pirates are a thing of the past

michael13

Senior Member
Chinese
In Unusual Cultures, the voice over says:

-Pirates are a thing of the past. (not WERE?)

Is it a special/nonce usage? Would it be better to change ARE to WERE? (because it's referring to a past thing)
 
  • exgerman

    Senior Member
    NYC
    English but my first language was German
    Pirates are a thing of the past means that there are no pirates now.

    Pirates were a thing of the past means that now there are pirates again.
     

    michael13

    Senior Member
    Chinese
    Thank you, Graham and Exger. But how can we say 'Pirates were a thing of the past means that now there are pirates again'?
     

    sdgraham

    Senior Member
    USA English
    If they are no longer "a thing of the past," what would you think?

    If somebody told you that dinosaurs are no longer extinct, would you not be looking over your shoulder?
     

    michael13

    Senior Member
    Chinese
    Thank you, graham. But in English isn't the fact that even when we use the past tense to refer to something, it doesn't mean the opposite of the statement exists now?
     

    sdgraham

    Senior Member
    USA English
    Thank you, graham. But in English isn't the fact that even when we use the past tense to refer to something, it doesn't mean the opposite of the statement exists now?
    Sorry, but I have no idea what you're trying to say. Please refer to post #3, which is correct.
     

    michael13

    Senior Member
    Chinese
    Thank you, graham. For example, I am writing an account of my father living with me: In those days, we were very happy. My grandfather was dead, but we didn't feel sad for long. In this case, it doesn't mean my grandfather IS alive.
     

    RM1(SS)

    Senior Member
    English - US (Midwest)
    A thing of the past is something that no longer exists.

    If pirates are a thing of the past, then pirates no longer exist.

    If pirates were a thing of the past, then they are no longer something that no longer exists - they are something that exists again.
     

    sdgraham

    Senior Member
    USA English
    Thank you, graham. For example, I am writing an account of my father living with me: In those days, we were very happy. My grandfather was dead, but we didn't feel sad for long. In this case, it doesn't mean my grandfather IS alive.
    It should be obvious that the fixed expression "thing of the past" does not exist in your example.

    You are dealing with a totally different structure, i.e. "was dead" and "we didn't" are all in the past. Your original question involves a narrative taking place in the present.

    Repeating

    Would it be better to change ARE to WERE?
    NO! ... and it will continue to be NO!
     

    srk

    Senior Member
    English - US
    Pirates are a thing of the past. In fact pirates were a thing of the past 50 years ago. That doesn't mean that pirates are no longer a thing of the past.
    In the time michael13 is talking about, his grandfather was dead. That doesn't mean he's alive now.

    Bare bones pirates were a thing of the past means pirates are alive and well now. With some context (as in my first sentence) it doesn't mean that.
    There can be no context in which was dead means alive again.

    Michael13 has a point, but it doesn't have much to do with his first question. Pirates are a thing of the past is the right thing to say to mean that they no longer exist.

    Cross posted with sdgraham
     

    sdgraham

    Senior Member
    USA English
    Pirates are a thing of the past. In fact pirates were a thing of the past 50 years ago. That doesn't mean that pirates are no longer a thing of the past.
    Ah, but adding "50 years ago" changes things. That moves the context from the present to the past.
     

    michael13

    Senior Member
    Chinese
    Thank you, graham and srk. Your answers are excellent; I'm happy to see myself refuted, because it means I again learn a lot from you!
     

    michael13

    Senior Member
    Chinese
    In #6 a sentence: But in English isn't the fact that even when we use the past tense to refer to something, it doesn't mean the opposite of the statement exists now?

    I thought the corresponding answer could be:

    -Yes, the fact is that....

    Is it an impossible construction in English questions?
     

    pob14

    Senior Member
    American English
    In #6 a sentence: But in English isn't the fact that even when we use the past tense to refer to something, it doesn't mean the opposite of the statement exists now?

    I thought the corresponding answer could be:

    -Yes, the fact is that....

    Is it an impossible construction in English questions?
    The question is confusing because of all the negatives. "Isn't the fact that . . . it doesn't mean the opposite?"
     

    michael13

    Senior Member
    Chinese
    The question is confusing because of all the negatives. "Isn't the fact that . . . it doesn't mean the opposite?"
    Thank you, pob. Let me put it in a more simple way.

    Say, I hope a person can give me the answer 'yes, he is handsome', then I'll ask 'Isn't he handsome?'.

    By the same token, I hope a person can give me the answer 'yes, the fact is that XYZ', then I'll ask 'Isn't the fact that XYZ...?'

    Does this question structure sound strange?
     

    Sparky Malarky

    Moderator
    English - US
    Let me say that I mostly agree with everything said before.

    Pirates are a thing of the past means there are no pirates now.

    Pirates were a thing of the past means that at some point in the past, there were no pirates. Why would you say this? Maybe things have changed. Pirates used to be a thing of the past, but now they've returned. This sentence does not necessarily mean that there are pirates again, but it does imply that there are unless other explanation is given.

    However, you could say this and not have the meaning that pirates have returned.

    When I was a child my family went to the seashore. I had read stories about pirates and I was terrified that pirates would come and kidnap me. My mother came in and found me sobbing in my bed. "Why are you crying?" she asked. I told her that I was afraid of pirates. She told me not to worry. She explained that pirates were a thing of the past.

    At the time of the story, pirates were no longer around. They still are no longer around. But we would use past tense (pirates were a thing of the past) because the story took place in the past. If we were not telling a story in past tense, however, there would be no reason to say "were" instead of "are."
     

    Hau Ruck

    Senior Member
    English - U.S.
    Thank you, pob. Let me put it in a more simple way.

    Say, I hope a person can give me the answer 'yes, he is handsome', then I'll ask 'Isn't he handsome?'.

    By the same token, I hope a person can give me the answer 'yes, the fact is that XYZ', then I'll ask 'Isn't the fact that XYZ...?'

    Does this question structure sound strange?
    Yes, but the grammar is slightly different.

    "Yes, it is a fact that the sky is blue."
    "Isn't it a fact that the sky is blue?"
     

    srk

    Senior Member
    English - US
    Sparky Malarky said:
    Pirates were a thing of the past
    If we were not telling a story in past tense, however, there would be no reason to say "were" instead of "are."
    Listeners have a right to expect that you have good reason for saying things the way you do.

    John Doe lived until he was 90 years old.

    Having heard this, I have I right to expect than John Doe is now dead.

    John Doe lived until he was 90 years old. Then he continued to live until he was 95.

    I feel cheated.

    A. Excuse me, do you know how to get to the Bijou Theater from here?
    B. No I don’t
    A. Well, you just go three blocks straight ahead, turn right, and you’ll see it.

    B had a right to expect that A was asking directions, not giving them.

    What would you mean to convey in saying Beowulf was a past thing? Why would you choose was over is? What do you want to say in either case?
     
    Last edited:

    lucas-sp

    Senior Member
    English - Californian
    One of the most important rules in rhetoric is "Don't frustrate your listener." srk's advice in post #23 is important.

    I don't know what "Beowulf is/was a past thing" is supposed to mean. Does it mean that "The saga of Beowulf was written in the past"?

    On the other hand, to get to your question:
    But in English isn't it the fact that, even when we use the past tense to refer to something, it doesn't mean the opposite of the statement exists now?
    Sure. But using the past tense does imply that an event ended at some point in the past. If I say "Blue was my favorite color as a child" you would expect that at some point I chose a new favorite color, but I could for instance say "Blue was my favorite color as a child, but in my twenties I became obsessed with green. Now, however, I've rediscovered the beauty of blue."

    If you want to talk about a past event that began in the past but has continued until the present without a break, you would use the present continuous.

    These are very broad hints for usage.
     
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