Jump to content
Chinese-forums.com
Learn Chinese in China

British English: You can't have seen her in Beijing yesterday.


NinjaTurtle
 Share

Recommended Posts

I have a question about these sentences:

 

"Mary is in India now. You can't have seen her in Beijing yesterday."

 

(I would say this is a mistake. In American English I would say, "You couldn't have seen her in Beijing yesterday.")

 

Is "can't have seen" okay in British English?

 

 

 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Site Sponsors:
Pleco for iPhone / Android iPhone & Android Chinese dictionary: camera & hand- writing input, flashcards, audio.
Study Chinese in Kunming 1-1 classes, qualified teachers and unique teaching methods in the Spring City.
Learn Chinese Characters Learn 2289 Chinese Characters in 90 Days with a Unique Flash Card System.
Hacking Chinese Tips and strategies for how to learn Chinese more efficiently
Popup Chinese Translator Understand Chinese inside any Windows application, website or PDF.
Chinese Grammar Wiki All Chinese grammar, organised by level, all in one place.

You've maybe said elsewhere, so sorry if I've missed it, but are you being required to be this precise with the Br/Am distinction, or is it something you're doing voluntarily. I think in this case at least it's unlikely anyone will give it a second thought. 

  • Like 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

@NinjaTurtle — do you think it's hard for Americans to recognise what's British-English usage?

 

It's probably much easier for Brits to spot American usage because it's so ubiquitous in TV, films etc.

 

Although in the 80s it did take me quite some time to work out what was going on in the classic US magazine BYTE (about computers).... I still remember the day when I finally found out that "upping the ante" is a poker reference, whereas poker terminology has zero influence in my life. (And the same for the majority of Brits I suspect.  We could exact revenge using Cricket terminology I'm sure...)

 

We live and learn. :)

 

 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

btw, just to throw another spanner into the works.... 😉

Certain British dialects (e.g. Newcastle, parts of Scotland, ...) and other colonial derivatives (e.g. Singapore) are more likely to use the older "cannot" than "can't". 

 

To my ear, being from the North of England, these have a certain charm.

 

Also, in Singapore, it's very common to hear constructions such as "also can", "also cannot" which don't really fit with standard English grammar, but I assume are reflecting Chinese usage as with 还可以 and 还不可以.

 

 

 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

2 hours ago, roddy said:

it's unlikely anyone will give it a second thought. 

 

It sounds funny to me. Apparently it does not sound funny to British speakers. It is important for my Chinese students to know these differences. (My Chinese students have NO IDEA as to these differences, so my teaching these things to my students is a very good idea.)

 

2 hours ago, mungouk said:

do you think it's hard for Americans to recognise what's British-English usage?

 

Some British examples are well-known to Americans. Others are not. Several times (many times?) I have marked something wrong on a student's paper, only to find out later it is an example of British English that I was unaware of. (My favorite example is "biscuits and gravy"!) So these "brainstorm sessions" with all of you are quite helpful.

 

2 hours ago, mungouk said:

We could exact revenge using Cricket terminology

 

Cricket terminology? Sticky wicket?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

1 minute ago, DavyJonesLocker said:

I can't go today

I couldn't go yesterday

 

Is that wrong?

 

This is how I would say it. But it seems the British example of  "can" (in the past) combined with "have" has variations not used in American English.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

http://www.pearsonlongman.com/ae/azar/grammar_ex/message_board/archive/articles/00108.htm

For me (native BrE speaker) "can't have" is equivalent to "couldn't have" for sentences involving inferred certainty (of action not taken). The above links shows how it's more prevalent in written text too. 

 

The AmE / BrE difference is underexplored, but mentioned here:

https://www.englishforums.com/English/InferenceCantCouldntMustnt-Have/bvmlvb/post.htm

Link to comment
Share on other sites

4 minutes ago, Michaelyus said:

For me (native BrE speaker) "can't have" is equivalent to "couldn't have" for sentences involving inferred certainty (of action not taken).

 

The difference in these examples between American English and British English seems to be more pronounced when the situation is in the past.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

"It is important for my Chinese students to know these differences."

 

I had a Chinese teacher once who was quite capable of spending an entire class session on points such as this. Unfortunately.

 

In any event, I think can't especially when expanded to cannot adds a lot of emphasis to the impossibility of the event:

 

"You cannot possibly have been to the moon."

 

'You couldn't possibly have been to the moon."

 

Remind your students it only works in negation. Otherwise they'll be writing, "I can have seen her."

 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

"couldn't have" seems to make more grammatical sense, but I'd be ok with either.

 

3 hours ago, NinjaTurtle said:

 

Cricket terminology? Sticky wicket?

 

Yes, this bit of grammar does appear to be a bit of a sticky wicket, or maybe it's just because we're in the corridor of uncertainty?  Anyways, even when you send down a jaffa like this, someone should come along at some point to hit it for six.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

3 hours ago, NinjaTurtle said:

My Chinese students have NO IDEA as to these differences, so my teaching these things to my students is a very good idea.

I'm honestly not sure. If your students or the administration demand it, fair enough. Otherwise I'd pick a side of the Atlantic, with a strong preference for wherever you're from but informed by the resources at hand and where the students might be headed, and stick to it. Unless they're extremely advanced students, they have bigger problems.

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Yeah this is another one of those things that seems to be a waste of time. You’re actually making things much more complicated than they have to be.

 

Do you think that Canadians never make it into universities in the US and the UK with our mixing of styles or something?

 

You can’t have seen her. (it is not possible that you have seen her)

You couldn’t have seen her. (it was not possible for you to see her)

 

Even if the minute distinction mattered, neither should ever be considered an error by anyone marking an English essay, and if it were, I’d make a formal complaint or initiate an appeal because that’s ludicrous.

  • Like 4
Link to comment
Share on other sites

The situation that cannot have occured is in the past, but the impossibility of it is in the present: It is not possible that you saw her in Beijing yesterday, and not *It was not possible that you saw her in Beijing yesterday. So the present tense is not wrong, and not the main issue here.

 

But really, in my view, as a non-native speaker of pretty decent English, this is what in Dutch we call antfucking. Spending way too much time and attention on something that makes no difference whatsoever. If their English is not fantastic yet, there are more important aspects to worry about. If their English is already fantastic, they have presumanly already picked a flavour of English and figured it out. If they are linguists, they should research the topic themselves.

  • Like 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Quote

I'd pick a side of the Atlantic, . . .  and stick to it.

I wouldn't even go that far.  I would let them know that regional variations exist, and point them out occasionally, but leave it at that. They should be trained to understand English from both sides of the Atlantic (also Australia, Ireland, and possibly even Scotland), and on the production side, if they don't manage to keep their -ise and -our and -re consistent, there are plenty of natives who don't, either. I work as a copyeditor, so I know. They'll work it out when they get to wherever they're going. Or they won't, and people will say, well, their English is a bit funny anyway.

Modern technology is making these differences less pronounced, and less regional.

Think of the equivalent in Chinese. I've got one textbook that says the measure word for dogs is 条, and another that says it's 只. After all these years of studying, I don't know if this is a regional difference, a class thing, or an example of change over time. Nor do I care that much. Either one will work, and amid all the other mistakes I'm making, it will hardly be noticed. Someday, some kind Chinese person will explain it to me over a beer, and I'll learn a lot of Chinese, but I bet he'll be full of shit and the next Chinese person to explain it to me will tell me a completely different story. And I'll learn some more Chinese.

  • Like 3
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and select your username and password later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.
Note: Your post will require moderator approval before it will be visible.

Guest
Click here to reply. Select text to quote.

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

 Share

×
×
  • Create New...