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In my JLPT practise book, the following exchange between a man and a woman is part of a longer exchange in a listening section:



So, the woman first thanks the man for his efforts at the previous meeting. Then, if I understand correctly, the guy says that if they don't decide the staff for the next one, then it will have gone on long. The tenses don't add up.

I'm confused because he says 次{つぎ}, as if he's talking about the next meeting, but the sentence ends with the past tense, as if he was talking about a previous meeting.

Is the man talking about the next or previous meeting? And what exactly is he saying about it?

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I tried to put together a speculative idea of what it could be for a commented answer, and I'm still having a bit of trouble. Screw it, this one's weird. – Kaji May 28 '14 at 3:48
Or rather at which they were failing to decide who will be the next 役員 and this made it take a lot of time. – virmaior May 28 '14 at 4:02
up vote 4 down vote accepted

There are a couple issues here.

First off, the 次 here is about the next 役員 or board / committee member, not about the next meeting.

the next board member(s) が not decided
it [the meeting] took a really long time

So basically, the man is saying that the last meeting (that the woman mentions) took a really long time, because the meeting couldn't / didn't come to a decision about the next member(s).

There is no mention of the next meeting.

Secondly, Japanese doesn't really have grammatical tense in the same way that English does. (This part is more tangential to your question, so if your eyes glaze over reading this, no worries. :) ) Strictly speaking, grammatical tense is where verbs conjugate depending on the completedness of the action in relation to now. What Japanese has is more specifically grammatical aspect, where verbs conjugate depending on the completedness of the action in relation to the timeframe of the current context. (Read the Aspect vs. tense section for a comparison of the two.)

As such, it's grammatically possible to say things in Japanese like 昨日起きるところで "yesterday just before I wake up" (the context is yesterday, and the speaker, at the point being described, has not yet woken), or 明日あの本を読みきれた後で "tomorrow after I finished reading that book" (the context is tomorrow, and the speaker, at the point being described, will have finished reading). English doesn't work this way, so just translating word-for-word might get you confused. It took me a while to wrap my head around this difference.

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Yes, but I think you can argue that the context is set by the matrix verb. In that sense, the conjugation on the matrix verb is a real tense, not an aspect. E.g. *昨日起きる。 is ungrammatical even if the waking up is taking place in the context of yesterday. It has to be 昨日起きた。, i.e. it is 起きた setting the context, not 昨日. I fully agree with you for non-matrix verbs. – dainichi May 28 '14 at 5:58
I don't have any good examples right to hand, but I recall years ago reading a novel and being puzzled by all these "present tense" verb sentences being used in a paragraph describing something in the past, and not in a dialogue or other context where that might be normal in English. My Japanese tutor at the time explained about aspect and how the overall context would decide the correct verb forms with respect to る vs. た. – Eiríkr Útlendi May 28 '14 at 6:38
Were those somehow qualitatively different from "historical present"/史的現在 which exists in e.g. English as well? – dainichi May 28 '14 at 10:03
1) Historical present -- interesting possibility. It's been a long time and I don't remember the details, but I do recall being puzzled enough by the use of the imperfective (-u) to think now that whatever I saw then, it wasn't anything that had a clear analog in English. 2) Grammatical aspect I think covers the 昨日 起きるところで, in that a) it is indeed grammar that demands this use of the imperfective, and b) while the overall temporal context of the utterance would be set by the matrix verb, as you note, within the limited scope of the ところ phrase, the context is before the speaker wakes. – Eiríkr Útlendi May 28 '14 at 17:06

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