perfect v. imperfect for verbs describing states

Among the banes of my existence is an inability to figure out whether to use the perfect or the imperfect when using a past-tense verb describing a state (e.g. "I understood she would come," "I knew that he was wrong," etc.). Obviously there are times when the choice is clear (e.g. "I read the letter, at which point I understood she would come"), but I would say they're in the minority, and usually when I'm writing or speaking I end up just picking one in those cases and hoping for the best.

I was delighted today to find this post, by @Godmy, offering a rule of thumb:


"The only problem is with the number 5 and 7 in this table, where past simple is translated sometimes as imperfect and sometimes as perfect. So the short advice is (for the long advice see the table): past simple (I went..) means imperfect only in those instances where it is the same in the given clause as present simple (I go...), but just seen from the past viewpoint.

"So, if you can convert the English past simple to present simple and not changing the overall meaning of the clause (i.e. a result) but changing just the time of the action, then that serves as a test whether it should be translated as an imperfect or not."

I love the idea of this, but I'm having trouble figuring out how to apply it. Godmy (or others), would you mind giving a few examples?

Thanks so much.
 

Godmy

Sīmia Illūstris
Hey,

well, it's been a few years, but I think I gave some examples in the original post. It would be better, if you came up with some examples of your own (in English) where you are not certain and we will go through it together.

E.g. "I read the letter, at which point I understood she would come" > you cannot convert the first verb to the present tense and keep the sequence of events as it is: "I'm reading the letter and I'm understanding she will come" <- because this hints that you are still reading and already reached the conclusion. That's not what past viewpoint said, it said there was a sequence: 1) reading 2) understanding ... and that gets lost (the sequence) in the conversion, the conversion cannot be done, therefore the imperfect is impossible for both verbs.
 

Pacifica

grammaticissima
Staff member
Another way (perhaps simpler?) to look at it:

When talking about the precise moment when you started knowing (or some other such verb), you use the perfect tense, like in your example "I read the letter, at which point I understood she would come". Once you've figured this out as you have, you've already made great progress toward understanding it all.

When referring to the entire length of time during which you knew (or some other such verb), you also use the perfect; e.g. "I knew this for many years and then forgot". The length of time doesn't have to be stated or specific; it can be just implied that you're referring to the whole action from its beginning to its end.

When you're talking only about a certain point during the time during which you knew (or some other such verb), you use the imperfect. You already knew before that point, and the moment when you started knowing is often irrelevant here. What matters is that at the point in time in question, you were in a habitual or already established (not necessarily long-established, but pre-existing the moment that you're talking about) state of knowing. An example of this would be "You told me what I already knew" or "He kept saying that he was our friend but we all knew it was a lie".
 
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Godmy

Sīmia Illūstris
I think when I was making the post years ago, by talking about 'the conversion' from past to present, I focused mainly on the opposite case, where the English past simple/preterite can be successfully converted to the present (if we try to put ourselves to the shoes of the "past" person's viewpoint), like in "He was boss of a company that made drills."* -> "He is the boss of a company that makes drills."

*(=as a part of a description of a still living person in that past viewpoint - we're not concluding his whole life yet)

... and since we know that the present tense itself is inherently "imperfect" (=> call it a 'present imperfect' if you wish : D), the imperfect is what the choice is.

But yes, I suppose there are other ways to look at it.

I think what Pacifica says (and writes in her own articles on this matter in the "Grammar tips section") is sometimes even more important than how I put it in the examples: one must internally feel whether the past verb had an IDENTIFIABLE* onset or whether it was both ONSET and FINISHED

*identifiable in the very sentence, not just hypothetically: the very sentence should hint that you/someone began to do it [and often enough finished it].
 

Pacifica

grammaticissima
Staff member
one must internally feel whether the past verb had an IDENTIFIABLE* onset
It's usually true that when there's an identifiable onset, the verb is in the perfect. But, as often, there's kind of an exception (or something that can look like an exception) which should perhaps be noted.

Tres horas expectabam = I had been waiting for three hours.

Here the sentence does pretty much tell us when the action started (if you'd been waiting for three hours, that means you had started waiting three hours before). But the focus is not on the point when you started waiting, it's on the point three hours later when you were still waiting, hence the imperfect.

Fortunately, too, this construction is easy enough to remember and differentiate from other uses of the perfect and imperfect, because it translates differently ("I had been [verb]ing").
 
Thank you both so much for your helpful answers!

@Godmy, it's serendipitous that you should use Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone in your example, since at the moment I'm retranslating it into Latin (I don't think much of the published translation), and so that's the context in which I'm currently finding myself having trouble here and there.

Here are a couple places where it was difficult for me to choose between the perfect and the imperfect (the verb in question is bolded in each case):

Hagrid (whom I have talking Plautine Latin) telling Harry about Voldemort:

Wanted ter make a clean job of it, I suppose, or maybe he just liked killin’ by then. But he couldn’t do it. Never wondered how you got that mark on yer forehead? That was no ordinary cut. That’s what yeh get when a powerful, evil curse touches yeh — took care of yer mum an’ dad an’ yer house, even — but it didn’t work on you, an’ that’s why yer famous, Harry.​
Voluit stirpem integram, crēdō, interimere, vel fortasse jam ad id furōri’ tum prōcesserat ut necāret necandī grātiā. Nōn vērō potuit. Numquamne cōgitāstī illanc cicātrīcem im fronte, unde adcēpistī? Nūllum erat/fuit volnu’ cottīdiānum. Tāctu’s exsecrātiōne potentissumā et nefandissumā—quæ exsecrātiō māterclam, paterclum perdidit, etiam ædīs—idcircō vērō es præclāru’, Henrīcle, quod ea tē nōn adfēcit.​

Here I'm thinking perfect, because Hagrid's talking about an event (Voldemort's cursing of Harry) that is now over. But am I wrong?

Or here, in Charms Class:

Professor Flitwick put the class into pairs to practice. Harry’s partner was Seamus Finnigan (which was a relief, because Neville had been trying to catch his eye). Ron, however, was to be working with Hermione Granger. It was hard to tell whether Ron or Hermione was angrier about this. She hadn’t spoken to either of them since the day Harry’s broomstick had arrived.​
Professor Flitvix discipulōs bīnīs disposuit ad exercitandum. Socius Henrīculō obtigit Sēmus Finigin, id quod eī erat/fuit levāmentō, namque Nevil experīmentum oculōrum ejus capere cōnābātur. Ronaldus autem sortītus est operam cum Hermionā Grenjere dare. Haud facile erat/fuit discernere uter esset dē hōc rērum statū īrātior. Ea neutrum eōrum erat allocūta ex quō Henrīculus scōpās accēperat.​

My impulse is to make the first one perfect ("id quod eī fuit levāmentō"), because the relief can be seen as coterminous with the obtaining of the partner, maybe? But then the second one seems pretty clearly imperfect ("haud facile erat") because they were angry the whole time. But it seems weird to me that they're not both the same.

Anyway—lots and lots of places like that that I'm trying to figure out. If you have thoughts, either general or specific, I'd love to hear them—if not, no problem—what you've already said will be very useful!
 

Pacifica

grammaticissima
Staff member
I agree with your "impulses" in all three cases. I too would have chosen perfect-perfect-imperfect.

I feel obliged to warn you that there are some other, unrelated issues in your translations, but explaining all of them at one time would take a little more time and effort than I can deal with right now. If you want, though, perhaps I could go over one sentence at a time later.
 

Pacifica

grammaticissima
Staff member
OK.

The first thing that struck me as odd was your use of vero here:
Nōn vērō potuit.
You'd rather expect sed or at.

The second was this:
Numquamne cōgitāstī illanc cicātrīcem im fronte, unde adcēpistī?
Apart from the typo, the indirect question would usually take a subjunctive verb.

(Someone might object to the mixed construction direct object + indirect question but I think it's OK in a Plautian/colloquial register. I've seen that sort of thing.)

The third was the following:
Nūllum erat/fuit volnu’ cottīdiānum.
Nullus isn't usually used that way. It sounds more English than Latin. In Latin you'd rather find non there (or alternatively haud or nequaquam if you want something more emphatic).

To be continued.
 
Thank you so much! I have a couple questions, but I suspect it would be better to wait until you've gone all the way through to ask them.
 

Pacifica

grammaticissima
Staff member
No, actually I find it more convenient to deal with one, or at most two or three, things at a time.
 
Actually, just one question for now: with the indicative in the indirect question I was aiming to follow usage I've seen in Plautus—e.g. Bacchides ("Obsecro, hercle, loquere, quis is est!") or Curculio (Scīre volō quoi reddidistī). What's the difference between these and Hagrid's question here? (I'll confess the "im fronte" was me playing with stuff from republican inscriptions, but if it comes across as a typo then I should let it go.)
 

Pacifica

grammaticissima
Staff member
Ah well, there are exceptions, of course. I was just pointing out the usual rule, which I believe even Plautus follows more often than not.

(Quis is est in your first example could be a direct question: it could be "Speak! Who is he?" but quoi reddidisti in the second is more likely to be indirect.)
 
Ah, okay. Thank you!

(My guess is that in Plautine indirect questions it's something like 2:1 subjunctive/indicative but that could be completely wrong.)
 

Pacifica

grammaticissima
Staff member
I don't know; I've never counted, and it was some years ago already that I read Plautus.
 

Quasus

Civis Illustris
I was aiming to follow usage I've seen in Plautus
The use of the subjunctive in dependent clauses gradually expanded. In the case of indirect questions, the subjunctive is the norm in classical prose. This generalization took place after Plautus and never became an absolute rule in popular speech. However, if you imitate Plautus, take into account that his syntax differs from classical standards.
 
The use of the subjunctive in dependent clauses gradually expanded. In the case of indirect questions, the subjunctive is the norm in classical prose. This generalization took place after Plautus and never became an absolute rule in popular speech. However, if you imitate Plautus, take into account that his syntax differs from classical standards.
Thank you! Luckily, it's only Hagrid's dialogue I'm making Plautine—everybody else is very good about the subjunctive. :)
 

Pacifica

grammaticissima
Staff member
Next (and last, I think) couple of things:
Professor Flitvix discipulōs bīnīs disposuit ad exercitandum.
I see your reasoning, I think, but it seems weird. I'd expect a predicative accusative, binos.
experīmentum oculōrum ejus capere cōnābātur.
Reading this without the English, I would have had no idea what it meant, and actually even with the English I don't get how it's supposed to match it or what you were trying to do. What is experimentum doing there when the English is only talking of eyes, not of testing his eyes or anything like that?
 
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Ah, that's from the Satyricon 91: "Itaque ut experimentum oculorum caperem convertit ille solutum gaudio vultum et 'Misere' inquit 'frater, ubi arma non sunt, libere loquor,'" etc. "And so in order that I should be able to catch his eye he turned to me his face softened with joy and said," etc.
 
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