Every now and then, a perplexing grammar question is posed to me by an unlikely reader from an unlikely place in the world. Here’s one such question e-mailed to me a few days ago by an English teacher in Iran whom I’ll identify here only as FH:
“Suppose that I sent you an e-mail but you haven’t answered it yet. Now, you want to answer it. Which of the sentences below would you use at the beginning of your reply, A or B? Please explain why.
“(A) ‘Farhad, I apologize to you for not having responded to your e-mail sooner.’
“(B) ‘Farhad, I apologize to you for not responding to your e-mail sooner.’
“I look forward to hearing from you.”
My reply to FH:
I must admit that I puzzled over your grammar question for quite a while before composing this answer.
My opinion is that since the act of answering the e-mail is being done at the very moment of writing the reply, the perfectly grammatical answer to your question is Sentence A: “Farhad, I apologize to you for not having responded to your e-mail sooner.”
What we have here is a sentence that uses the so-called perfect participle to express a state (or an action) as just finished right before another action is consummated. The earlier state in such sentences is denoted by the perfect participle form “having + past participle of the verb,” which in this case is the negative verb phrase “not having responded”—meaning a state that was subsisting until the action was taken by the writer to apologize.
This answer, of course, immediately brings up the question of why Sentence B couldn’t be the answer: “Farhad, I apologize to you for not responding to your email sooner.” As you know, this other sentence uses the negative present participle form “not responding”—meaning an action not done until sometime in the past before the later action (the action taken by the writer to apologize) took place. The difference is that when the negative present participle is used, a significant length of time had elapsed between the earlier action and the later action. This is in contrast to the negative perfect participle, where a particular state ends or an action is finished right before or while the later action is taking place.
The time that elapses between the earlier action (or state) and a later action could be of any length, of course. In this particular case, a delay of a few days or several weeks in the response to the e-mail would make the intervening time between the two actions significant and a cause for concern. The use of the negative present participle form “not responding” would then be called for: “Farhad, I apologize to you for not responding to your email sooner.” Indeed, it’s more likely for this statement to be made if Farhad had already sent a follow-up e-mail calling attention to the delayed response to his earlier e-mail.
As we all know, however, our perception of the intervening time between two actions is a subjective thing. Depending on our point of view and attitude towards those two actions, that intervening time could seem very long or very short or practically nonexistent. It is when we perceive that intervening time to be unimportant or inconsequential that we are likely to choose—and for good reason—the present participle as a more natural and logical choice for that statement than the perfect participle.
In such situations, in fact, the semantic distinction between the perfect participle and the present participle gets blurred. The two become practically interchangeable in everyday usage, with hardly any perceptible difference in meaning. Sentence B, “Farhad, I apologize to you for not responding to your email sooner,” then becomes a correct and perfectly defensible grammatical construction as well.
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