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I was wondering how the ta form is viewed in japanese. I know that in the west one learns that it s the past tense for verbs etc. However there are certain things I can t wrap my head around. For example the grammar form:[ ~ ta hou ga ii ] to give advise. Another example is its use in if/when: [ ~ taRA, ... ]. Or [~ ta mama ...]. What is the connection here to the past tense ? Maybe I dont understand what hou really means.

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    Maybe it will help to realize that in English, there are expressions that use the Simple Past but it is not in the past. In English, it is correct to say "It is high time XXX V-ed," and not "It is high time XXX V." For example, it's high time the class started, but not it's high time the class starts. Here we're saying it's a good time for the class to start, but the class did not start in the past.
    – David X
    Jun 13 at 19:32
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    I think it's helpful to understand that verbs in た-form represent a completed action. This action can be completed in any time period, not limited to the past.
    – Jimmy Yang
    Jun 13 at 20:26
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I’m a native speaker and I don’t particularly see it as the past form of a verb in those expressions. Having said that, I think I can try to provide some analysis as to why the so-called "past" tense is used in them, perhaps taking the risk of over-analysis.

Among those, 〜たら seems the easiest to explain. It's because by the time the act or event of the main clause (after たら) happens, the act or event of the subordinate clause (before たら) has already happened. That’s pretty much the definition of 〜たら. It is only natural that this idea is expressed with the "past" tense in a language whose tense system is relative, such as Japanese.

〜たまま can be understood in a similar way. For something to be left in a particular state, the act that results in that state has to have been completed by then. For example, a door can become 開けたまま only after the act of 開ける is completed.

〜た[方]{ほう}がいい is a bit tricky. It could be that the speaker is imagining a situation where the act or event of the verb has been completed in order to assess its result in comparison to other alternatives. Actually, 〜する方がいい is also grammatical. It just sounds like the speaker is stating their own preference in general terms, rather than giving advice about a specific situation. If it is used to give advice, the speaker would sound a bit self-righteous as if they are forcing their own opinion upon others. 〜た方がいい, on the other hand, talks about a specific situation, just like 〜たら.

Of course, native speakers don’t think about these things when we speak.

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  • ~た方がいい might be related to counterfactual meaning. Both Japanese and English use past tense for that. But I'm not sure, because the idea of that is to give advise. Maybe it's more indirect way similar to "it will be good if you do this" and "it would be good if you could do". Jun 13 at 21:39
  • @InTheProgress: Why the past tense is used in a counterfactual statement in English (and other European languages) is also an interesting topic, although it would be off-topic here.
    – aguijonazo
    Jun 14 at 1:24
  • @InTheProgress Technically, it's not the past tense being used in counterfactuals. It's the subjunctive. However, the few remaining forms of the subjunctive look a lot like the past. Linguistically the two forms (past and subjunctive) derive off of similar verbal roots/stems so constructions like "If I were you" or "Were he here now" are subjunctive, not past. After all, the past would be "I was" or "He was". However, the subjunctive mood is nearly gone as now. You're far more likely to hear the formerly ungrammatical "If I was older" instead of "If I were older".
    – A.Ellett
    Jun 14 at 3:23
  • If you look at Indo-European languages that still have a strong use of the subjunctive, this difference between the subjunctive and the imperfect is easier to see. And the older you dig into Indo-European roots, the more pronounced the difference is: particularly if you look at a language like Sanskrit.
    – A.Ellett
    Jun 14 at 3:25
  • @A.Ellett: But isn’t it past subjunctive? In Spanish, for example, the “were” in “If I were you” would be the past (or imperfect) subjunctive “fuera”, not the present subjunctive “sea”. Why the time is back-shifted still seems an interesting topic. Off-topic, though.
    – aguijonazo
    Jun 14 at 3:55

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