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So I was always taught in my textbooks that the last verb in a sentence dictates the whole tense of the sentence, e.g:

神戸に行って、映画を見ました。
I WENT to Kobe and WATCHED a movie.

However, I've started these examples and now I'm confused:

テレビはAl Goreによって発明されて、今世界中で楽しまれています。
The television WAS created by Al Gore and IS enjoyed all over the world.

眠り猫は眠っている猫の彫刻で、左甚五郎が彫りました。
The sleeping cat IS a carving of a cat asleep and Hidari Jingoro CREATED it.

Does this mean the tense of the first て form sometimes has to be inferred from the context?

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The tense of the final verb does not always dictate the tense of an earlier て form, but it inferred from context.

Very often, the tense of the て form verb does match the tense of the verb at the end of the sentence, but context is key. You can think of the て form as having neutral tense, as its tense is always dependent on the rest of the sentence.

Looking at your examples:

テレビはAl Goreによって発明されて、今世界中で楽しまれています。

We know that television has already been invented, so the only sensible interpretation of this is that it happened in the past. The 楽しまれています doesn't force a present tense.

眠り猫は眠っている猫の彫刻で、左甚五郎が彫りました。

If we can assume that the carving still exists, then the present tense is the only sensible understanding. However, if it had been established that the carving had been destroyed, then in English we'd have used the past tense. In reality, Japanese does care about the tense here; you can't really say that the で has a tense. You have to give it one in an English translation, but don't put too much weight on the translation in determining the meaning in Japanese.

In your first sentence, you can use time words to put the て verb into the past. It's not the most natural sentence, but it makes sense.

昨日神戸に行って、明日映画を見ます。

Yesterday I went to Kobe, and tomorrow I'll watch a film.

Note how it changes the nuance as well, though. In your sentence, the implication is that you watched a film in Kobe, now it sounds as though it was a day trip.

I have read that in good Japanese prose, the て form should be used sparingly to join sentences, because it robs the writer of defining the connection between them. A conjunction would remove any ambiguity.

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    A conjunction would remove any ambiguity. example? using the kobe example. – frei Nov 9 '18 at 1:32
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    This is what I guessed when I read these sentences in my textbook, as it's the only logical meaning but... I don't understand why this was never mentioned. All my textbooks/sources just say "the last verb in the sentence dictates the tense" so that's why I was a little confused. – Jay Lean Nov 9 '18 at 2:56
  • @JayLean Yeah, your textbooks are definitely oversimplifying. Honestly, the best way to think about it is that て has no tense at all, not that it somehow 'receives' tense from somewhere, and that 'tense' for verbs with て only comes into the picture when you start trying to translate into something other than Japanese. – Sjiveru Nov 9 '18 at 9:09
  • I understand the events connected by the て form as either concurrent or happening in order, and when we're talking about states and not events, the states are concurrent and can't be opposites. This way, the tense of the last phrase indeed determines the tenses of the previous phrases, but it doesn't have to be the same. – Arie Nov 9 '18 at 9:09
  • @frei: you could use けれど, ので, なのに, etc. The conjunction changes the meaning and also forces the first part of the sentence to be explicit with its tense. Or use そして if you really only want to emphasise 'and'. – brownsardine Nov 9 '18 at 11:50

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