In this comprehension passage that I'm reading about figurative speech, I came across this sentence:


Why is 使う in past tense here? Not only in this sentence, but throughout the comprehension passage and its questions, "phrases that use animals" also use the past tense. Surely animals are still "used" today in speech right? Edit: Sorry I blatantly mistook 「た」as past tense. Please teach me what it otherwise stands for.

I asked my teacher about this, and while she said both 動物を使った言い方 and 動物を使う言い方 are grammatically correct, she added that 使った is more common (but never explained).

Why is this so?

  • Why call it "past tense"? Just because you see a 「た」? If so, why do English-speakers say "I am married." using "ed" when clearly talking about the present?
    – user4032
    Commented Feb 7, 2016 at 6:08
  • I am afraid I honestly have no idea about this, which is why I posted this question. I'll edit my question to call it 「た」-form then? Commented Feb 7, 2016 at 6:10
  • @l'électeur "married" is a past participle. But English lost many the rich variety of participle forms, and now only two (past and present) perform all the work. The past participle is past only in name, the form is also "perfect" and as such is suitable for expressing states of being that continue into the present, such as being married.
    – A.Ellett
    Commented Feb 7, 2016 at 17:29
  • This is an area where Indo-European is rich in tenses and Japanese in aspect. The た form often corresponds to English past tense when talking about everyday events. But it also corresponds to the use of the present form for verbs in English when referring to things that are outside the temporal realm. That's the situation in the sentence above. In English we would say "expressions which use animals" but we're not really talking about present. We're describing something true about "expressions". I would recommend listening carefully and learning these situations on a case by case basis.
    – A.Ellett
    Commented Feb 7, 2016 at 17:44

2 Answers 2


Why do we prefer た form here? It's because those animals are familiar and easy to concretely imagine.

non-た form represents that something has not happened yet but is going to happen. On the other hand, た form represents that something has happened. In short, non-た form feels obscure while た form feels more vivid.

For example, when you pull up a fish, you first yell "いる いる!" when you sense some response or see an obscure shadow, then yell "いた いた!" when you confirm a shape of the fish.


The verbal auxiliary た represents past and completion and this た is used as completion.

As your teacher says, I think 使った言い方 is more common. And た which means completion can be used for a future thing. For example, 来週の金曜日に、仕事が終わったら、お酒を飲みましょう (Let's drink after work next Friday).

  • Thanks for the answer. But why is there a need to express completion in my example? (for "to use"?) I can't wrap my head around having to "'complete' using animals in speech" either. Commented Feb 7, 2016 at 7:16
  • I think 使った言い方 have a nuance like the way of saying which have used animals. Commented Feb 7, 2016 at 7:23

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