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Suspiciously Specific Tense

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"I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to, too."

Someone's tense implies something significant.

So Alice is telling Bob an incredible story about something that's happened in the past. Say for instance, Alice says "Elvis was the greatest rock star in the world!" Almost peculiarly, Bob will pick up the word "was," and make some sort of question based around "You said was, so what happened to him?"

This includes any instance wherein a character picks up on something due to the past tense. A classic example is a Conviction by Contradiction situation where the suspect refers to a murder victim in the past tense when the suspect couldn't know the victim was dead. In some other cases, the speaker intends the listener to pick up on the implication.

Can be somewhat annoying because people say "was" without denoting anything happening in the past all the time - and appropriately so, as it expresses the imperfect tense, which can denote actions that have begun and are continuing - so when a character points it out, it seems like they have God knowledge about the plot and serve as a means to get into a tragic backstory about what happened to Elvis.


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    Comic Books 
  • In an issue of Spider-Man, an enforcer and a corrupt gym owner are talking about a boxer who wants to leave the gym, and plotting to kill him.
    Enforcer: Mr. Chance has such promise.
    Owner: He HAD promise. Past tense.

  • In Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), during the confrontation with Shredder, the Big Bad implies that the Turtles' master is dead through the use of this trope:
    Raphael: Where's Splinter?
    Shredder: Ah, the rat! So it has a had a name.
    Leonardo: (getting pissed) You lie!
    Shredder: (smiling evilly through his mask) Do I?note 
    (Leo flies into a rage and attacks Shredder, but is immediately shut down)
  • In the movie Batman Returns, after Catwoman reveals to Max Shreck that Bruce Wayne, who is "dressed up like Batman," actually is Batman, Shreck says "Was," and tries to kill him.
  • In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Spock refers to whales becoming extinct in the past tense. Gillian catches this.
  • In Time After Time, H.G. Wells pursues Jack the Ripper to 1979 San Francisco and accidentally uses the wrong tense due to his obvious ignorance of 20th Century history when talking to a female bank teller about women's liberation.
    H.G.: I was all for it.
    Amy: You were all for it? What happened?
  • In Bruges: Ken thinks he's having a normal phone conversation with Harry about Ray's opinion of Bruges until Harry says he's glad Ray got to see the place. "Because he wasn't a bad kid, was he?" He goes on to give instructions about where Ken will get the gun to kill Ray and what to do afterwards.
  • In WarGames, while David is trying to explain how he hacked into a computerised missile launching system to Mr. McKittrick, he mentions the system's original designer, Professor Stephen Falken, who has been dead for nearly a decade. McKittrick, a former colleague of Falken, says, "He's a brilliant man, a little flaky..." The fact that he says Falken is brilliant but flaky, not that he was brilliant but flaky, is David's (and the audience's) first clue that Falken is still alive.

  • Discworld:
    • At the beginning of Wyrd Sisters, the ghost of King Verence (who hasn't quite realized he's dead yet) takes offense at being hailed with a simple "Hello" by Death:
      Verence: I am a king, mark you.
      Death: WAS.
      Verence: Say again?
    • Also done in Reaper Man, when the New Death possesses a hay-cutting machine in a last-ditch attempt to get at Death.
      Miss Flitworth: What is it?
      Miss Flitworth: Was? What is it now?
      Death: A POOR LOSER.
  • The main character of The Divine Comedy recognizes a damned heretic and in his excitement, he mentions that perhaps the son of the heretic "did disdain" God. The heretic catches on to the "did" and asks if his son is alive. The protagonist hesitates, leading the heretic to wrongfully presume his son has died.
  • In Dragon Flight, Creel accidentally reveals that Shardas, presumed dead in the first book, is alive by telling another dragon, "Why shouldn't I tell Shardas. He and I are friends." "Are?" She then has to tell all, but it works out for the best.
  • A variant is done in Ella Enchanted. While Ella is well aware of the death of her mother, hearing Hattie referring to her mother in the past tense is shocking enough for Ella to not snipe back at Hattie's rude behavior.
  • In The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole, Adrian is writing about "Stick Insect", the woman he thinks is his father's ex-mistress: "I have just realized that Stick Insect used the present tense when she was referring to her relationship with my father. It is absolutely disgraceful. A woman of thirty not knowing the fundamentals of grammar!"
  • In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf realizes Saruman isn't living in Orthanc after Treebeard uses words such as "was" and "dwelt" in a conversation about Saruman (though Saruman's departure was important enough that it would have been brought up anyway...eventually).
  • Someone who has recently had a loved one die can have trouble processing that information and adjusting verb tenses. In Pet Sematary (novel only, doesn't happen in the movie), Louis (a doctor) uses this, among other details of the conversation, to check Jud's mental functioning after his wife Norma dies suddenly. Jud's doing as well as can be expected, with no reason to worry about his mental health, Louis decides.
  • Six of Crows: On Vellgeluk, after seeing who Van Eck really is, Jesper tells him that Wylan "deserves a better father than you". Van Eck's reply? "Deserved."
  • In The Time Traveler's Wife, Henry accidentally reveals when Claire's mother will die on a jaunt to the past.
  • In Heavy Object, Skuld claims that Quenser is just as insane as her, causing Wraith to snap and say that he was nothing like her. This allows Skuld to figure out that Quenser is dead (Wraith had earlier been coerced into shooting him). In a subversion, it turns out Wraith had faked Quenser's death - apparently she's a good enough actor to keep up the deception even in a moment of weakness.

    Live Action TV 
  • In CSI, Captain Brass starts reinvestigating one of his old cases, the apparently accidental death of a woman, when he sees her husband out on the town with a brand new sports car. He later tells the husband that he should've been suspicious as soon as he (the husband) told Brass, right after the accident, that he loved his wife. In Brass' experience, someone facing a loved one's death so soon after said event usually hasn't processed it enough to refer to them in the past tense (and in his case, it wasn't even clear to anyone else that she wouldn't make it). Although the investigation doesn't lead to a conviction (yet) and the suspect's lawyer even scoffs at Brass basing his case on the "past tense" theory, it's more than enough for the insurance company to initiate its own investigation... starting with towing away the suspect's car.
    • Also used in an episode of Til Death Do Us Part, where the police officers investigating the murder picked up on a wife giving an interview about her husband and how great he was and how much she loved him, or lines like that, and quickly realized that she seemed to already know he was dead.
    • CSI also use it occasionally to subtly reveal, when children are present, that someone has died: "He was your client."
  • In Lost where, moments before we saw Daniel get killed, Widmore says of him in the future, "He was my son, too." If we weren't too stunned by the paternity revelation to notice it, we knew Daniel was toast.
  • Robin of Sherwood: Much can't bring himself to say what happened to his father, Robin's stepfather, but he manages to say "He was your father too!" through tears.
  • At a potential crime scene in the "The Great Game" episode of Sherlock where a bloody car has been discovered, Sherlock questions a woman as to her husband's supposed state of mind leading up to the presumed suicide. She uses past tense when describing him, something he finds suspicious considering they've only just found the car. John figures that she might have killed him, but Sherlock brushes off the tense as something a murderer would specifically know to get "wrong". Turns out the husband had faked his own death to avoid money troubles; his wife was in on it and spreading the idea that he was deeply depressed.
  • In an episode of Burn Notice, Larry returns and forces Michael to help him break into an office building. He then talks to Fi, Sam, and a shrink on a radio. The shrink points out that Larry said that Michael was his friend, as if he's already dead. Fi goes crazy and kills Larry. Unfortunately, this results in the deaths of several security guards, which was set up by the "shrink" to hold it over Fi's head to force Michael's cooperation.
  • A similar effect is achieved in the Doctor Who episode "Twice Upon a Time", when a British soldier from 1914 catches the Doctor referring to the conflict he's currently involved in as "World War One", implying the existence of a second one yet to come.
  • The Barrier has a subversion. Marta secretly recently lost her mother. Her father's newest job is being part of the help in a minister's home, but due to the job opening being for a married couple, Marta's maternal aunt is being passed off as her mother. In one episode, Marta is brought to the minister's house and ends up playing with Sergio, a boy around her age who lives there. During a conversation with Sergio and Rosa, one of the house's employees, Marta says that her mother "was" a teacher due to not having gotten use to pretending her aunt is her mother quite yet. Fortunately, both Sergio and Rosa understand it as her saying her mother used to be a teacher before working as a maid.

  • One episode of The Adventures of Harry Nile, Harry is asked by a police officer if a recently murdered man "was" a client of his:
    Harry: I don't like the way you said "was."

  • Life With Father:
    Dr. Lloyd: Mrs. Day has been a tower of strength in the parish. Everyone liked her so much. Yes, she was a fine woman.
    Father: I wish to God you wouldn't talk about Mrs. Day as if she were dead.
  • Played with in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street: "Such a nice plump frame what's-his-name has...had...has." The switch back is because even though Pirelli is now dead, Mrs. Lovett is contemplating baking him into a pie, for which purposes he does still have the nice plump frame.
  • In Cyrano de Bergerac, Roxane realizes Christian has just died when Cyrano slips and refers to him in the past tense.
  • Follies:
    Phyllis: You cleft my heart.
    Ben: I cleave it. Cleft is past.
    Phyllis: Damn right. You don't cleave it any more.

    Video Games 
  • Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: At one point in the final trial, you have to point out a discrepancy between two testimonies, namely that Kira says Miss Darklaw was the Great Witch who gave orders to the Shades. Which raises the question: if Darklaw stepped down as leader of the Shades, then who gave the order to assassinate the Storyteller?
  • In Space Quest IV: Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers, Roger meets his future son. Showing his father a volumetric display of his mother (i.e. Roger's future wife), Roger Jr. remarks "she was quite beautiful". When Roger Sr. presses on him about the word "was", the young man pleas that he cannot explain.
  • A source of Memetic Mutation regarding the Super Smash Bros. Brawl website, which when first revealing Lucas, mentioned Ness as a character who appeared in the Smash Bros. series "up until now". That phrase, coupled with Lucas' obvious similarity to Ness, convinced everyone that Ness wasn't coming back for Brawl. Ultimately, Ness did in fact come back.

  • Irregular Webcomic!, here:
    Death Of Being Sat On By A Giant Frog: [Da Vinci] was a canny old bastard...
    Head Death: Is a canny old bastard...
  • Pixie and Brutus: Pixie comments that Brutus' former handler, Sgt. Castillo, sounds like a really nice guy. Brutus responds that he was. The next strip reveals that Sgt. Castillo was killed in the same action where Brutus got his scars.
  • Questionable Content: Bubbles the Robot's first hint of her Dark and Troubled Past and the tragedy that left her a Shell-Shocked Veteran comes when she says she won't fight in the robot arena where she works.
    Faye: But aren't you, like, a combat droid?
    Bubbles: I was.
    Faye: I'm just crammin' my foot further and further down my throat here, aren't I.
    • It comes up again in a later conversation.
      Bubbles: I joined because I believed every citizen has the right to defend their country. I felt the "call to serve," as they say. I believed I was well-disposed toward such a role. [...] I believed that I was doing good.
      Momo: You keep using the past tense.
      Bubbles: Indeed.

    Western Animation 
  • On The Spectacular Spider-Man, Harry has found evidence that the Green Goblin was never his own Superpowered Evil Side, despite having believed it himself:
    Harry: ...At least...that's what we all thought was happening.
    Peter: "Thought?" Past tense?

    Real Life 
  • When someone dies, their loved ones continue referring to them in the present tense until the death hits home. Police are trained to view anyone who starts using the past tense too soon with suspicion.
    • Also in missing persons cases, where the person in question is presumably still alive. Cops get very leery of supposed loved ones not only referring to these people in the past tense, but doing things that indicate that they know the person isn't returning:
    • While being interrogated about the whereabouts of her children (she claimed that they had been kidnapped by a carjacker), Susan Smith repeatedly said, "I loved them, they were my life". She made a similar slip with her estranged husband, asking him "If we get the boys back, can we be a family again?" before quickly correcting herself to say "When we get the boys back..." The already suspicious cops picked up on her constant use of past tense and soon came to the correct conclusion that Susan had murdered her children.
    • Mark Hacking called the police to report that his wife Lori had failed to return from her morning jog. Speaking to the press as he organized a search party, he made several incriminating statements such as, "I know I'm searching for someone who's hurt", and "If she's not there (in the park where she usually went for her run), then that means that the unimaginable happened." Already doubtful of his story, the police found it odd that he was jumping to such grim conclusions so early into the investigation and began to speculate that he already knew that the worst had happened to Lori. Sure enough, after several days, Hacking finally confessed to having killed his wife.
  • In 2010, the McStay family disappeared from their Southern California home. Their remains were found 3 years later, near the home of the father's business partner. Aside from the proximity of the location of the bodies, cops were suspicious of the man's accounts of the last time he saw the family, in which he emphatically stated, "I'm definitely the last person he saw", without the coda of "Except for his/her killer" that an innocent person would be likely to add on. With this and other evidence, the man was soon arrested and charged with murder.