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  1. #11
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    Re: examples of past tense 'might'

    Quote Originally Posted by Tdol View Post
    What about:
    Try as he might, he wasn't able move it.

    Hmm, the more I look at this one, the more baffling it seems.
    Actually, it's quite simply the subjunctive mood. This is one of those fossils, a relic of the much more extensive subjunctive mood that English used to possess: it is akin to "as it were".

    Quote Originally Posted by riverkid View Post
    Remember what it is that we're trying to prove or disprove - "might is the past tense of may".
    As I have pointed out in a different thread, the problem here is that the terminology being used by various people is imprecise and thus open to misinterpretation.

    If we are going to have any kind of debate whatsoever, we need to first agree on what the words we use actually mean.

    So when you say we are trying to prove or disprove that "'might' is the past tense of 'may'", you have to clarify exactly what you mean by the term "past tense".

    I think that many people in this debate are trying to use two different meanings of the term at the same time, and that is where the confusion comes in -- we're talking at cross-purposes with ourselves, let alone with each other.

    In effect, you're trying to use both the popular definition -- that which tells you when an action takes place -- and the technical definition -- which describes the form of a verb -- at the same time, and this is doomed to failure.

    If what you mean is that "might" (and other modals) rarely, if ever, refer to completed actions in the past, you are probably 100% correct. But if what you mean is that "might" is not the past tense form of "may", then you're actually making life a lot more complicated that it already is.

    Consider this example you quoted, riverkid:

    He said that he was going to Tokyo.
    This is an example of what you call "backshifting". You correctly state that the presence of "was" does not indicate that he actually went to Tokyo. However, what it does indicate is that the state described as "is going to Tokyo" is now in the past -- compare with:

    He says that he is going to Tokyo tomorrow.
    The use of the present tense -- even in reported speech -- indicates that the plan is still current, and if you ask him now he will confirm that yes, he is due to go to Tokyo.

    Things do get a little more complicated when modal verbs are concerned, because modal verbs indicate possibility, permission, obligation and related concepts. But consider:

    "I have made a cake."
    He said he had made a cake.

    Pretty simple transformation: we have taken a present tense and made it a past tense. Now consider this parallel example:

    "I may make a cake."
    He said he might make a cake.

    Now, you may object and say that it's possible to say, "He said he may make a cake," but I would then point out that it's equally possible to say, "He said he has made a cake." The difference is that "has" is definite -- we believe him -- while "had" is not so confident -- we are distancing ourselves from this claim.

    And it is this which, in reported speech, past tense forms are used to indicate: "I'm not saying this is true, this is just what was said."

    If you really want to make life horribly complicated for people trying to come to terms with English grammar, you could invent a raft of tenses and moods to cover all eventualities and invent grand-sounding names for them. Imagine...

    will do: future determinate ("I will pass this test!")
    will do: future predictive ("Cameron will be the next Prime Minister.")
    will do: future immediate ("The phone's ringing." -- "I'll answer it!")
    will do: first conditional ("If the sun shines, we'll go outside.")
    will do: present habitual ("She will always sneeze at the most inappropriate of times.")

    ...and we haven't even got to "would" yet, let alone "may" and "might".

    But a past tense form is just that -- a verb's form. It says nothing about the function of that form, it just describes the form. Thus, in a sentence like, "The train arrives in fifty minutes," the verb is in the present tense, but it describes an event that is timetabled for the future.

    In modern English, past tense forms may indicate actions completed in the past, or they may indicate the hypothetical nature of an action. Past tense forms of modal verbs indicate permissions, possibilities and obligations that existed in the past (which is not usually useful), or permissions, possibilities and obligations which are hypothetical, or less likely, in general.

    This is fortunate, because it makes describing things like the transformation of direct speech into indirect speech a lot less complex. The rule is, if you're not 100% sure that the speaker is telling the truth, look for the inflected verb. If it is a present tense form, change it to the past tense form. Watch:

    "I play football."
    He said he played football. (play -> play)

    "I am going on Friday."
    She said she was going on Friday. (is -> was)

    "I have been waiting since 4 o'clock."
    He said he had been waiting since 4 o'clock. (have -> had)

    "I will be there."
    She said she would be there. (will -> would)

    "I may have made a mistake."
    He said he might have made a mistake. (may -> might)

    See how neat this is? See how elegant? True, it's a lot more subtle than that in some cases, but it's a lot easier to teach that way. All you need to do is to separate form from function, and remember the golden rule:

    "Past tense" does not describe when an action takes place -- it describes what a verb looks like; how it is used is a completely different question.

    This is, incidentally, according to the best principles of descriptive grammar.

  2. #12
    MrPedantic is offline Moderator
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    Re: examples of past tense 'might'

    Hello Riverkid

    I'm sorry to add a third dialogue to the thread. I'll try to keep it brief.

    <...I see that you're enjoying a sunny day there in your neck of the woods...>
    It's increasingly common these days. Disconcerting for us damp crepuscular English folk.

    <...Whatever she used was at least complete, if in fact she used any at all. Really, give it a bit of a think; does this not say that this condition exists at anytime she engages in spinning...>
    <...And what of the paraphrases I put for this in my last posting? Did you not consider any of them to be accurate?...>
    <...Could 'might' not substitute there for 'may'? Could 'can' substitute for 'may'?...>
    I have a sense that you may well be arguing against a position I'm not at this moment trying to defend; or perhaps vice versa.

    Suppose we try to find the common ground, and look at the question from that position.

    Take these two statements, for instance:

    1. The past tense expresses an action in the past. It may also be used to express e.g. suggestions, hypotheses, and the unreal.

    2. V2 expresses "remoteness", in terms of e.g. time, hypotheses, the unreal.

    Which of these is closer to your position?

    (For "remoteness" in #2, feel free to substitute a word which better suits your position.)

    MrP

  3. #13
    riverkid is offline Banned
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    Re: examples of past tense 'might'

    MrPedantic: Hello Riverkid
    I'm sorry to add a third dialogue to the thread. I'll try to keep it brief.

    Hello again to you, Sir.

    I have a sense that you may well be arguing against a position I'm not at this moment trying to defend; or perhaps vice versa.
    Suppose we try to find the common ground, and look at the question from that position.
    Take these two statements, for instance:
    1. The past tense expresses an action in the past. It may also be used to express e.g. suggestions, hypotheses, and the unreal.
    2. V2 expresses "remoteness", in terms of e.g. time, hypotheses, the unreal.
    Which of these is closer to your position?
    (For "remoteness" in #2, feel free to substitute a word which better suits your position.)

    I'm not sure what you mean by "V2', Mr P.

  4. #14
    riverkid is offline Banned
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    Re: examples of past tense 'might'

    MrPedantic: Where "may" has a sense of "capacity", we sometimes find a genuine past-tense "might":


    "Of course she was very busy all day long, but whenever she had a little spare time she sat down to spin. Her distaff turned of itself and her spindle span by itself and the flax wound itself off; and however much she might use there was always plenty left."


    "Stilicho's position was not so secure as it seemed. His daughter, the Empress Maria, was dead, but Honorius had been induced to wed her sister Aemilia Materna Termantia, and Stilicho might think that his influence over the Emperor was inpregnable, and might still hope for the union of his son with Placidia. But any popularity he had won by the victory over Gildo, by the expulsion of Alaric from Italy, by the defeat of Radagaisus, was ebbing away."

    =============

    I certainly can't insist you answer my questions, Mr P, and I'm not but I think them pertinent to the discussion so I wish you'd try. I will, of course address yours as fully as I can once you've confirmed V2's meaning for me.

    In Rewboss' post he stated that these type of collocations, the ones I've underlined above, are subjunctives. I think I asked you a similar question.

  5. #15
    riverkid is offline Banned
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    Re: examples of past tense 'might'

    rewboss wrote:
    As I have pointed out in a different thread, the problem here is that the terminology being used by various people is imprecise and thus open to misinterpretation.

    If we are going to have any kind of debate whatsoever, we need to first agree on what the words we use actually mean.

    So when you say we are trying to prove or disprove that "'might' is the past tense of 'may'", you have to clarify exactly what you mean by the term "past tense".

    I think that many people in this debate are trying to use two different meanings of the term at the same time, and that is where the confusion comes in -- we're talking at cross-purposes with ourselves, let alone with each other.

    In effect, you're trying to use both the popular definition -- that which tells you when an action takes place -- and the technical definition -- which describes the form of a verb -- at the same time, and this is doomed to failure.

    If what you mean is that "might" (and other modals) rarely, if ever, refer to completed actions in the past, you are probably 100% correct. But if what you mean is that "might" is not the past tense form of "may", then you're actually making life a lot more complicated that it already is.

    Good to see you here, Rewboss.

    Again, I have to state that the overwhelming majority of people have little to no conception of the linguistic concept of tense. I have been arguing from the get go using the commonly accepted definition of tense.

    Traditionally, that has also been the defintion of tense that has been used to describe 'might as the past tense of may', though I'll allow that some have tried to move the goalposts.



    Rewboss: Consider this example you quoted, riverkid:
    This is an example of what you call "backshifting". You correctly state that the presence of "was" does not indicate that he actually went to Tokyo. However, what it does indicate is that the state described as "is going to Tokyo" is now in the past -- compare with:

    The expression of it is in the past, duly noted by the reporting verb being put in a past tense, the common meaning intended. Let me suggest that you're unnecessarily complicating things and digging yourself a hole that may be difficult to climb out of.

    What do you say of the direct quote? And of the direct quote wherein the speaker keeps the reporting verb in the present tense form? Do these also indicate that "it ... is that the state described as "is going to Tokyo" is now in the past".


    The use of the present tense -- even in reported speech -- indicates that the plan is still current, and if you ask him now he will confirm that yes, he is due to go to Tokyo.
    Things do get a little more complicated when modal verbs are concerned, because modal verbs indicate possibility, permission, obligation and related concepts.

    I don't understand what's so complicated about, "I may go to Tokyo". It's an 25-50% modification of, "I will go to Tokyo". For the first one, 'might' serves as the reporting modal and for the second, 'would' serves that function IF we choose to "report".


    But consider:
    "I have made a cake."
    He said he had made a cake.
    Pretty simple transformation: we have taken a present tense and made it a past tense.

    "we have taken a present tense and made it a past tense FORM. And why have you done this? One reason and one reason only; the FORM alerts the listener that it is reported speech. It doesn't suggest to the listener that the cake has been made, does it, RB?



    Now consider this parallel example:
    "I may make a cake."
    He said he might make a cake.
    Now, you may object and say that it's possible to say, "He said he may make a cake," but I would then point out that it's equally possible to say, "He said he has made a cake." The difference is that "has" is definite -- we believe him -- while "had" is not so confident -- we are distancing ourselves from this claim.

    I'm sorry but you've lost me, RB. It is not equally possible to materially change the meaning of what someone says and expect it to be equal in meaning.

    He said he might make a cake. = "He said he may make a cake,"

    but neither of them are equal to,

    "He said he has made a cake."



    And it is this which, in reported speech, past tense forms are used to indicate: "I'm not saying this is true, this is just what was said."
    If you really want to make life horribly complicated for people trying to come to terms with English grammar, you could invent a raft of tenses and moods to cover all eventualities and invent grand-sounding names for them.

    I'm not suggesting such a plan at all, RB. Calling modals tenseless accurately describes how they operate in modern English.

    But a past tense form is just that -- a verb's form. It says nothing about the function of that form, it just describes the form. Thus, in a sentence like, "The train arrives in fifty minutes," the verb is in the present tense, but it describes an event that is timetabled for the future.
    In modern English, past tense forms may indicate actions completed in the past, or they may indicate the hypothetical nature of an action. Past tense forms of modal verbs indicate permissions, possibilities and obligations that existed in the past (which is not usually useful), or permissions, possibilities and obligations which are hypothetical, or less likely, in general.


    Note that the whole way through you've described these as {___} verb FORMS. I have no problem with that. For the modals, it's completely accurate to describes them as "Historical past tenses".

    This is fortunate, because it makes describing things like the transformation of direct speech into indirect speech a lot less complex. The rule is, if you're not 100% sure that the speaker is telling the truth, look for the inflected verb. If it is a present tense form, change it to the past tense form. Watch:
    "I play football."
    He said he played football. (play -> play)
    "I am going on Friday."
    She said she was going on Friday. (is -> was)
    "I have been waiting since 4 o'clock."
    He said he had been waiting since 4 o'clock. (have -> had)
    "I will be there."
    She said she would be there. (will -> would)
    "I may have made a mistake."
    He said he might have made a mistake. (may -> might)
    See how neat this is? See how elegant? True, it's a lot more subtle than that in some cases, but it's a lot easier to teach that way. All you need to do is to separate form from function, and remember the golden rule:


    "Past tense" does not describe when an action takes place -- it describes what a verb looks like; how it is used is a completely different question.

    Admittedly, there has been some impreciseness when using terminlogy and I suspect I haven't been as careful as I should be but, RB, here now you say; ""Past tense" does not describe when an action takes place", when clearly it does.

    "Past tense FORM" does not describe when an action takes place".

    All this is well and good but it still doesn't mean that this special set of verbs, the modals, has tense. For years, decades, probably centuries, reported speech has been erroneously described as using past tense with the commonly accepted idea of past action.

    That has been the sole proof that modals have tense. Now look to the other side, actual usage. Modals operate in all tense/time situations. Save for a few situations that remain from earlier periods of the language, modals carry emotive meaning into sentences but other structures are responsible for carrying tense/time.

  6. #16
    riverkid is offline Banned
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    Re: examples of past tense 'might'

    Quote Originally Posted by Tdol View Post
    I don't see why the action has to have been done to qualify. I agree with your example being wrong, but with the backshifting examples, I can see a difference:

    A It may rain today.
    B (reporting the same day) He said it may rain today.
    The next day
    He said it might rain yesterday.

    Are you suggesting that a report made the same day can keep the same modal, 'may' but the next day, a shift has to be made to 'might'?

    Here, I see the possibility described as having finished.

    Also, I personally don't subscribe to the definition of tense being used there, as I don't see tense as simply a temporal relationship, but within that restriction, I still see 'might' as describing a completed past possibility of rain.
    It's still only reported speech, Tdol and the reasons we shift remain the same.

    The possibility of rain cannot be finished. Only the actuality of rain or no rain can be finished. Telling someone what someone else said has nothing to do with the factuality of a situation.

    With enough context, I can direct report weeks, months or even years later with; He said, "It may rain today".

  7. #17
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    Re: examples of past tense 'might'

    Quote Originally Posted by riverkid View Post
    I have been arguing from the get go using the commonly accepted definition of tense.
    Well, sort of, which is why we're having a problem here. This actually started because you complained about a particular grammarian saying that "might" is the past tense of "may" and simply stated that he was wrong, and I called you out on that. He was, however, 100% correct. What is true is that the past tense does not always indicate a past time.

    What do you say of the direct quote? And of the direct quote wherein the speaker keeps the reporting verb in the present tense form? Do these also indicate that "it ... is that the state described as "is going to Tokyo" is now in the past".
    I'm not sure what you're trying to say. At the point in time when the direct quote was originally made, the plan was still current. The point of a direct quote is that the exact words uttered by the speaker are reproduced. The speaker says the exact words "I am going to Tokyo" to indicate that, in that particular moment, that's what the plan was. If, however, the plan had since been cancelled, the speaker would have said, "I was going to Tokyo, but..."

    I don't understand what's so complicated about, "I may go to Tokyo".
    My point about it being more complicated is because where modal verbs are concerned, tense is less likely to express time and more likely to express something else; and also because a simple change of tense can result in a significant change of meaning (consider "should", sometimes a simple past tense form of "shall", but often conveying a sense not hinted at by anything "shall" has to offer, as in "You should tell him."

    we have taken a present tense and made it a past tense FORM. And why have you done this? One reason and one reason only; the FORM alerts the listener that it is reported speech. It doesn't suggest to the listener that the cake has been made, does it, RB?
    No; the form alerts the listener to the fact that the speaker is distancing himself from the original statement. That is one of the functions of the past tense [form].

    I'm sorry but you've lost me, RB. It is not equally possible to materially change the meaning of what someone says and expect it to be equal in meaning.
    He said he might make a cake. = "He said he may make a cake,"
    but neither of them are equal to,
    "He said he has made a cake."
    I am merely pointing out the similarity in the constructions, and how the transformation works. I am well aware that the meaning is very different, but the transformation is remarkably similar.

    However, I don't think "He said he might make a cake" is quite equal in meaning to "...he may...". Very similar indeed in most cases, but the present tense form can indicate permission ("...he is allowed to...") or, in the case of possibility, is more likely in the absence of further clues to indicate that the cake may be made at some time in the future, a sense which "might" is less likely to convey.

    Calling modals tenseless accurately describes how they operate in modern English.
    I'm suggesting that calling modals "tenseless" is meaningless. Modals can and sometimes do at least offer clues as to when an action takes place (which covers the meaning you attach to "tense") -- e.g. "I can do this now, but I couldn't back then" -- and most do come in pairs of present/past forms (which covers the narrower meaning I am using in this post). It is true that they are less likely to convey a sense of time, but they are not completely tenseless by any definition of the word "tense".

    Note that the whole way through you've described these as {___} verb FORMS. I have no problem with that. For the modals, it's completely accurate to describes them as "Historical past tenses".

    [...]

    Admittedly, there has been some impreciseness when using terminlogy and I suspect I haven't been as careful as I should be but, RB, here now you say; ""Past tense" does not describe when an action takes place", when clearly it does.
    "Past tense FORM" does not describe when an action takes place".
    I used the word "form" simply to underline the point. But much of my previous post was about the importance of agreeing on the terminology, and I then made it clear that I was using the true, linguistic meaning of "tense". That's the meaning I use here -- having established that fact.

    All this is well and good but it still doesn't mean that this special set of verbs, the modals, has tense. For years, decades, probably centuries, reported speech has been erroneously described as using past tense with the commonly accepted idea of past action.
    That has been the sole proof that modals have tense. Now look to the other side, actual usage. Modals operate in all tense/time situations. Save for a few situations that remain from earlier periods of the language, modals carry emotive meaning into sentences but other structures are responsible for carrying tense/time.
    It may be that you have misunderstood grammar books when they talk about tense, because I for one have never seen a grammar book (and believe me, I have seen a few) that stated that "would" always indicates "will" when it's in the past. Quite the reverse, actually; particularly the older grammar books have talked about using "will" and "shall" together to form something called the "future determinate", and "would" to form the conditional. Certainly I have yet to see a grammar book that claims that "might" means "may in the past".

    I think it's possible that you have attached to the word "tense" a meaning that you think it should have, and worked backwards from that. True, nearly all grammar books label as tenses what are actually aspects, modes and moods, but as a rule grammar books do not say that "tense" is the same thing as "time when an action takes place", which is what you seem to insist on. That approach would be ridiculous; after all, we often use the present continuous "tense" to describe future events, and grammar books are always very careful to observe the distinction.

    It seems that when you see a statement like, "Might is the past tense of may", your first thought is: "Oh heavens, he's saying that might means may when it's in past time" -- and that is almost certainly not what the other person means.

  8. #18
    MrPedantic is offline Moderator
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    Re: examples of past tense 'might'

    Quote Originally Posted by riverkid
    I certainly can't insist you answer my questions, Mr P, and I'm not but I think them pertinent to the discussion so I wish you'd try.
    Hello RK

    Yes, I will come back to your questions. By V2, I meant e.g. "said" in relation to "say", "broke" in relation to "break", and "saw" in relation to "see".

    MrP

  9. #19
    Tdol is offline Editor, UsingEnglish.com
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    Re: examples of past tense 'might'

    Quote Originally Posted by riverkid View Post
    The possibility of rain cannot be finished. Only the actuality of rain or no rain can be finished.
    The possibility of something happening within a certain time can finish, and does when the time period expires- in the example, yesterday describes a completed period for the possibility.

  10. #20
    riverkid is offline Banned
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    Re: examples of past tense 'might'

    Quote Originally Posted by riverkid View Post
    The possibility of rain cannot be finished. Only the actuality of rain or no rain can be finished. Telling someone what someone else said has nothing to do with the factuality of a situation.
    With enough context, I can direct report weeks, months or even years later with; He said, "It may rain today".
    Quote Originally Posted by Tdol View Post
    The possibility of something happening within a certain time can finish, and does when the time period expires- in the example, yesterday describes a completed period for the possibility.
    That's an impossibility, Tdol. A possibility cannot finish. Opinions can't finish and that's what modal and semi-modals do, offer our opinions on various fact situations. But only the fact can come to be or not come to be.

    =====================

    Humble: It almost certainly will rain today.

    Tdol: It very likely will rain today.

    Riverkid: It probably will rain today.

    Lenka: It may rain today.

    BobK: It might rain today.

    Mike: It probably won't rain today.

    Rewboss: It almost certainly won't rain today.

    Red 5: It may not rain today.

    Coffa: It might not rain today.

    ======================

    Which person's possibility finishes, Tdol?

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