The Tense for What Never Happened

by Mark L. Levinson

Like many writers, I’m often asked where my ideas come from.  For example, the other day I said to the boss, “I think the regulations say that if I stay after nine p.m., I’m entitled to a supper break.”

“Where did you get that idea?” he said.

But the next day at the bus stop I got a column idea from a curly-haired woman with silver-studded black boots who was speaking loudly into her cellphone.  Pausing for clarity’s sake after word or two, she said in didactic, New Yorkish tones, “I never saw such a beautiful view like this.”

She listened a moment, then considered aloud:  “I’ve never seen such a beautiful view like this?”

But I suppose she decided “first thought, best thought,” as Allen Ginsburg used to say.  Again she declared into the cellphone, with pauses:  “I never saw such a beautiful view like this.”  She seemed to be recommending the phrasing to someone. 

If you’re reading this, my fellow American from the bus stop, I don’t mean to hold you up to ridicule, but you were fooled there by a Snowdon sentence.  Like Yossarian in Catch‑22 who doesn’t notice Snowdon’s fatal belly wound because a less serious leg wound distracts him, you let the debatable start of the sentence distract you from the deplorable end of it.

Actually I’ve never read Catch‑22

The present perfect, “I’ve never read,” takes you up to this moment and the current situation, in which all my knowledge of Catch‑22 is second-hand.  I could also say in the simple past tense, “I never read Catch‑22.”  It’s not seriously wrong, or there would be something seriously wrong with Gelett Burgess’ famous “I never saw a purple cow.”  But whereas the present perfect has more to do with the current implications of the past, the simple past has more to do with the times that are over and done with.  The sentence in the simple past, “I never read Catch‑22,” seems to hark back to past occasions when I could have read it.  In fact, that’s why “I never saw a purple cow” is a little funnier than “I’ve never seen a purple cow.”  The beginning, “I never saw,” leaves you less prepared for something that nobody ever sees anyway.

So if such a beautiful view has remained unseen to me till now, and I mean always unseen — not just, for example, that I never saw one during my previous visits to Israel — it makes sense to say “I’ve never seen such a beautiful view.”  But there’s a complication.  I’m looking at such a beautiful view right now, so how can I say I’ve never seen one?

On paper, it would make sense to solve the problem by saying “Never before have I seen such a beautiful view.”  And indeed if you were on the Haas Promenade in Jerusalem, looking out over the Old City and its surroundings, you wouldn’t turn to the tourist next to you and say, in the simple past tense, “Never before did I see such a beautiful view.”  That sounds as if you saw the beautiful view itself a while ago and are remembering it now.  But on the other hand, in normal conversation you wouldn’t use either inversion — neither “have I seen” nor “did I see.”  You might leave “before” for the end of the sentence:  “I’ve never seen such a beautiful view before.”  And because that construction puts “before” in such a weak position, occurring after the sense of the sentence has already been understood, you might want to simply omit the word.  Go ahead.  This column is about how to write, not how to talk.

Next time, part 2:  the worse end of the Snowdon sentence.

Comments and questions are welcome:  ]]

Mark L. Levinson

Born 1948 a few trolley stops from Boston, Massachusetts. Bachelor's degree from Harvard College. Moved to Israel in 1970. Worked and learned Hebrew on Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet. Moved to Haifa and worked teaching English to adults. Did similar work in the army. After discharge, turned to technical writing, initially for Elbit. Then promotional writing for Scitex, and more technical (and occasionally promotional) writing for Edunetics, Daisy Systems (later named Dazix, SEE Technologies, and Summit Design), Memco, and Gilian. Also translated from Hebrew to English, everything from business articles to fiction, filmscripts, and poetry. Served as local chapter president for the Society for Technical Communication, editor of several issues of local literary journals, occasional political columnist and book reviewer for the Jerusalem Post, and husband & father.