The Past Simple and Present Continuous Walk into a Bar. It was Tense.

This is a summary of a DELTA session I did recently introducing the notion that time and tense may not actually be the same thing. It largely follows Michael Lewis’ The English Verb, which comes highly recommended, and I touch on aspect at the end.

How Many Tenses Does English Have?

This may seem like quite a tricky question to answer, if you start counting all those coursebook tenses up: present simple, present continuous, past perfect… However, it’s actually much simpler than that. English has but a mere two tenses, which are present (or non-past) and past. This assertion may seem surprising, but should become clearer as you read on.

The reason that English is said to have two tenses is the definition of grammatical tense which, according to Lewis in The English Verb, involves “a morphological change in the base form of the verb” (p50). You can see why this limits English to two tenses if you then try to work out what morphological changes are permitted in English verbs. Take the verb say”, for example. In the present we can say “he says”, while in the past “he said”. However, for the future, we have to add something else, we can’t simply express futurity with a change to the verb and get examples such as “I’m going on holiday with Marion Cotillard next week” or “I’ll say yes when Marion proposes”.  Other languages, such as the Romance languages, have a conjugation to express futurity cf. “je dirais” in French or “yo diré” in Spanish, where there is a morphological change in the infinitives “dire” and “decir” (other ways of referencing the future can also be used).

Only 2 Tenses, But Time?

Of course, we have more than two ways of thinking about time. In the West, we’d probably say that time is conceived of in terms of the past, the present and the future (that said, Steven Pinker’s idea of our core notion of time in The Stuff of Thought is “before-or-after” and “at-the-same-time” (p 85), which is more or less the same idea, I guess, though I’m straying a bit from the point here). Thinking of past, present or future gives us three notions of time, but only two tenses, and so leads to the conclusion that time ≠ tense. After all, time is a semantic notion, whereas tense is grammatical. They can certainly correlate, as when I say “I hung out with Marion yesterday”, where I am clearly using the past tense to reference past time. However, consider the following and think about the tense being used and the time being talked about

  • “If I went for a drink with Marion Cotillard, we’d talk about the English tense system”
  • “So I go to meet Marion and she says to me ‘let’s talk tenses’”

In the first one, we have the past tense (went) but referring to a hypothetical present or future; in the second sentence, we have the present tense (go, says) referring to past time (I’m narrating a past event here). Indeed the present and the past tense can each be used to refer to past, present or future time. Another example of seemingly strange present tense referring to past time occurs in sentences like

  • “Marion Cotillard marries Chris”? [as a newspaper headline]

The event clearly happened in the past, but is referred to using a present tense.

Distance Relatives

Great, huh? It’s a total mess. Why is English so complicated? It’s ok, take a breath, breathe, there’s some underlying logic at work here. Following Lewis, this underlying logic is that of remoteness (or “distance” as Alex Tilbury labels it in IH LAC). If we look at some of our sentences from above again, this becomes clearer

  • “I hung out with Marion yesterday”
  • “If I went for a drink with Marion Cotillard”

In the first, there is temporal distance; that is to say, the past tense is used to show that the event happened at a point in past time remote from now, in this case “yesterday”. In the second sentence, the distance here is from reality: I use the past tense to show that I am not talking about reality, that I am distancing what I say from it and thus dealing in hypotheticals. Now think about the following sentence

  • “Could you pass me the claret, Marion?”

Here, “could” is seen as the past of “can” and is used to create a social distance between the speaker and the listener, which is interpreted as a more polite way of asking this question as it’s seen as less direct.

So, we can conclude that when the past tense is used, it’s because of one of the three types of distance that we wish to express, namely temporal, hypothetical or social. The present tense would be used in all other cases and for this reason is also called the “non-past” by some. This helps explain the seemingly odd “Marion marries Chris” on a newspaper headline – the present tense is employed to make the event seem less remote and more urgent now, which is what the headline writer would try to do to capture the reader’s attention. The same could be said of the present tense being used in narratives, making the events being described more urgent for the listener or reader and thus keeping them on the edge of their seats, so to speak.

What distance is being employed in the following sentences?

  1. “What was the name, please?” [said by a receptionist in a doctor’s]
  2. “Jessica got a job in Turkey the a couple of weeks ago”
  3. “I wish Marion was reading this”

The answers are that the first is social, then temporal and finally hypothetical (she isn’t reading this, is she?). The last one, though, is different in another way too as the verb form isn’t simple.

That’s only one aspect of it

Ok, so two tenses which can be used to refer to the past, present or future. But what about the present perfect or the present continuous, I hear you cry? Well, these are examples of the present tense in conjunction with another grammatical concept known as aspect. Grammatical aspect is the speaker’s use of auxiliaries, affixes, etc. in the verb phrase to indicate their interpretation of events, such as whether the event is perceived as a completed or in progress. Take our sentence from above, for example:

  • “I wish Marion was reading this”

This would be analysed as the past tense with the progressive aspect to give a verb form described as the ‘past continuous’. As another example, the ‘present continuous’ would be the present tense combined with the progressive aspect, as in

  • “Marion is enjoying my blog posts”

English has two aspects, progressive (continuous) and perfect. The perfect shows “the relationship between one state or event and a later state, event, or time” (p391), while the progressive “indicates that an action is incomplete, in progress, or developing” (p427) (both quotations from the Longmann Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics ). Scott Thornbury has a couple of good videos discussing these in more detail on his blog here

Let’s take the progressive as an illustrative example. We form this by using auxiliary be and the –ing form of the verb:

  • “Marion is enjoying my blog posts”

If the auxiliary is in the present tense (is, in the previous example), then we have the present continuous; if, on the other hand, it is in the past, as in

  • “I wish Marion was reading this”

then we have the past continuous. Here, both examples probably indicate that the events in question were in progress (enjoying, reading), and so I use the continuous to express this. Compare

  • “Marion enjoys my blog posts”

This indicates that I see this as a timeless fact, that it isn’t temporary or in progress, and so I use an unmarked simple verb form. So, if we unpack all the meaning from “I wish Marion was reading this”, we see that the past tense is used to show hypothetical distance and the progressive aspect employed to indicate an unfolding event in progress. Note that it now seems natural that the past tense would be used after “wish”, as this automatically triggers a sense of hypothetically (you could look up colligation here too, which is the grammar that certain lexis triggers i.e. past tense after wish structures)

And with that, I’m off down the pub. If Marion weren’t so hypothetical,  she’d be present too.


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