Q: My friend from Brooklyn says things like “I’ve been eating pizza since I’m 5.” I’ve also heard this “since I’m” usage on “Sex and the City” and “Howard Stern.” Now I seem to hear it from anyone raised in New York City. What’s up with this?
A: Your friend’s statement (“I’ve been eating pizza since I’m 5”) isn’t standard English. The sequence of tenses is out of whack.
What’s called for in the second part of the sentence is a past or perfect tense (“since I was five” or “since I’ve been 5”), not the present (“since I’m five”).
This usage is off-kilter, but it’s not an unusual mistake. The first clause (“I’ve been eating pizza”) involves a perfect tense, and perfect tenses are often difficult when we combine them with other tenses.
The perfect tenses – those that use some form of “have” as a helping or auxiliary verb – describe actions that begin in the past and continue forward.
The present perfect extends from the past into the present (“I have eaten”), and the past perfect extends from the past into a more recent past (“I had eaten”). There are also progressive forms of each tense: “I have (or had) been eating.”
When we combine a clause like this with one starting with “since” (or “ever since”) plus a time element, that time element has to include time that has passed.
That’s why, according to the grammatical conventions of modern English, the “since” clause should be in a past or perfect tense, NOT in the simple present tense.
Why do so many people use the present tense with such “since” clauses? Some language scholars have suggested that a German influence may sometimes be at work here.
In a 1935 article in the journal American Speech, George G. Struble reported a similar regional usage among the so-called Pennsylvania Dutch, who often use “since I’m” in place of “since I’ve been.”
The Pennsylvania Dutch, by the way, aren’t actually of Dutch origin; they’re descendants of Germans who immigrated in Colonial times.
Such speakers, Struble found, commonly use sentences like “This is the first time it’s happened since I’m here.”
Another scholar, R. Whitney Tucker, wrote in 1934 in the journal Language that the “Pennsylvania Dutch are quite unable to grasp the tense-system of the English verb.”
“Action begun in the past but continuing in the present requires in German the present tense, in English the perfect or perfect ‘progressive,’ ” he added. “The Dutch often follow the German usage: the first time since I’m here, instead of since I’ve been here.”
Whether German-influenced or not, the use of “since I’m” instead of “since I’ve been” (or “since I was”) isn’t unusual in the eastern US. However, I don’t recall hearing it in the Midwest, where I grew up.
I hope this sheds some light on an imperfect usage.