Tense and Aspect: 1. Introduction

5jj

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Tense and Aspect: 1. Introduction


For many people learning English, and indeed for some teachers, the verb system of English seems incredibly complex. Thousands of papers, chapters and whole books gave been written on the subject since Bullokar devoted seventeen pages to it in 1586[1].

I believe the tense/aspect system of English verbs is far less complex than many suppose. There is an underlying logic to the system that, when understood, clears away most of the problems that have caused misery to many learners and their teachers.

I am going to submit to the Linguistics forum a series of threads, one tense/aspect to each thread, in the hope that one or two people might be interested in discussing my ideas.

Before I begin, it will be useful to look at two key words, tense and aspect. Traditionally, Tense is generally defined in ways such as: the relationship of the form of the verb and the time of the action it describes[2]. For those who may be interested, I am posting here a couple of (very boring) lists of quotations from a number of writers about tense. Aspect is generally defined in ways such as: a grammatical category which deals with how the event described by a verb is viewed, such as whether it is in progress, habitual, repeated, momentary[3],etc.

Although many writers in the past wrote of a future tense in English[4], if we confine ourselves to the form, then it is clear that English has only two simple (i.e. unmarked by inflection for any other aspect) tenses, as shown in the pairs play/played, work/worked, want/wanted, sing/sang. The first of these forms is traditionally called the present Simple, the second past simple. However, as we see below, both tenses can refer to past, present, future, and general time:

Present tense for past time:


  1. 1939. 15 March: Germany invades Czechoslovakia. Hitler claims that …
  2. Jane tells me you've not been too well since you got back.

Present tense for present time:


  1. My stomach hurts.
  2. And Gray blocks the ball, passes to McNally on the edge of the box and … it’s a goal!

Present Tense for 'general' time:


  1. Babies normally lose weight in the early days.
  2. I never drink alone.

Present Tense for future time:


  1. I leave on the eleventh, but I come back overnight, so I’m back here on the twelfth.

Past tense for past time:


  1. Freda started school last year.

Past tense for present time:


  1. I wondered if you had a couple of minutes?
  2. (Receptionist, to guest in a hotel:) What was the name, please?
  3. They would be here with us if they had the time.

Past tense for 'general' time:


  1. If you were as poor as I am, you’d feel differently.
  2. I wish I had a memory like yours.

Past tense for future time:


  1. If I went back on the train tonight, it'd be cheaper.

Marked and Unmarked Tense

The traditional names are clearly misleading. In these threads, therefore, I will refer to the traditionally-named present simple forms of the verb that display no suffixes or change of form to refer to time as unmarked (tense) forms, and the traditionally-named past simple tense as the marked (tense) forms. As both forms show tense, but not aspect, I consider the word Simple redundant.

The Aspects

Some writers use the word tense for such forms as I am/was working and I have/had worked. Like many others, I refer to these, and to two other forms noted below as aspects. The form shown in I am/was working is traditionally known as the continuous or progressive. I prefer to refer to this as the durative aspect. The form shown in I have/had worked, is traditionally known as the perfect. I call it the retrospective aspect.

I find it useful to think of as aspects: the be going to future, or prospective aspect and the used to past, or habitual aspect.

The two tenses are mutually exclusive; a verb form can be either marked or unmarked, not both. We can combine certain aspects, however, as we shall see in later threads.



[1] Those who refer to grammar books will find that Palmer’s ‘The English Verb’ (1974) contains 268 pages, Jespersen’s Modern English Grammar (1931) a whole volume (373 pages) to consider the intricacies of the English verb, while in 2006 there appeared the first volume of Declerk’s Grammar of the English Verb Phrase - over 800 pages, with three more volumes to follow.

Binnick (2001) compiled a bibliography of 6,600 articles, chapters, reports, conference papers, monographs, dissertations, and books, on verbs, 1,242 of them on English verbs.


[2] Richards J C, Platt, J, and Platt, H. 1992. 376



[3] ib. p22


[4] In the first published grammar of English, Wiliam Bullokar (1586.24.) wrote, “Thér be threʾ Týmƺ calʾed Tencʾeƺ. The tým that iƺ Now, calʾed the Preſent-Tencʾ: aƺ, I lou. The tým Paſt, calʾed the Preter-Tencʾ: aƺ, I loued. The tým Too Com, calʾed the Futur-Tencʾ: aƺ, I ſhalʾ or wilʾ lou”.

Writers who reject the idea of a future tense in English, accepting only present and past tenses include Jespersen (1931.3-4), Joos (1964,120-121), Christophersen and Sandved (1970.43), Leech ([1971] 2004,3), Palmer (1974,37) Celce-Murcia and Larsen Freeman, ([1983] 1999.95) Quirk et al (1985,176.) Lewis (1986.139), Aitken (1992.63), Crystal ([1995] 2003.196,224) Huddleston and Pullum (2002.208), Yule (1998.58), Carter and McCarthy (2006.629).

Those who accept a future tense in English include Poutsma (1926.207), Curme (1931.362), Stannard Allen ([1947] 1959.116), Wood (1954. 165-6, 189,) Eckersley (1960.161) Zandvoort ([1967] 1969.76), Alexander (1988.178), Sinclair et al (1990.255), Declerck (2006.24).
 
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jutfrank

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... in the hope that one or two people might be interested in discussing my ideas.

Is there any particular direction you're interested in going in? Or any particular point you'd like to argue?

Its good to to see this here.
 

5jj

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My main idea is that tense is English is primarily related to distancing/remoteness rather than time. I'd be delighted if people could point out anything wrong with my thoughts. I'd also be pleased to hear from people who agree with them, but I'd really like to find blunders that I have missed.
 

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As you know, I've read these notes before and failed to find any errors or points that I disagree with. I'll have another look, though, just to be sure.

It appears that most of what you've said is referenced to academic sources. If there are any parts that reflect your own personal views, and which therefore you'd like to be challenged or agreed on, let me know what exactly. Cheers.
 

5jj

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It appears that most of what you've said is referenced to academic sources.
Indeed. When I first became interested in (obsessed with?) the idea of distancing over fifteen years ago, I half-believed I had stumbled on a concept that would revolutionise the teaching of English and possibly the academic field of linguistics. Once I began to look into it more deeply, I soon realised that few of my ideas were original; Very soon after that, I realised that not one was original.

However, I have also realised in discussions with colleagues, and having delivered a couple of papers at conferences, that many (most?) teachers of English still seem to hold the idea that time is far and away the most important thing about tense. So I'd be interested to hear what teachers rather than academic linguists feel about the distancing idea. I'd also like to hear from learners, if they can wade their way through my turgid writing.

My personal experience has been that once my learners have grasped the idea of distancing, they claim to experience far fewer difficulties with English tenses than before.
 
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5jj

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Is there any particular direction you're interested in going in? Or any particular point you'd like to argue?

It's my firm belief that distancing is not just one part of the tense system in modern English; it underpins the whole system.
 

jutfrank

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I'm fully on board with your main idea about distance/remoteness. I first came across the idea through Michael Lewis's excellently lucid and concise The English Verb, which happens to have been published just yards from where I currently work.

In the twenty or so years since I read it, I've tried and succeeded to varying degrees in applying the idea in the classroom. As far as I'm aware, few even experienced teachers similarly incorporate the idea into their personal teaching methodology. And neither do any of the big-name coursebooks make any mention of it.
 

5jj

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Michael Lewis's excellently lucid and concise The English Verb,
That book changed my ideas about grammar completely, and led to a distinct change in the way I taught.


As far as I'm aware, few even experienced teachers similarly incorporate the idea into their personal teaching methodology. And neither do any of the big-name coursebooks make any mention of it.
I know. I have no idea why this should be so.
 

Tdol

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I think that the reductionist views of the tense system in English make things so much clearer. I feel that we're like Cassandra on this.
 

5jj

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It's possible that these threads may turn into articles in this section of the site. I am therefore trying to make them more accessible to learners, simplifying them a little and cutting out the tedious citations and comments.

Below is my attempt at the intro. Any suggestions for improvement, cutting, etc, will be most welcome - and will be acknowledged in the articles if they appear in that section.


Tense and Aspect: 1. Introduction


For many people learning English, and indeed for some teachers, the verb system of English seems incredibly complex. The tense/aspect system of English verbs is in fact far less complex than many suppose. There is an underlying logic to the system that, when understood, clears away most of the problems that have caused misery to many learners and their teachers.

This article is the introduction to a series, one tense/aspect to each article, in which the system will be outlined..

The whole system becomes clearer from the start if we accept that tense in English has little direct relationship with time. If we confine ourselves to the form, then it is clear that English has only two simple (i.e. unmarked by inflection for any other aspect) tenses, as shown in the pairs play/played, work/worked, want/wanted, sing/sang. Although many writers in the past wrote of a future tense in English most grammarians today consider that none of the ways used to refer to a future time is really a tense. The first of the true tense-forms is traditionally called the present simple, the second past simple. However, as we see below, both tenses can refer to past, present, future, and general time:

Present tense for past time:

  1. 1939. 15 March: Germany invades Czechoslovakia. Hitler claims that …
  2. Jane tells me you've not been too well since you got back.

Present tense for present time:
3. My stomach hurts.
4. And Gray blocks the ball, passes to McNally on the edge of the box and … it’s a goal!
Present Tense for 'general' time:
5. Babies normally lose weight in the early days.
6. I never drink alone.
Present Tense for future time:
7. I leave on the eleventh, but I come back overnight, so I’m back here on the twelfth.
8. If Frank calls this evening, tell him I'll be home by ten..

Past tense for past time:
9. Freda started school last year.

Past tense for present time:
10. I wondered if you had a couple of minutes.
11. (Receptionist, to guest in a hotel:) What was the name, please?
12. They would be here with us if they had the time.
Past tense for 'general' time:
13. If you were as poor as I am, you’d feel differently.
14. I wish I had a memory like yours.
Past tense for future time:
15. If I went back on the train tonight, it'd be cheaper.


Marked and Unmarked Tense

The traditional names are clearly misleading. In these articles, therefore, I will refer to the traditionally-named present simple forms of the verb that display no suffixes or change of form to refer to time as unmarked (tense) forms, and the traditionally-named past simple tense as the marked (tense) forms. As both forms show tense, but not aspect, I consider the word Simple redundant.

The Aspects

Some writers use the word tense for such forms as I am/was working and I have/had worked. These will be referred to as aspects. in these articles The form shown in I am/was working is traditionally known as the continuous or progressive. I prefer to refer to this as the durative aspect. The form shown in I have/had worked, is traditionally known as the perfect. I call it the retrospective aspect. Two other aspects, the prospective aspect and the, or habitual aspect will be introduced in later articles.

The two tenses are mutually exclusive; a verb form can be either marked or unmarked, not both. We can combine certain aspects, however, as we shall see in later articles.
 
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