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Grammatically Speaking
by T. Leo Schmitt

If you have a question for Grammatically Speaking, please send it to GrammaticallySpeaking@tesol.org. We welcome all types of language questions.

Dear TESOL Connections,

I'm an English teacher from Vietnam but still find myself confused about this language construct myself. Could you help me explain to my students?

I see "until" in constructions like this: I can't leave until 8 pm.

I'm pretty sure the above means "I can't leave right now, but I can when it's 8 pm." But "until now" is so confusing to me. When we say, “Until now, I haven't found a house”
OR “I haven't found a house until now,” what exactly does that mean?

  1. I haven't found a house and still haven't, up to this point.
  2. I haven't found a house recently, but now I have. (Seems consistent with the "until 8 pm" example)

Will it make a difference if we say, “So far, I haven't found a house”?

A detailed reply would be appreciated.

Regards,
Toan

Dear Toan,

You pose an interesting question. Different languages approach the concept of time with different understandings and different emphases on the subtleties of time. The differences between so far and until now are part of how English expresses some of these temporal questions.

Traditional Grammatical Explanation
As you note, until can take a time (e.g., 8 pm). It can also take a clause (subject and verb) as in “Everton defender Sylvain Distin says he would love to be able to play until he is 65.” It means an action either does not or cannot start up to the time or when the clause occurs, as in your example, “I can't leave until 8 pm,” or will continue up to the point where it stops, as in “It's real simple: We're going to give him the ball until he throws up.” The use of the negative is generally the indicator of whether it is the former or the latter. Negative means that it does not start before the time/clause coming after until. Affirmative means that it will stop after the until time/clause.

Until now is an interesting phrase as it generally indicates a change has just happened (i.e., now). So far, on the other hand, indicates that a state or action has been continuing over a period of time, but without any implication that there has been a change. Because of this, so far will often be used with verbs in the present or present perfect form such as “So far he has saved $35 and the player costs $129.” In this example, he is still saving money and hopes to be able to buy the player in the future. Until now, on the other hand, will often appear with verbs in some kind of past form as in “Her Daughter Is Her Life, And Until Now She Didn't Have A Way To Protect It.” In this case, there has been a change, and now she can protect her daughter. With the decline of the past perfect, the preterite, or simple past, has become most expected. However, see language notes below for an important discussion on variations in the meaning of until now.

Teaching Tips
One way to express the difference between these two concepts is to set up a classroom exercise where students are in a certain (contextually appropriate) situation. For example, you could say that they were all poor farmers. Then an event occurs, such as a bountiful harvest. Some situations would change with more food and money, so they could generate phrases such as “Until now, I couldn’t afford to buy a second cow” (i.e., after the bountiful harvest, I can), while others would still not change, but may change in the future; for instance, “So far, I still cannot afford to buy a tractor” (i.e., I still need a few more good harvests).

Language Notes
A significant part of the confusion with the phrase until now comes from the fact that some speakers of English do use until now with a meaning of so far (i.e., things have not changed at this point in time). In your example, “I haven’t found a house until now,” this may be the better reading as it uses the present perfect, indicating that things could change, but they have not yet done so. It is also quite possible that this is nonnative speech as the use of until now as so far does not seem to be particularly widespread. It will, however, be an interesting usage to watch as it develops (or does not). Another example is “Until now I still use Windows XP.” Here the use of still indicates that there has not been a change, but rather this use is continuing. I would read that sentence then as meaning “So far, I still use Windows XP.” This convergence of two separate meanings into a single meaning naturally causes problems in clarity. This is perhaps one reason why many grammarians get upset with nonmainstream uses.

It is interesting to note that until now is nowhere near as common as so far and is a comparatively recent expression. 

As an English teacher it is useful to remember that until is associated with certain kinds of verbs. The verb in the main clause is usually a verb that occurs over time, while the verb in the until clause happens all of a sudden. Thus we can say "Bend It Until It Breaks!" but we would not really say “Break it until it bends!” because bending tends to occur over time, while breaking often implies brevity.

Note also that there are other uses of so far. These include the sense of to a limited extent, as in “So far as I know” which is a variation of as far as I know. So far can also appear as part of the so+adj+that structure as in “Shorten falls so far that Labor will listen for a splash.” 

Last Month’s Brain Teaser
Look at the two sentences below. What traditional rule of grammar do they both appear to violate? How would you explain this to an English learner?

  1. Mary is loving her experience on The X Factor, but had trouble with Louis' choice of song for her this week, and has been forced to change her song at the last minute.”
  2. For the last two years, my grandmother has been hearing this loud noise in her head almost continually.”

Dear Mr. Schmitt,
 
Both sentences use stative verbs (love and hear) in the progressive form, something we usually tell students is against the rules. However, the progressive form is often used to indicate a temporary or non-permanent state of affairs which may change in the future:
 
I live in Massachusetts but I’m staying with some friends in California this week.
She is working as a waitress at a cocktail bar until she gets a big music contract.
 
Similarly, Mary is loving her experience on The X Factor now, but we suspect that she will blow this week’s song thanks to Louis. If that happens, she will probably no longer be loving her time. “Mary is loving her experience” indicates a (possibly) temporary state of affairs. And in fact being a contestant on the X-Factor is itself a temporary state of affairs. Using a non-progressive verb: “Mary loves her experience on X-Factor” makes it sound as if she works there permanently.
 
My grandmother’s hearing of this noise is also not permanent. It started two years ago. We certainly hope she will see a doctor soon and get it fixed. But more importantly, her hearing of the noise is continuous, which is another meaning of the progressive (or continuous) form of the verb. Saying she has heard noises in her head can mean that she has heard it twice in the past two years. The use of the progressive here makes it clear that she has been hearing this noise pretty much every day all day for the past two years.
 
Actually, I prefer not to tell my students that there are stative and dynamic verbs precisely because it leads to extremist rules such as “I’m loving it” is an evil sentence that must be wiped from the planet!
 
Best,
Walton Burns, Branford CT

Thank you, Mr. Burns. This is a good answer. Some books and teachers say that “stative” verbs should only be used in the simple, and only dynamic (or “action”) verbs can be used in the progressive (or continuous). In fact, data shows that such “rules” are at best tendencies, and sometimes not even that. If “I’m loving it” is wiped from the planet, it probably should not be for grammatical reasons.

This Month’s Brain Teaser
Look at the two sentences below. What traditional rule of grammar do they both appear to violate? How would you explain this to an English learner?

  1. "[W]hat’s more sad on NPR this morning: a story on villages infested with tuberculosis in Tajikistan who refuse to believe the disease is spread through airborne contact, assuming it is cold water that causes it or interviews with fangirls at the red carpet premiere of the Lone Ranger who believe that the movie will be a good history lesson?
  2. Bragging is cool but bragging with evidence is more cool.”

The best correct answer will be published in the next column of Grammatically Speaking.
Please e-mail your responses to GrammaticallySpeaking@tesol.org.

____________________

When writing to Grammatically Speaking, please include your name and location (city and state, province, or country). If your question or response is selected for publication, your name and location will be printed unless you specify otherwise.

Examples cited in this column are authentic examples of language use and are not the author’s creations.

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