Warning: I have no background in linguistics, I just had a question that I thought of today.

I wrote this to someone: "I think old women from the 60's put their cigarettes in it."

And I was thinking about the sentence more and I was confused on a few things.

I'm saying that old women from the 60's used to put their cigarettes in it.

But it's not that they used to put their cigarettes in it and now they don't, it's just that they're dead. but from the structure of the sentence alone, what if someone couldn't infer that if they were old in the 60's they'd likely be dead now? So then they're left imagining that some ancient woman is choosing to not put the cigarettes in it.

When I actually say this out loud, the different kinds of emphasis on the word "put" is what makes me be able to figure out what tense I'm speaking about. Is this just me imagining something or is there some linguistic basis for it. Is it just a matter of incorrect grammar?

I could say "I think old women from the 60's used to put their cigarettes in it when they were alive" or something like that to clarify it but I just wanted to know if I had a valid question on not.

  • 2
    I'm not sure I understand what you're asking. Put is one of a number of English verbs whose present and past tense forms are identical (except in the third-person singular, puts vs. put). So yes, the sentence is ambiguous in that respect. – TKR Dec 29 '18 at 5:31
  • Languages have many potential or actual ambiguities. If they are important, they tend not to last - somehow the language changes to elminitate the ambiguity. But minor ambiguities often persist. Writing is an imperfect technology for representing language: it does not normally convey some of the mechanisms we use to resolve potential ambiguities. Conversely (in English in particular), writing sometimes makes distinctions that are completely absent in the spoken language; for example, homographs (eg red vs read) and apostrophies. – Colin Fine Dec 30 '18 at 20:32

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