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When searching some sort of definitions on urban dictionary, I found a sentence; I'm confused by the phrasing on the website.

At the end of the movie, when Jerry expresses his love in a long-winded speech to Dorothy, Dorothy's reply was the simple phrase: "You had me at hello." Source

In this case, why is it worded like Dorothy's reply was the simple phrase instead of using is in it.

Shouldn't the first half of sentence and second half of sentence be consistent?

  • I would venture to say that the phrase "you had me at hello" has not entered the general vocabulary of the native English speaking population as "[a] phrase that expresses affection". – Tᴚoɯɐuo Aug 11 '15 at 18:33
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    @TRomano - The phrase may not be in your lexicon, but, like it or not, it has made a dent in the language, as is evidenced by this ngram, this modest handful of book titiles, and this wedding planning business. It's even used in marketing. – J.R. Aug 12 '15 at 9:12
  • And more generally, snowcloned as You had me at X. – snailboat Dec 9 '15 at 19:42
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In my opinion, the sentence flows more smoothly with both verbs in the same tense. If you put that sentence on my desk to copy edit I would change it so both are in present tense.

In general, you shouldn't change tenses in a sentence unless you are actually trying to describe a shift in time. Since both actions (Jerry expressing his love, Dorothy's reply) occur in the same time frame, they should be in the same tense.

Purdue's OWL states it like this:

General guideline: Do not shift from one tense to another if the time frame for each action or state is the same. Source

This is more of a style issue than a strict grammar rule. As J.R. points out, you could interpret "When Jerry expresses his love" as clarifying the phrase "At the end of the movie." In that reading using Dorothy's reply was is probably fine.

Also, as a general rule, when talking about actions that occurred in a work of fiction, the present tense is used. There are exceptions, but I personally would put this sentence in the present tense.

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    I'd like to see you beef up this answer some. I have no problem with the original sentence, and insisting that it needs to be either expresses/is or expressed/was seems pedantic. – J.R. Aug 11 '15 at 15:25
  • @J.R. You should add your own answer explaining that, as well, then. – Aaron Brown Aug 11 '15 at 15:26
  • I'm not prepared to write an answer until I can substantiate it. This is more of an opinion than an answer, I think. – J.R. Aug 11 '15 at 15:35
  • @J.R. Added some beef for you. I disagree that opinions aren't answers, but that's a different subject. – Aaron Brown Aug 11 '15 at 15:41
  • When Jerry expresses his love could be a reference clarifying the first part of the sentence ("At the end of the movie..."). If that's the case, I'm not sure the advice from the OWL applies. At the end of the movie, when X happens, the protagonist reacted by.... Is that wrong? (It's a sincere question; I'm genuinely stumped here.) If it is wrong, it seems just like some minor grammatical carelessness, not a major grammatical faux pas, but something tells me that it might not even be wrong. – J.R. Aug 11 '15 at 17:08
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yes, there should be consistency. And both should be in the past tense.

"At the end of the movie, when Jerry expressed his love in a long-winded speech to Dorothy, Dorothy's reply was the simple phrase: you had me at hello."

It is likely a typo-error or lapse in the writer's mind.

  • Stories of novels or movies are also often told in present simple: "when Jerry expresses ... Dorothy's reply is ...". Either way, the tense needs to be consistent. (Note that OP wrote "when Jerry express ..." which is incorrect in any case.) – Sydney Aug 11 '15 at 13:55
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    Are you sure? When a story is narrated by a third person, it is usually in the past, based on almost all the novels I've read. – shin Aug 11 '15 at 14:11
  • Books and movies are often narrated in past tense. When writing about an event that occurs in a book or movie, present tense is very common. – Aaron Brown Aug 11 '15 at 14:47
  • shin - I was unclear in my comment. As Aaron explained, I was really talking about someone summarising a story or movie. – Sydney Aug 11 '15 at 22:43

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