Author Topic: The semantic difference between the present and the past tense  (Read 10409 times)

Joe Carillo

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The proper use of the tenses could make a big difference in one’s declarations during a job interview. This is clearly what Young Mentor, a member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum, had in mind when he posted this question in the Forum sometime ago:

“I would just like to ask what tense should be used when discussing one’s working experiences to an interviewer. In particular, do we say ‘I have experience in bartending’ or ‘I had experience in bartending’?

“My understanding is that when narrating one’s personal experiences, the tense to be used is the past tense. However, in the scenario above, I’m thinking that ‘I have experience in bartending’ should be used instead of ‘I had experience in bartending’ considering that the speaker’s bartending skill still exists or is still true at the moment of speaking. I get the sense that to say ‘I have experience in bartending’ or ‘I have bartending experience’ will give the interviewer the feeling of assurance that the speaker still possesses that skill.”

My reply to Young Mentor:

Your question actually boils down to choosing between the present tense declarative—“I have experience in bartending”—and the past tense declarative—“‘I had experience in bartending”—when talking about one’s work experience.

What should the girl say as she does her fantasy demo: the present declarative “I have
experience in flying” or the past tense declarative “I had experience in flying”?

Recall that “have” is a present-tense transitive verb that means to obtain or be in the possession of something. Thus, the sentence “I have experience in bartending” conveys the idea that the speaker acquired the experience at some time in the past and continues to be able to do bartending up to the time of speaking. In other words, the state of having that bartending experience hasn’t ended but persists up to the present, so the speaker is confident of putting that experience to good use up to now.

In contrast, “had” as the past tense of the transitive verb “have” conveys the sense of having obtained or having gotten possession of something in the past without necessarily retaining it. Thus, the sentence “I had experience in bartending” conveys the idea that although the speaker did get the experience of bartending at some time in the past, he or she might have lost the skill or knack for it so is no longer very confident of being able to put that bartending experience to good use now.

As implied in your observations, there is therefore a semantic wrinkle when one says “I had experience in bartending.” It actually belittles the value of the work experience being invoked by the speaker, and is almost like saying “I experienced bartending but it didn’t amount to much.” This is obviously not the sense that an applicant would want to convey during a job interview.

You are therefore absolutely right that “I have experience in bartending” or ‘I have bartending experience”—both present tense forms—is the grammatically and semantically correct statement to use in this particular situation. Saying it will give assurance to the interviewer that the applicant still possesses that skill and, this being the case, should be seriously considered for the job at hand.


Here’s another interesting grammar question, this time from Forum member Miss Mae: “I’m often fascinated by how a double negative construction can bring home a point. But is there a ‘rule’ in using double negatives?”

My reply to Miss Mae:

A double negative construction happens when we negate a so-called affixal negation, or positive words  that are negated by the affixes “un-”, “im-”/“in-”/“il-”, “dis-”, “de-”, and “-less,” as in “unavailable,” “imperfect,” “inelastic,” “illegal,” “disregard,” “decamp,” or “worthless.” If our intention is to use a statement using affixal negation, we must see to it that the words “no,” “not,” or “never” isn’t used to negate it. For instance, the sentence “It is not immoral to steal” is a grammatically incorrect double negative whose sense is exactly the opposite, “It is moral to steal.”
This essay, 825th in the series, first appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the January 19, 2012 issue of The Manila Times, © 2012 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: May 29, 2018, 08:47:16 AM by Joe Carillo »