What tense does usage of 'Don't' normally infer?
July 24, 2012 4:15 AM   Subscribe

Please help settle a grammar disagreement. My Boyf and I are having a grammar disagreement and I was hoping that the wonderful Askme members could help settle it. If someone states "We don't do X" which of the following would you assume was correct? A: That the reference to 'X' applies to the past, present and the future. B: That the reference to 'X' applies to the past and present. C: That the reference to 'X' applies to the past only. Context is the sentence "We don't go on on Holiday".
posted by Faintdreams to Writing & Language (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
A.
posted by fso at 4:20 AM on July 24, 2012


A.
posted by smoke at 4:21 AM on July 24, 2012


I think it's D: present and future. I don't think this applies to the past at all. Think of the sentence "I don't smoke" - does that imply that person has never smoked? No, it likely means they don't smoke now and don't have plans to smoke in the future.
posted by yawper at 4:24 AM on July 24, 2012 [22 favorites]


I agree with yawper. i.e., if you converted from Islam to devout Pentecostalism -- "We don't do Eid". Though of course this has more to do with my assumptions than anything inherent in the grammar.

This is really more of a psychological argument, or at least one of linguistic pragmatics, than a grammatical one.
posted by threeants at 4:29 AM on July 24, 2012


This is the "habitual aspect" of the present tense.

In English, I believe when you use an action verb in the present tense, it most logically implies that the action is done habitually (which necessitates some extension of of discreet iterations into the past, and implies the extension of discreet iterations in the future). In order to say that you are actually performing action verb X in the present, you need to use a tense like present progressive (I am going on holiday, present into the future) or past progressive (I have been going on holiday (past into the present).

(there are a few other ways we use the simple present with action verbs, such as when giving instructions: You ask your boss for leave, and then you go on holiday).
posted by drlith at 4:30 AM on July 24, 2012 [7 favorites]


D. It means "we don't go on holiday" and "we don't intend to go on holiday in the future".

It might mean " and we've never been on holiday" or it might mean "we don't go on holiday any more after being deported from Canada last year after The Unfortunate Mountie Incident". I don't think you can divine their holiday history from that sentence.
posted by the latin mouse at 4:31 AM on July 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


I agree with yawper: D.
posted by xyzzy at 4:31 AM on July 24, 2012


agree that it's A. If you were to tell me you don't go on holiday, I assume that you haven't (in a long time/however long 'we' have been together) and don't plan to take vacations.

a little bit depends on the context:

Past:
"Have you ever been on holiday to Mexico?"
"oh no, we don't go on holiday"

Future:
"Are you going to Mexico?"
"Oh no, we don't go on holiday"

I'd argue that there's no present version. Unless while you were in Mexico, someone asked if you were there for holiday when you're actually there for business? Hmm.. I donno..
posted by royalsong at 4:32 AM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


E. Present only (depending on how you define 'present'). If someone says "we don't go on holiday", do you think that they've never, ever been on holiday and never, ever to the end of time, will go on holiday? More specifically I would say it means, in the recent past we have not been on holiday and we have no plans to do so for the foreseeable future. It doesn't preclude them from ever having been on holiday in the past or doing so in the future.
posted by missmagenta at 4:33 AM on July 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


I think drlith has it.
grammatical aspect
present tense
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 4:33 AM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


It is inherently ambiguous, in a way that communicates information. If want was intending to communicate that one did not go on holiday in the past, the possesive past participle would have been appropriate: 'I haven't done holiday"

The best answer is yawper's D
posted by Blasdelb at 4:34 AM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


If someone came back from a holiday and said "we don't go on holiday", you would wonder what they were talking about because clearly they do, at least sometimes, go on holiday. So the expression must refer to the past, at least a bit.

If someone who was going to leave on holiday tomorrow said "we don't go on holiday" it also wouldn't make sense, much for the same reason. So it must apply to the future as well.

Obviously you wouldn't say it while you were actually on holiday.

So yes, it's a way of expressing a habitual action that occurs, at least to some extent, in the past, present and future.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 4:47 AM on July 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


A. Reminds me of Alistair Campbell's assertion on the Labour government: 'We don't do God'.
posted by mippy at 5:06 AM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think it's D: present and future. I don't think this applies to the past at all. Think of the sentence "I don't smoke" - does that imply that person has never smoked? No, it likely means they don't smoke now and don't have plans to smoke in the future.

It implies the past to some extent as well. Let's say two coworkers go out for smoke breaks together every day. If one day one of them decides to quit, and the other asks "Do you want to go out for a smoke?" the one who just quit could not say "I don't smoke" without qualifying it by saying that they just quit. You would need to go with a phrase like "I haven't been smoking lately" if you want to make sure you imply that it's a recent phenomenon.
posted by burnmp3s at 5:22 AM on July 24, 2012


I would take "we don't go on holiday" as meaning that you had not gone on holiday in a long time (if ever) as a couple, and weren't planning on changing that anytime soon. so option "A". I wouldn't read it as covering all time, just the significant past and foreseeable future.
posted by russm at 5:24 AM on July 24, 2012


D.

I would not assume -- I would ask to clarify if it were a matter that demanded that knowledge.


If *I* were to say We don't go on holiday, I would have meant to communicate that, in principle or practice, I do not presently go on holiday, with disregard to past holidays or future holidays.

For instance, I don't drink caffeine, from me, doesn't mean I will never drink caffeine, nor does it mean I have never consumed caffeine previously. At present (and perhaps for a very limited future that I can reasonably suspect), I don't have any plans to drink caffeine. There very well may be an opportunity to drink caffeine in the next several minutes to several decades that I will decide not to pass up, but until then, I don't.

The phrase itself seems too vague to be reliable, so I would generally not assign any credibility to it, regardless of who said it without clarifying reasons. For instance, I have a nerve disorder that is affected by caffeine, so halting caffeine intake has physiologic benefit for me -- which would lend far more credibility than the simple flat statement that I don't.
posted by Quarter Pincher at 5:24 AM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


OP here, thakns for all the well laid out replies.

Context seems to alter the meaning of don't - in realation to tense - but Boyf and I have now agreed that psychology definately came into play, so neither of us should assume implied usage when the other says something, it's always better to ask for clarification !
posted by Faintdreams at 5:28 AM on July 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


I think it's D: present and future. I don't think this applies to the past at all. Think of the sentence "I don't smoke" - does that imply that person has never smoked?

That's actually a counterexample, not an example, of what you're saying. If you've just smoked a cigarette one minute ago, you can't honestly say: "I don't smoke." So it does refer to the past. "I don't smoke" and "We don't go on holiday" are ongoing -- they refer to the past, present, and future. No, it doesn't mean you've never smoked or you've never gone on holiday, but it still refers to some indefinite period in the past, leading up to the present and beyond.
posted by John Cohen at 7:49 AM on July 24, 2012


Since (as shown by many examples above) it doesn't always indicate past behavior, and future behavior isn't something we can predict, and most people don't adhere in 100% absolutes to there absolute-sounding statements, I've always assumed "We don't do X" to mean "We have a strong preference and general tendency to not do X."

Actual real-world example: Many times I have said "I don't eat at McDonald's." But I did go as a kid on school trips, and there are times on road trips where I've eaten there because that was the only option, and those times may happen again in the future. But most of the time I have a very strong preference to not eat at McDonald's and would rather not do so unless there were no other option, and as far as anyone asking needs to know, I just don't eat there. That's what I mean when I say "I don't eat at McDonald's."
posted by rhiannonstone at 8:38 AM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


It refers to present and future, and eludes to the past as well, but there may be an exception for cause.

EXAMPLE - past/present/future: "We don't go on Holiday. It seems like such a waste to spend all of that money on something so brief."

EXAMPLE - present/future, with past cause: "We don't go on Holiday. The last time we did, we got mugged and had our passports stolen. The time before that, our home was robbed while we were gone. Plus, we don't really travel well together."
posted by 2oh1 at 1:29 PM on July 24, 2012


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