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Ask-A-Linguist Message Details

Subject: Past Tense Phrase
Question: My mom and I have a question regarding the usage of a phrase in English and I cannot resolve the issue with research alone - can you please provide some insight? I wrote a the following statement: ''It seems to have went well'', to which my mother replied that she thought the correct phrase is: ''It seems to have gone well''. Based on my review of the rules of grammar, the answer is ambiguous. Is there a right or wrong answer? Perhaps the answer lies in the meaning one intends to convey? I struggle with this because I often formulate my thoughts in German and that can trip me up. Thank you for any input you may have. Sincerely, Laura
Reply: Dear Miss Laura, You will note how my colleagues Need and Gupta have answered with respect to "standard dialects of English" or to "standard English" or with reference to what is usually used, particularly in writing. To a linguist "usage" is a matter of statistics -- not "rules" handed down from some self-appointed usage arbiter. So we tell you what people say, not what they "ought to" say. Since many societies in which English is spoken are stratified, some of the dialects have more social prestige than others. But no way of speaking English spoken consistently by a community of native speakers is "wrong".

With that in mind, if you belong to a dialect community in which people consistently say "I have went..." instead of "I have gone...", then among your friends and community, there is nothing wrong with "It seems to have went well." If writing to someone outside the community, or a formal document or school assignment, it were better to use "It seems to have gone well." If your community of English generally says "I have gone..", then "to have went..." in that case is in fact "incorrect", that is, ungrammatical -- contrary to the patterns of that dialect.

But I note you said you "often formulate" your thoughts in German, so I take it that German is your native language. Formerly in English many centuries ago, the forms of 'go' were like German 'gehen' Ich gehe, Ich ging, Ich bin gegangen.' I believe it is the case that in some Scots dialects, the past tense may still be "gang" or something like that. But most English dialects replaced the old past tense of 'go' -- gang-- with the past tense of the verb 'wend' wend, went, wended. It belongs to the spend, send, rend, lend.... group of verbs. This is what we call a suppletive verb -- a verb some of whose forms bear no phonological connexion with its other forms, almost always if not always because they originally came from a different verb. In German, sein is a good example of a highly suppletive verb, as is 'be' in English. So the present is 'sie ist', past is 'sie war' but the perfect is 'sie ist gewesen'.

You do not tell us where you live. If by some chance, you live in South Louisiana and are familiar with the common English dialect known as :Cajun English", then there is a characteristic of that dialect that might be confusing evnovling the form of the verb used in "to-Verb" phrases. In that dialect, the past tense form of the verb often occurs in a to-phrase, as in, "Im a goin ta took my children to the fais do do down Jeanrette." instead of "I'm going to take......".

And if South Louisiana is your home, then I hope you made it safely through Hurricane Gustavie.

U of Cincinnati

Dept of Anthropology

Reply From: Joseph F Foster      click here to access email
Date: 02-Sep-2008
Other Replies:
  1. Re: Past Tense Phrase    Barbara Need     (02-Sep-2008)
  2. Re: Past Tense Phrase    Anthea Fraser Gupta     (02-Sep-2008)

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