Monday, 7 November 2011

Tense is Time !!

Grade school is where we learn how to parse a sentence and define the parts of speech. We were taught that the action word in speech is called a verb and that verbs contain not only info about the action as such but also indicate the timeframe in which it happens , whether it be the present , past or future. Linguistically speaking we call this grammatical time "tense". All languages reflect and inflect these three tenses in one way or the other .... many even having subdivisions of each ....... even the present tense as shown in the English ongoing present " he is reading a book" versus the habitual present " he reads three books a month" versus the present subjunctive "it is important he read at least three books a month" ...... plus the present of rapid action where the action happens so quickly one cannot use the ongoing present form .... "he shoots , he scores!" or " he swings and misses!" Ooops! .... I almost forgot the cereonial present ..... used when describing an event which has (written) rules of behaviour for the main actors ..... such as for the liturgy of the Catholic Mass where the TV narrator would say , " the priest now turns, faces the faithful , blesses them and says "Ite , missa est" ....

Whether it be "Let bygones be bygones" or the idiom "It's all water under the bridge" ..... both expressions make reference to the past ...... as do all languages in the structural or morphological make-up of their verbal systems. First of all there is the simple present or often called the preterite , " He milked the cows". Now should we have two actions or events in the past one of which preceded the other then the former is said to be in an ideal "pluperfect" situation .... grammatically speaking that is ! "After he had fed the chickens , he milked the cows". Feeding the chickens took place before .... was anterior to .... milking the cows .... so therefore , "had fed" is the pluperfect tense of the verb "feed". Some languages ( French and Italian ) even boast having two pretrites .... one more informal or colloquial ( yet correct ) composed of either of the auxiliary verbs "to have " or "to be" plus the past participle of the targetted verb .... the other more classical and often named the historical or remote past tense ..... the latter being highly inflected for all persons both in the singular and in the plural. An ongoing or incomplet action in the past when  expessed linguistically is referred to as being in the imperfect tense ... "I was feeding the chickens when the rooster crowed". The imperfect may likewise connote repeted or habitual past actions ...... " On y allait souvent" ou " Pendant ma jeunesse je dormais souvent chez ma tante Claire".

Now for the future .... time still moving toward us in the present and our attempt to place and describe "potential" actions that may or my not take place within that framework  ..... something like spending money we don't yet have but , given our present salary , all looks rosy for future purchases. There are three types of future or "tense gymnastics" in the future for English ...... the simple future , " I shall mow the lawn this evening". ...... the ongoing or progressive future , " I shall be mowing the lawn when you get here". ...... and the future perfect ( something like the pluperfect  , but applied to future action ) , " I shall have finished mowing the lawn by the time you get here". In English as in other Indo-European languages we use helper or auxiliary verbs "be" and "have"as well as such "helper" words as "shall and will" to assist in harnessing this movement called time by converting it linguistically into understandable units ... i.e. , ongoing , before and after, incomplete , past and present. And time marches on ......

No discussion about time , tense , past and present .... ongoing or static ... would be thorough without mentioning the monkey on every English learner's back..... the past present tense , either progressive or factual. This is a verb tense which combines , includes and portrays both past and present time as being ONE happening ... ONE action. It covers an act which began in the past and continues on into the present and the speaker may accentuate the fact or may wish not only to state the fact but also put emphasis on its ongoing , active nature. Thus ... I have worked here for three years ( statement of fact ) or I have been working here for three years ( statement of fact plus still ongoing ) .... Translating this sentence into French we would write , " Je travaille ici depuis trois ans". The word "travaille" is in the present indicative tense ... and does not express any past occurence. The past ... "trois ans" or "three years" is rendered by the preposition " depuis " ( for , since ) and is in no way included in the verb. The past present is particular to the English language ...... and mastery of this tense is essential for all those laying claim to advanced knowledge of the language.

1 comment:

  1. These are such brilliant posts, and they should have more exposure!