Thursday, 6 October 2011

Tense times (2)

In “Tense Times (1)” last week we saw that sentences like the following, which contain verbs that look like past tense verbs, clearly envisage some future events:

(1)     Isn’t it time we went to Durban again?
(2)     If we all took responsibility for keeping our own pavements clean in the next few weeks, we could transform our city.

This shows us that some verb forms are largely neutral with respect to time and may be used in sentences with different time implications. Here are three more cases of what may appear to be a confusion of tenses and time references, yet yield perfectly acceptable English sentences:

– Using “present tense” verbs to speak about events that took place in the past, e.g.:

So John goes home and sees Sue mowing the lawn. And John says to Sue, “What’s the catch?” And Sue says … etc.

– Using what appear to be present tense forms to refer to the future, e.g.:

(a) This week the circus is in Durban; next week it moves to Empangeni.
(b) Next year sees the introduction of a new tax system.
(c) Tomorrow we start the process all over again.

– Using what appears to be a past tense verb (was) to refer to a present state of affairs, e.g.:

Is he a lawyer? I thought he was a doctor.

It is important to understand that there is a difference between the form of something and its function. For example, I could own a Toyota Hilux (form), which does not necessarily make me a taxi owner – I may use the vehicle purely for family transport (function). In the same way went (form) may function as a past tense verb, or it may function as something else altogether.

In “foreign language” courses (e.g. German and Latin) the names and functions of verb forms are carefully and explicitly taught. In such courses one learns, for example, that went and took in sentences (1) and (2) above are not “past tenses”, but so-called subjunctives that happen to look like past tense verbs. It’s a great pity that these things are no longer explicitly taught and discussed in English classes. If they were, then perhaps more teachers would be able to provide enquiring students with coherent explanations regarding apparent anomalies in the use of English verb forms.   – ws –

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