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When you're trying to simplify a complex concept and say

  1. "Well, looking at this equation, the first thing that occurs to me/ comes to my mind is..."

or is it idiomatic and perfectly fine to say

  1. "Well, looking at this equation, the first thing that occurred to me/ came to my mind was..."

Which one is more idiomatic?

migrated from english.stackexchange.com Jun 26 '16 at 2:05

This question came from our site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts.

  • generally when teachers teach, they speak in the present tense. Unless you're giving an anecdote of a previous occurrence, then past tense is ok. – V0ight Jun 25 '16 at 4:12
  • Please visit English Language Learners – Kris Jun 25 '16 at 7:10
  • Quite silly that you migrated my post to English Language Learners. But we'll see how it goes anyway. My question has nothing to do with past tense nor learning the basics of English. It's got more to do with how English is used by native English speakers. As when I speak, I normally use the past tense version of the above. However, when teaching a complex concept, is it the norm to say "Looking at this graph, what occurs to me is that..." or is it perfectly acceptable to say "Looking at this graph, what occurred to me was that..."? – Christopher Wong Jun 30 '16 at 2:53
  • I think that the problem lies within your question. You ask which is more idiomatic when they are both idiomatic. They have different meanings. – Leo Jun 30 '16 at 8:28
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The first thing that occurs to me is...

It sounds like you were just asked a question and you are about to give your response.

A: Where can I get help with learning English online?
B: The first thing that occurs to me is English Language Learners on the Stack Exchange network.


The first thing that occurred to me was...

This sounds like you are recalling some detail that happened in the past.

The other day, one of my students asked me "What are some resources online to help me learn English?" The first thing that occurred to me was English Language Learners on Stack Exchange.

  • That is not exactly what I had in mind. My question is more of, when you're teaching, say a complex concept, and then you try to sort of simplify it, you say, "Well, looking at this graph, the first thing that came to my mind/ occurred to me is...". That's how I normally speak. I was wondering whether this was the norm for native English speakers. – Christopher Wong Jun 30 '16 at 2:54
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The second variant (in your question) sounds a bit weird to me because "looking at....," is in the present (you're looking right now), while "occurred" is in the past tense. I don't think this is the correct grammar. The first variant sounds perfectly correct in terms of grammar. If you want to use "occurred" I would expect "having looked at the..., it occurred to me".

The most popular usage (according to what I hear around) is "It's just occurred to me that ...", where "'s" stands for "has", not "is".

Your usage (first variant) sounds strange to me, it is grammatically correct but I have never heard anyone using 'occurs' like that.

  • That is obviously the case. However, what is the nuance when explaining a complex concept that you try to simplify for your students? As in when you say "Looking at this graph, the first thing that occurs to me is...". Is it perfectly acceptable to say "Looking at this graph, the first thing that occurred to me was...". As I normally speak using the past tense version of the phrase. – Christopher Wong Jun 30 '16 at 2:57
  • Hmm, have you edited your question since I gave my answer? I do not like my answer now that I have re-read everything again and wonder how could I put it the way I did... Anyway, I'm not a native speaker but live amongst them for quite a long while. The second variant in your question sounds a bit weird because "looking at....," is in present (you're looking right now), while "occurred" is obviously the past. I don't think this the correct grammar. The first variant sounds perfectly correct. If you want to use "occurred" I would expecr "having looked at the...". I'll think a bit more and will – tum_ Jun 30 '16 at 4:59

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