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“I haven’t known”

A friend and I were having a discussion. The question asked was: what is the meaning of “I haven’t known?” If it’s even correct to say such a thing, which I suspect it is. I have a vague notion in older English usage of “I have known various women” and the negative of that, etc.

My friend was trying to ask me if it’s possible with that statement to indicate that something was not known at a point in the past, but is known in the present.

The example: Person A: Did you hear that Henry’s car is broken? Person B: I haven’t known.

Does such a thing make sense? Why or why not?

Any help in the explanation of this would be appreciated.

  • June 18, 2008
  • Posted by tom
  • Filed in Usage

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Regarding: "...if it's even correct to say such a thing...", Yes, it's perfectly correct to say "I haven't known." It's an example of the present perfect simple tense. Of course, it's the negation.

Regarding: "...if it's possible with that statement to indicate that something was not known at a point in the past, but is known in the present." This isn't the case. Actually, exactly the opposite is true. The present perfect is used to describe things in the past that are still true in the present or may be in the future (or, in the negation, things that were untrue that are still untrue).

If you wanted to indicate that something was true in the past but is no longer true (or the negation, something was not true in the past but is now true), then you would just use the simple past tense.

As Janet already pointed out, your example doesn't work very well. Here, the simple past tense should be used. In the negative, it's "I didn't know." However, using "I hadn't known" would not be correct in this particular example. It has nothing to do being "hypercorrect". "I hadn't known" is the past perfect simple tense. It means that in the past, you did not know, then, at a later time, but still in the past, you did know. For example, a response of "I hadn't known until Bill told me earlier today" would be ok.

Some more examples:

Simple past tense:

"I knew Bill" means in the past I knew Bill, but don't know him any more. maybe we lost touch or he died or something. If I still knew him, I'd just say "I know Bill".

In the negative,

"I didn't know Bill" means the opposite. I didn't know him, but now I do.

Present perfect simple tense:

"I have known Bill for a long time" means I knew him before and I still know him now.

"I haven't known anyone who can make good pizza at home" means I never personally knew anyone who could make good homemade pizza, and still don't know anyone who can.

Also note, the verb "to know" has many different meanings. I'm sure there might be examples, especially colloquial ones, that don't fit these definitions very well.

porsche July 2, 2008, 1:32pm

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Does not work in this context. Either "I hadn't known" which sounds hypercorrect or "I didn't know" work. Response has to be in the past tense (hadn't or didn't) because in the present tense, now that you have told me it is broken, I do know.

Janet July 1, 2008, 5:44am

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I second porsche's explanation. I would also note that in porsche's last example ("I haven't known anyone who can make good pizza at home"), it's more common in American usage to say "I have never known," an expression that works the same way grammatically.

It's not uncommon to see this tense used to refer to one's state of mind during a period in the past, as in: "There have been times when I haven't known what to do." The simple past is better here ("There were times when I didn't know what to do.").

An interesting case is when you're using the verb to mean "to know [a person]." It's perfectly correct to say, for example, "I haven't known you long enough to guess your political views." I think this is unique to English, as other languages I know have separate verbs for "to know [a fact]" and "to know [a person]."

evaughan August 14, 2008, 7:43am

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Such an expression is common among native speakers of German. In German the present perfect is always the preferred usage in conversation over the "simple" past. I suspect it is more abundant in archaic English.

wkerby July 12, 2008, 8:29am

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The most natural reply would be: "No, I didn't know that." The reply you give is just not normal usage. English makes a difference between knowing something (i.e. already having the information) and discovering something (acquiring the information), whereas other languages often do not. "Sapere" in Italian, for instance, can cover both meanings.

r.carruthers November 30, 2008, 3:47am

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