Verb tenses when asking a question

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How can I establish time period when trying to ask someone about a question that was asked some time ago?

I asked you a question in my last email, but I wasn't sure (this is happening now) if it went through.

My asking took place sometime in the past, but my being not sure happened a little after my asking. So would it be more correct to say "I had asked you a question"? Just how much information is allowed to be assumed that they are happening around the same time?

I asked you a question, but you must have forgotten, since you still haven't gotten back to me.

Is it okay to use present perfect instead of simple past? I want to assume that my asking a question and her forgetting it happened around the same time, but it seems more natural to use present perfect here. Am I mistaken?

EDIT: I have additional questions:

I know this is kind of too late, but when I say "I asked you a question in my last email, but I wasn't sure (this is happening now) if you received it," don't I have to say "had received" in order to be correct? I think (write email -> try to send it -> be unsure if you received it) works here as well, but why do I have to use past perfect here?

jess

Posted 2013-04-21T02:56:54.467

Reputation: 1 741

Answers

33

The guiding principle should be don't use Past Perfect unless you really have to.

The uncertainty occurred after the asking - chronologically, and in the narrative sequence of OP's text. That's what normally happens when you report a series of events...

I did this. Then I did that.

It's grammatically possible, but completely pointless in most contexts, to express that as...

I had done this. Then I did that.


In OP's second example, it's pretty much impossible to avoid Present Perfect with the word must. You could get away with ...but it must be [that] you forgot..., but it's a bit "starchy". Present Perfect is perfectly natural here.

Consider, for example,...

1: You didn't answer the doorbell when I rang, so you must have gone to work early.
2: You didn't answer the doorbell when I rang, so you must have been in the shower.

Clearly in #1, the action in the present perfect clause (you going to work) happened before the simple past (I rang). But in #2, you being in the shower happened at the same time as I rang. That's not a problem in English; if the chronological relationship between actions is obvious from context, it doesn't always have to be made explicit by the verb forms.

FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica

Posted 2013-04-21T02:56:54.467

Reputation: 52 587

I know this is kind of too late, but when I say "I asked you a question in my last email, but I wasn't sure (this is happening now) if you had received it," don't I have to say "had received" in order to be correct? But I think (write email -> try to send it -> be unsure if you received it) works, but why do I have to use past perfect here? – jess – 2013-05-22T12:25:11.343

1@jess: You don't want Past Perfect in that example. In fact, you probably don't even want Simple Past for wasn't sure (assuming you still don't know if the email was received). Per the first sentence of my answer - you only normally need Past Perfect if it's essential you convey that one past event occurred before another past event, and the semantic context doesn't make it obvious what order things happened in. There may be exceptions to that principle, but by and large you'll sound more like a native speaker if you follow it (i.e. - don't seek chances to use Past Perfect). – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2013-05-22T14:35:33.557

I used "I wasn't sure" like "I was wondering" (I wanted to be polite). Was it wrong to do so? Then is it wrong to say "I just wanted to see if you could let me know that you got these"? Like your comment above, I tried something without using past perfect and I think this would be alright: "I sent this earlier today but wasn't sure if you were able to receive it". – jess – 2013-05-23T03:46:47.313

Wait, my friend sent me this sentence and I'm kind of lost now. Does this work? "I just wanted to see if you've got these". I guess following verb sequence too seriously is a result of trying to follow English by the book too strictly, huh? – jess – 2013-05-23T03:53:04.463

@jess: Using Simple Past there is "polite circumlocution". In practice it nearly always means "I wonder/am wondering (now, as I speak)..." It's perfectly okay to use present tense anyway, so I would suggest you do that because it's simpler/easier. Note that my "conditional" tense there *("I would suggest")* is also polite circumlocution. But no-one would think I was being rude if I didn't bother with it, and simply said "I suggest you do that". The generic version of the first sentence in my answer is KISS

– FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2013-05-23T13:31:06.283

Okay, now I'm bothering you too much, but what do you think about my examples? 1) "I just wanted to see if you could let me know that you got these" 2) "I sent this earlier today but wasn't sure if you were able to receive it" 3) (written in an email sent by a friend) "I just wanted to see if you've got these" – jess – 2013-05-24T02:31:34.367

@jess: There's circumlocution and there's circumlocution. For (1), what's wrong with "Did you get these?". For (2), who cares if you weren't sure in the past? Presumably you're still not sure, so why not just say but I'm not sure if you got it. And why mention *being able* to receive something, when all you're interested in is whether the person *actually* received it? You don't do yourself any favours by adding more complex tenses and modes that have no semantic relevance, if you're not really confident that some intended idiomatic nuance will be understood. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2013-05-24T03:43:55.137

So it's alright to just say "did you get these" in a formal email to a professor, a dean, business professionals, etc.? I thought you had to be more polite by saying things you would call circumlocution. – jess – 2013-05-24T12:17:22.997

@jess: Even native speakers (particularly, less articulate/well-educated ones) often make themselves appear foolish with "polite circumlocution" that they're not actually competent to use. You'll gain more respect for your command of language if you focus on clarity and brevity, within the rules of grammar. So yes - "Did you get these?" is fine. Unless other aspects of the context mean the professor might think the enquiry itself is inherently "rude" - he might think you're hassling him, for example (but in that case, circumlocution won't help you anyway! :) – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2013-05-24T13:19:45.047

1: You didn't answer the doorbell when I rang, so you would have gone to work early. 2: You didn't answer the doorbell when I rang, so you would have been in the shower. Do the two examples sound natural and mean the same as yours? :) @FumbleFingers – Kinzle B – 2016-01-01T10:22:19.550

@Kinzle B: I expect there are contexts where your examples would be more natural with *would* instead of *must*, but I can't think of one. To my ear, since *must* is more idiomatic there, I'd be inclined to interpret you would have gone/been somewhere as implying *it's very likely you would have...* (where *must* implies it logically follows that you...). – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2016-01-01T13:04:04.447

"You must have gone to work early" isn't present perfect. Have gone is a perfect infinitive, introduced by the modal verb must. – Ben Kovitz – 2017-07-02T19:25:06.977

How about this part, "if it went through"? It seems like it happened around the same time as my asking the question, but it definitely took place before my uncertainty, right? So should this part be "if it had gone through"? – jess – 2013-04-21T16:32:44.363

@jess: I can't see any justification for casting "if it had gone through" in Past Perfect. Presumably the "I wasn't sure" part occurred [immediately] after you [had] asked the question in the email (i.e. - you weren't sure if the "Send" operation worked). But per my first sentence, since the "narrative sequence" establishes the order of events anyway (write email -> try to send it -> be unsure if it went through), there's no reason to bother with the superfluous complexity of using anything other than Simple Past. When in doubt, Keep It Simple and Straightforward. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2013-04-21T20:25:29.100

Thank you, that makes sense! I'll try to keep it simple whenever in doubt. – jess – 2013-04-22T01:05:54.990

8

There's nothing wrong with mixing verb tenses in a single sentence if that correctly conveys the time relationships. I think what you want to say in this case is something like:

I sent you an email in which I asked you a question, but I am not sure if you received it.

The sending of the email was in the past, so it is properly past tense. The unsureness is in the present, so "am not sure", present tense.

When you need the past perfect is when both events are in the past, but you want to make clear that one preceded the other.

I had sent you an email in which I asked you a question, but I was not sure if you had received it. But today I see your reply.

Now the "not sureness" is in the past, but "had sent" tells the reader that the sending came before the not sureness. Seeing the reply is in the present.

Jay

Posted 2013-04-21T02:56:54.467

Reputation: 51 729

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English has nice, implied time flow. It happens merely by logical sequence. Keep it simple and clear. Be direct. Although this does not answer your specific concern about verb tense, it does address the underlying time problem of the communication itself. Here's some alternatives where the tense problems vanish:

I sent you an email with a question, but I am uncertain if you received it.

If you want to emphasize the time frames, then just do so explicitly:

I sent you an email yesterday morning, but as of noon today I'm unsure if you received it.

Howard Pautz

Posted 2013-04-21T02:56:54.467

Reputation: 555