loud.

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1

In general, "was" can imply an ongoing effect, but it's heavily contextual. Generally it depends on how immutable the trait or characteristic of the person or thing in question is.

For example,

The jar was full of cookies.

could mean a few different things:

  • If this is a sentence as part of a larger story, it's probably just telling you about the state of the jar at the moment in time that the story takes place. The jar is probably important to the story in some way (see: Chekhov's gun) and may be involved in the subsequent events of the story. But there's nothing about the sentence that necessarily implies that the jar doesn't have cookies in it anymore. At the same time, it's going to be a boring story if nothing changes.

  • If this is a statement made in the present moment, it is probably to draw a contrast between the previous state of the jar and now -- implying that, in fact, the jar is no longer full of cookies. Otherwise, why make a statement about it at all? It hardly seems useful to point a trait like that.

  • This could also be read with a slightly accusatory tone, as in, "Well, the last time I saw it, the jar was full of cookies... [and now it clearly isn't, and one of you jerks is responsible!]." In that case it's definitely different.

The context clue is essentially how immutable or not the characteristic of the thing we're talking about it. A jar's state can easily change -- it's not hard for someone to take a cookie, presumably. So it would not be surprising if "was" describes something that is a change in this case.

On the other hand, something like

Fred was funny.

tends to describe something that doesn't change about a person -- their sense of humor. If you haven't seen Fred for years and years and are reminiscing, it's more like the first bullet point above; you're just describing Fred at a point in time, and there's no implication that he's not still funny.

"Funny", in other words, is not something that a listener generally expects to have changed about a person. Usually something more drastic about the person's life would have to change for "was" to imply a change, like they die or become incapacitated in a way that makes them no longer able to express a sense of humor. So "was" usually implies an ongoing effect here, rather than a change.

This property of the English past tense -- the ambiguity about whether the characteristic in question is still ongoing -- is often exploited to great effect for humor. For instance,

"I used to do drugs. ... I still do, but I used to, too."

-- Mitch Hedberg

Here Mitch Hedberg starts off with an admission that most English speakers would initially assume is about a characteristic which is no longer active -- namely, drug use. The joke is that he's subverting the audience's expectations.

Taking your other example between Joe and Sarah, no reasonable English speaker would ever say this:

Joe: [...] It merely implies that during some interval in the past, I evaluated the process of knowing you as good. I've said nothing about my current or future evaluations of the process, nor anything about whether the process itself continues or will continue.

because they would sound like an insane robot, hyper-evaluating all the possibilities at hand in the multiverse. So for your updated question,

In the strictest sense, which of Joe and Sarah is correct?

Sarah is certainly being much more reasonable than Joe is and is making perfectly fine assumptions (at least, up until the point where Joe sounds like a crazy robot).

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0

Additional context is needed, but when I hear "Fred was funny," I either think Fred is dead, or that the speaker is no longer in touch with Fred. But when I hear someone say:

Fred was funny at that [sic?] time

I can guess that either the speaker means Fred was funny only at at that time (in the past), or that, once again, the speaker is no longer in touch with Fred. In this case, however, he's more likely to use the first sentence.

So, specifying a period like you did with your second sentence makes the listener more inclined to believe that the situation was only true in the past.


In any case, "was" doesn't necessarily imply a situation that no longer holds. Consider this short conversation between Joe (13) and his mother, Hana:

— Hey Joe, how was your trip to the park earlier today?

— It was great, the grass was (so) green!

Here, we know that the grass is (almost) certainly still green.

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  • I agree, but I think the OP is wondering if there's any context where "was" doesn't imply this. – James Apr 17 '15 at 16:24
  • I'll edit further later on. Maybe the question's title should be edited then? Thank you. – zerohedge Apr 17 '15 at 16:30
  • I've updated the question. I hope things are clearer now, and thanks for the replies! – Rookatu Apr 17 '15 at 17:24
0

"Was" is a past tense verb, so its use refers to something that happened or held true in the past. In the case of your edit, when Joe tells Sarah that it "was good knowing her", Joe really is only saying that it was--in the past--good knowing her. But that might not be the full extent of Joe's sentiment. Simply because Joe says that it was good knowing Sarah does not necessarily imply that he feels it is no longer good to know Sarah, though Sarah might interpret it that way simply because Joe used the past tense verb "was". Joe never actually said that it's still good knowing Sarah.

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0

The past tense only has meaning within a defined chronological context. There are some situations where the chronological context may be implied, e.g. if an object goes whizzing past two people, startling them; one might say to the other "That was fast". Nothing either person said prior to that would indicate that the speaker would be referring the speed of the object during which it was whizzing past, but the context would have been established by the action of the object whizzing by and startling the people.

If someone were to approach another person and say "That house you are thinking of buying was bright blue", such a statement would likely be all but meaningless to the listener in the absence of further clarification, and one shouldn't try to attach a meaning to it. If the person had said "That house you are thinking of buying was bright blue yesterday", such a statement could have several meanings, but most speakers would only make such statements in situations where the listener could exclude all but one. For example, if the listener hadn't seen the house before today, the statement would imply that the house was painted white yesterday or today. If the listener saw the house a week ago but not since, the statement would imply that the house was painted blue within the last few days.

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