June 17, 2004

Wioll Haven Be

When you are writing to someone who is now on vacation, but who will not read the message until they get back, which of these should you write?

(1) I hope you are having a good vacation
(2) I hope you had a good vacation
(3) I hope you will have had a good vacation
(4) I hoped, when I wrote this, that you would be having a good vacation
(5) As of this writing, I hope that, as you read this, you have had a good vacation

I suppose (1) is the best, but it always sounds odd to me; when they read it, they won't be having a good vacation. (2) also sounds good, but there seems to be an anomaly--I hope at t1, but "you had a good vacation" isn't true at t1 but at a later t2, the time of your reading, at which time I may not be hoping any more (I may be asleep). Perhaps there is something about the sequence of tenses that expains this. (3) fixes the apparent problem with (2) but sounds horrible. (4) and (5) are just ridiculous.

Sometimes, when you're writing something that you expect to be read later, what's important is obviously the time of reading, and so you allow that to be the present tense. Example: "You are here" (not "You will be here when you read this"). Sometimes, though these examples are harder to construct, what's important is the time of writing. Example: "I am stranded on a desert island. I am sending out thousands of these messages in bottles" (not "I was, and may still be, a castaway on a desert island"). In (1)-(5) what's being said isn't that important at all, so there's no obvious fix as to whether the tenses should be anchored to the the time of writing or the time of reasoning.

If there's a point to this at all, it's that perhaps our linguistic structures embody assumptions that don't always hold. Perhaps language was designed to deal with cases in which the hearer hears what's said at the same time as the speaker says it. So when that doesn't hold, we run into some linguistic confusion. If these cases were important enough, we'd have to develop linguistic structures for dealing with them, but they're not so we haven't.

Posted by Matt Weiner at June 17, 2004 11:44 AM

This is just an idea, but it is how I have started letters before. Try:

(6) Although you won't read this until you get home, I hope that you are having a good vacation.

I think that (6) captures the naturalness of (1) and (2) but qualifies it like (4) and (5) (only in a non-awkward way, I think).

Posted by: Mark at June 17, 2004 12:24 PM

An obvious suggestion: If you use the first person first, then the default present is the time of writing. If you use the second person first, then the default present is the time of reading. Thus, any of the following would be a natural thing to write:

(1) "I hope you are having a good time."

(2*) "You no doubt had a good vacation and are very tired."

(n) "You are here."

This suggestion is probably too simple, but it is was late and I will have been tired.

Posted by: P.D. at June 17, 2004 11:46 PM

You say: I suppose (1) is the best, but it always sounds odd to me; when they read it, they won't be having a good vacation.

I agree that (1) is best, and I don't understand why you're uncomfortable with it. When we write things in letters, we do write about the time we're writing. There's nothing odd about my writing, "I'm writing this letter to you because..." even though it will not be true when the letter is read that I am writing it. Similarly, I might close a letter, "I have to cut this letter short; it's past my bedtime", and the fact that the letter might be read at lunchtime doesn't make that sentence inappropriate.

Here's another argument. Suppose I know when you're going to get the letter. I'm writing it in the morning, and I know that it will be delivered to you this evening, and that you will read it immediately upon receipt. If I write, "it's morning now", I say something true. If I write "it's evening", I say something false.

Posted by: Jonathan at June 18, 2004 08:01 AM

Hmmm. Should I try to retreat to talking about "Congratulations! You're 25!" on birthday cards, or should I just surrender quietly?

Or, since P.D.'s suggestion takes care of that, writing "We're 25!" on a birthday card you send your twin. (Those of you who have been following my occasional complaints about how old I am will recognize that the characters in this example are fictional.)

Jonathan's examples are definitely right; the question for me is whether and when it's appropriate to make your indexicals and tenses refer to the context of reading rather than the context of writing. I get this from Douglas Hofstadter's "The sentence I am now writing is the sentence you are now reading." We can take care of this with explicit markers as in Mark's (6), too.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at June 18, 2004 03:59 PM

If the only counter-example to my homey suggestion is the birthday card you send to your twin, consider this revised version:

If the writer is referred to (for instance, with `I') before the reader is referred to, then the default present is the time of writing. Otherwise, the default present is the time of reading.

This handles all of the other examples exactly as my suggestion above does. `We're 25!' refers to the writer at the same time it refers to the reader, and so the otherwise is appropriate. Note also that the suggestion only sets a default present-- this can be overridden, as in the Hofstadter sentence.

Posted by: P.D. at June 19, 2004 01:38 PM

Well, I was going to suggest "I'm a bachelor, and now you are too," from an old graduate to a new one, but I think that your invocation of the default takes care of that--especially given "now."

How about this, though: "I'm not the only college grad in the family anymore!" Only an implicit reference to the speaker, but it still has to be evaluated when the card is read (after the addressee's graduation) and not when it's written (before).

Perhaps I should make a bigger deal of the acceptability of "I hope you had a good time." There it seems as though the moment of evaluation has to shift, so that the first-person part of the sentence is evaluated at one time and the second-person part is evaluated at another.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at June 19, 2004 01:47 PM

I've run into a similar, although completely different, problem. If I send an email Tuesday evening about an event on Wednesday, I'm often not sure if the reader(s) will read it on Tuesday or Wednesday. Typically, I'd want to say "tomorrow" to refer to the event. However, that would not be correct for anyone reading it on Wednesday. But if I say "today", it's not correct for people reading it on Tuesday. So I have to explicitly say "Wednesday". But according to common usage, some of the readers might think that means next Wednesday. I usually end up writing "tomorrow (Wednesday)", which is correct for the time I write it, but clarifies it for the reader. But it sounds kind of funny to have to be so repetitive and explicit.

Posted by: Craig Buchek at June 22, 2004 11:10 AM

Thankyouthankyouthankyou Craig! That is much better than my original examples.

You can always write Wednesday June 22 (if you and your readers can be expected to know what week it is, which doesn't always hold for me), but that is less economical than simply writing "tomorrow," and the point I want to get out of this has to do with how the failure of presuppositions (such as "communication is consumed on the same day it is produced") will sometimes lead to the breakdown of more economical means of communication.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at June 22, 2004 11:50 AM