[Grammar] Reason for the naming of tenses, origin of the naming of tenses

Status
Not open for further replies.

k7power

Member
Joined
Jan 28, 2017
Member Type
Student or Learner
Native Language
German
Home Country
Germany
Current Location
Germany
Hi,

what was the reason for the naming of the English tenses? In the following examples, I will call all verb forms or structures that indicate time "tense".

For example, a verb form like "went" is called a past tense, but it is not only used to refer past events. It can also be used to refer to unreal present or future events. So why is the tense "went" called a past tense even though it can refer to another time than a past time.

A structure like "I'm going" is called a "present progressive". It can refer to a present time like in "I'm going to work now" or to a future time like in "I'm going to London tomorrow". The same question: why is the structure called a "present progressive" even though it can refer to a present or future time?

A structure like "will be" is called a "(simple) future". It can refer to a future time like in "It will be cold in the winter" or to a presen time like in "That will be the postman".

My guess is that the structures were named after their most typical use, which is the past time for the "past tense", the present time for the "present tense" and so on.

I'm aware of the difference between tense, time, aspect, that English has no "future tense" and that there is no one-to-one-relationship between tense and time. However, where does the naming for the tenses come from even though there is no direct relationship between tenses and time?

I would be really grateful for an helpful answer. If you can, please provide a solid literature source.
 

GoesStation

No Longer With Us
Joined
Dec 22, 2015
Member Type
Interested in Language
Native Language
American English
Home Country
United States
Current Location
United States
For example, a verb form like "went" is called a past tense, but it is not only used to refer past events. It can also be used to refer to unreal present or future event. So why is the tense "went" called a past tense even though it can refer to another time than a past time.
Your question is interesting. I think you mistyped the verb you were thinking of. I can't think of any case in which the simple past form went can refer to either a present or a future event. Were you perhaps thinking of were?
 
Last edited:

Skrej

Key Member
Joined
May 11, 2015
Member Type
Native Language
English
Home Country
United States
Current Location
United States
Regardless of how you're using a particular tense, you need to call it something in order to refer to it. The simplest name is the one that it's most often used for.

English may not have a true future tense for example, but there's certainly a need to talk about how to express future actions, so why not call it the future tense, rather than some other arbitrary term such as the kablob tense? (I vote for color coding: blue tense for the future, red tense for the past, green for the present, etc. Blending tenses would then be like blending colors, so the present progressive would be teal, etc. )

It's a very similar question to the one I irritated my grade school teachers with: Who makes up these grammar rules? For example, who originally decided that you can't have a double negative in English? It's commonly used in any number of other languages. Interestingly enough, it was also used in Old and Middle English. Even today, certain dialects of English do actually use the double negative, although they're often dubbed as 'non-standard'.

The simple answer to that question is because the double negative (aka emphatic negation) wasn't allowed in German and Latin, which are two major linguistical influences of the English language. But that only pushes the question further back into history - so who decided you can't have a double negative in German and Latin? Many Romance languages derived from Latin do use the double negative, and the push from Old English to Middle English was largely due to the influence of Norman French, where it's allowed. Also interesting is that this switch to Middle English is where Old English lost much of its inflection and grammatical gender, although those existed in the very French that was spurring the changes in English.

The shift from Middle English to Modern English was largely one of pronunciation (research the Great Vowel Shift, a mystery worth pondering in itself for its rapidity).

In a nutshell, grammar is largely a construct of the written form, particularly with the advent of the printing press, which lead to standardization. Until this explosion of printed text, grammar varied widely from region to region, just like pronunciation. You still see some of this today, where a regional dialect may tweak the grammar somewhat, but mass media largely keeps the written grammar fairly standard. When you want to standardize something, you have to decide what those standards are. In the case of English grammar, a lot of the standardization of the English language was arbitrary decisions of the printers. As they were educated people, and education at that time meant a classical education, they based a lot of their arbitrary rules on either Latin and Greek grammar, and/or the dialects they arbitrarily labeled as 'correct' - which of course was the dialect they so conveniently happened to speak themselves.

The real answer is that grammar is determined by the speakers of the language, and thus like the language itself, is subject to change. Grammar changes the slowest, vocabulary the fastest, and pronunciation somewhere in the middle.

So back to your question - I would wager that the names for the tenses were largely arbitrary, and driven by a need to espouse a standard.
 

Tdol

Editor, UsingEnglish.com
Staff member
Joined
Nov 13, 2002
Member Type
Native Language
British English
Home Country
UK
Current Location
Japan
I will call all verb forms or structures that indicate time "tense".

That is that start of the problem in English. Time and tense correspond in some languages, but they don't correlate exactly in English, which is why we can use what is called the past tense to refer to future or present time.The naming comes from traditional views of language, often influenced by languages like Latin.
 

Tdol

Editor, UsingEnglish.com
Staff member
Joined
Nov 13, 2002
Member Type
Native Language
British English
Home Country
UK
Current Location
Japan
Joos (1964) categorises the tenses as unmarked and marked, but labels them actual and remote.

That's quite an early take on this- proximity (temporal, social, possibility, etc) has been used more recently by many others.

* No, it hasn't been published, and probably never will be.

We live in an age where anyone can publish. ;-)
 

Charlie Bernstein

VIP Member
Joined
Jan 28, 2009
Member Type
Other
Native Language
English
Home Country
United States
Current Location
United States

If I went to work by bike rather than by tram every day, I'd probably be fitter.
My wife would be delighted if I went to the opera with her next week.

Great examples. And let's not forget things like the dread "were to go": If I were to go the opera . . . .
 

GeneD

Senior Member
Joined
Mar 18, 2017
Member Type
Student or Learner
Native Language
Russian
Home Country
Belarus
Current Location
Belarus
That 'tense' and 'time' are closely related is hardly surprising. Time, from the Old English tima and tense from the Old French tense/temps (= time) have co-existed since the first use of tense recorded by the OED in 1315. Originally, both words were used in the temporal sense, though the use of tense in that sense is now archaic, the last OED citation (apart from one from James Joyce) being from 1509. The use of time in the grammatical sense is labelled obsolete by the OED, It was first recorded in 1530, and was still being used (by Cobbett) in 1819. In the form tens, tense is recorded as being used in the grammatical sense in 1388.
Thanks for this insight, Piscean. Not knowing the fact that "time" and "tense" originally had similar meaning led (in my case) to some funny consequences. I took "tense" in its modern-time sense and drew the following picture in my head trying to explain to myself the difference between the present tenses (simple, continuous and perfect): A dog is eating. The situation is tense (anyone who saw a dog eating knows it :)). The dog's concentration on the process is intense. The dog has finished eating. It's time to relax; there's no need to be tense. And there is even less need to be tense if one does something regularly: This dog has its meat every morning at 7 o'clock.

That's an example of how lack of knowledge can make imagination work in a pretty mythological way.:)
 
Last edited:

k7power

Member
Joined
Jan 28, 2017
Member Type
Student or Learner
Native Language
German
Home Country
Germany
Current Location
Germany
@Skrej
@Charlie Bernstein
@Piscean
@Tdol

thank you very much for your helpful answers. Special thanks to Tdol's concise answer:

Time and tense correspond in some languages, but they don't correlate exactly in English, which is why we can use what is called the past tense to refer to future or present time.The naming comes from traditional views of language, often influenced by languages like Latin.

That answers the question of the origin of the naming of tenses. What about the reason? According to Skrej:

The simplest name is the one that it's most often used for.

and

I would wager that the names for the tenses were largely arbitrary, and driven by a need to espouse a standard.

In my opinion, naming a tense after what it is most often used for is a good reason to establish a standard.

Tdol, would you agree that naming the tenses after their most typical / common use could have been a good reason?
 
Status
Not open for further replies.
Top