English Tenses and Aspect 3 - The Marked Tense

Summary: This tense, the traditional 'past simple', sometimes referred to as the preterite, like the unmarked tense, can refer to past, present, future and general time.

English Tenses and Aspect 3 - The Marked Tense


3.1. Traditional 'Rules'


This tense, the traditional ‘past simple’, sometimes referred to as the preterit(e)i, like the unmarked tense, can refer to past, present, future and general time. Typical lists in English grammars of uses of the tense include such uses as:


  1. Single action in the past: Emma woke up at 6.30.

  2. Continuous or repeated actions in the past: I played football twice a week when I was at school.

  3. State in the past: Peter was ill for the last ten years of his life.

  4. Polite conversation marker (present or future): Excuse me. I wondered if you were free now.

  5. Present regret: I wish I had a job that paid more.

  6. Hypothetical future (viewed as not very probable): If I didn't get my degree next year, my father would be very disappointed.

  7. Counterfactual Present: I wish my parents were here to see this.


As with the unmarked tense, it is true that the uses of the marked tense can be described in such ways as those noted, but such descriptions are not very helpful for the learner.


3.2. The Marked 'Rule'


I believe that simple 'rule' that covers all uses of the marked form is:


We use the marked form when we wish to distance the situation - in vividness/time, reality, or directness.


3.2.1. Distancingii in Vividness/Time


As we saw in an earlier article, it is perfectly normal for a speaker to describe a past situation using the unmarked form:


§2.6. Then this chap just walks up to me and punches me.


The fact that the speaker has chosen not to distance the situation (which speaker and listener know from the context is distanced in time) makes the situation real, vivid. In historic narrative and magazine articles the speaker/writer similarly chooses not to distance the situation. It is presented as something real and vivid, brought closer to us by the lack of distancing:


  1. 3rd September 1939. 11 o'clock. Millions of people all over Britain gather anxiously round their radio sets. The strained voice of the Prime Minister comes across the air: "I have to tell you ...."

  2. The Chancellor smiles almost ruefully as I pose the question. “Policies are more important than people," he begins, but we both know that voters disagree.


It is not the tense of the verb that shows us the time but such factors as explicit time markers [8] or the shared knowledge that the situation described occurred in the past [9]. With no context provided, an utterance such as:


  1. We live in a one-room flat in Bootle,


having no tense marking to show distancing, implies that the situation is not distanced, i.e., is true now (as it was for some unspecified time in the past and will be for some unspecified time in the future). However, if a context is known or provided, as when an old man is talking of his youth and says:


10a. We both want kids, but we live in a one room flat in Bootle with her mother, so...


then it is clear that a past-time situation is being described; the speaker has chosen not to distance it in vividness.


What is past, even a few moments ago, is often viewed as past, finished, done with. It is therefore common for speakers/writers to use the marked (distancing) form of the verb to describe past situations, but it is not essential, as we have seen. The speaker/writer has the free choice: to distance or not to distance. One might well consider this as Grammar as Choiceiii. Without explicit or implicit context, the use of the marked tense does not of itself imply past time; and describing past time does not necessarily involve the use of the unmarked tense.


The distribution of present and past tense verbs differs considerably across registersiv. As we might expect, the former is more common in conversation and academic prose, the latter in fiction.



3.2.2. Distancing in Reality


Consider these two utterances:


  1. Well, he has been in his new job a month now. I hope he likes it.

  2. Well, he has been in his new job a month now. I wish he liked it.


In both, the underlined verb refers to the present or general (i.e., not specifically future or past) time. In [11] the hope and in [12], the wish are presented as facts. However, in [11] the liking is presented as a real possibility; in [12] the liking is presented as unreal; the speaker regrets that this is not the situation. The unmarked form shows a distancing in perception of realityv.


The idea of distancing in reality explains the use of tenses in the so-called first and second conditions:


  1. George wants to see me tomorrow. If he offers me a rise, I'll stay.

  2. George wants to see me tomorrow. If he offered me a rise I'd stay.


In both utterances the time of the situation referred to is clearly future: tomorrow. In [13], the speaker has chosen not to distance the tenses. The use of the unmarked form presents the situation as a real possibility. In [14], the speaker's use of the marked form distances the situation from reality: the prospect of the offer and the staying is less real.


When the context shows that the time of the situation is not future but present or general, then the reality of the situation is complete: we have hypothetical (counterfactual) reality [= unreality, irrealis], as in


  1. I'd be in Africa now if the children weren't so settled here.


The speaker is not in Africa, and the children are settled here. The use of the distancing marked form makes this clear. Any attempt to describe this as a special use of a so-called past tense is confusing; it has nothing to do with the past.


Because the unmarked tense does not imply distancing in reality, an utterance such as:


  1. ? If I live in the country, I feel cut off


is virtually impossible if the speaker is referring to present time, because the implication of the if is that the speaker does not live in the country. However, such an utterance is possible if the speaker makes it clear that s/he is speaking of possible situations:


16a. I can't seem to find the right place to live. If I live in the country, I feel cut off, but if I live in the city, I feel stifled.


Real and unreal possibilities are examined more closely in later articles. Here I simply note that there is rarely any doubt about the time; if the context does not make it clear, then the speaker will make the time explicit. In an utterance such as


  1. If they were here, we could sort out any difficulties,


the time may be clear to speaker and listener. If it is not, the speaker will add a time marker such as now, tomorrow, next Tuesday, etc.


3.2.3. Distancing in Directness

Some writersvi claim that the use of could and would in requests is 'more polite' than can and will, as in:


  1. Can/could you open the window please?

  2. Will/would you post this letter when you go out?


If by 'more polite' we understand 'more diffident, more hesitant, less direct', then this is true. The reason, however, is not simply that some words are more polite than others. It is that could and would are the marked forms of can and will; marked forms distance. Here the distancing is in directnessvii. We see exactly the same use of marked forms for distancing in:


  1. What was your name?

  2. A: Did you want something?

B: I wondered if you had a moment. I wanted to ask you about the meeting.



3.2.4. Backshifting


Backshifting is the changing of unmarked forms in direct speech to marked forms in indirect speech:


  1. John said “I am hungry”.

  2. John said (that) he was hungry.


Some writersviii suggest that, when the reporting verb is in a marked tense, the tenses in the direct speech must be backshifted, as in [22] and [23] except when the words said represent an eternal truth:


  1. Mr Dover said “Water freezes at 100º Celsius”.

  2. Mr Dover said (that) water freezes at 100º Celsius”.


This is simply not true. If the situation reported still holds true at the time of the time of reporting, then backshifting is not obligatory. [23a] is perfectly acceptable (if the speaker believes that John is still hungry:


23a. John said (that) he is hungry.


Equally untrue is the belief that non-backshifting for universal truth is obligatory. Non-backshifting is common, but not essential; [25a] is acceptable:


25a. Mr Dover said (that) water froze at 100º Celsius.


Very often, the use of a backshifted preterite is optionalix. If speakers see in some ways the words uttered as being distanced in time, they are likely to backshift the tenses. If they see no distancing, they do not backshift. It follows, therefore, that if a situation no longer holds true, backshifting is obligatory. We cannot say John said (that) he is hungry if we know that he is no longer hungry,


For some speakers, distancing in reality is a possibility. If speakers believe a reported statement to be true, they do not backshift; if they believe it may be untrue, they backshift:


  1. Mary told me she has a holiday home on Phuket. (I am impressed.)

  2. Mary told me she had a holiday home on Phuket, (but I am not sure that she has.)


However, it is not possible to assume that this reality-distancing is intended or will be understood without clear context or co-text such as the bracketed words in [26] and [27]. It is quite possible for such utterances to be made with only (optional) time-distancing, as in:


26a. Mary told me she had a holiday home on Phuket. (I am impressed.)

27a. Mary told me she has a holiday home on Phuket, but I am not sure that she has.)


As is so often the case in English, context sometimes known only to the two parties in a conversation) and co-text are very important in considering why particular tenses/aspects may be appropriate.


It is clear from the examples given in this section that the use of the marked form does not in itself imply reference to past time. As we noted near the beginning of this section:


We use the marked form when we wish to distance the situation in vividness, reality, or directness.




i e.g., Kruisinga ( 1931.22), Jespersen ((1931.7), Huddleston (1995.102)

ii Some writers use the word ‘remote(ness)’ rather than the ‘distancing’ that I prefer, e.g., Kruisinga (1931.25), Lewis (1986.68-73, 160), Yule (1999.5), Huddleston (2002.148-9).


Chalker (1984.98) uses both distancing and remote.


Joos, Martin (1964.121): The unmarked tense will be called actual and the marked one remote. The modern English remote tense has the categorical meaning that the referent (what is specified by the subject-verb partnership) is absent from that part of the real world where the verb is being spoken. [...] remoteness in time in English is always categorically past time. This is one English kind of remoteness. [...] the other kind [is] unreality. The modern English remote tense has exactly the same form, no matter whether the meaning is unreality or past reality.


For Yule (1998.59), the basic concept of the present tense is non remote + factual that of the past tense denoting remoteness in time is remote + factual; that of the past tense denoting hypothetical situations (remoteness in reality) is remote + non-factual.



iii Close (1992. 1-2) presented the idea of Grammar as Choice (for example the selection of a particular tense or aspect for an utterance) as opposed to Grammar of Fact (for example the fact that the plural of CHILD is CHILDREN, not *CHILDS). As Lewis (in Close, 1992.v) pointed out, there are many situations in English where the language user has a choice between two possible 'right' sentences, in the sense of grammatically well-formed, but where each has a slightly different meaning.


I differ from Lewis only in believing that there are often more than two possible 'right' sentences. In these articles, the idea that the speaker chooses one particular verb form rather than any other within each conte

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About the author:

I began teaching in 1967, and, apart from post-grad studies, have been teaching and writing ever since. I've taught French and Herman in British secondary schools and FE Colleges, and EFL at schools and universities in China, the Czech Republic, Estonia.

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