When the ‘past’ tense does not refer to past time or: Confusion by Misnomers

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One of my main issues over the last years of teaching has been with traditional grammar terminology, especially with ‘present’ and ‘past’. To a certain extent I believe in linguistic relativity i.e. that the language we use to describe something has an influence on how we perceive this something. It is not such a surprising insight, if you think about it. When someone refers to an object as table, I will not think of a chair. Well, I actually might think of a chair in association with the table, but that is a different point.

So when a form is called ‘past’ tense, most people – if not all – will believe that the term refers to the meaning of the form. However …

Look at the following examples:

I wish I knew the answer to that question.

If they worked a little faster, we could go home earlier.

If I had more details, I might be able to help.

You might recognize these examples as the second conditional form the ‘rules’ of which you most likely struggled with in school. (I will deal with the notion of ‘rule’ in a later post.)

I also found that not only did my adult students almost exclusively have negative school related asscociations (oh, the horrible if-clauses), they also had a misconception as to its meaning. It took me a long time to realize why learners struggled to much with the so-called second conditional: they just couldn’t grasp its meaning, because they associated the second form (knew, worked, had in the examples above) with PAST TIME!

This is where I believe Michael Lewis’ notion of REMOTENESS is very helpful. (M. Lewis, 1986. The English Verb). In his explanation of what he preferably just simply calls the second form of the verb, he demonstrates how the so-called ‘past tense’ does not just express past, i.e. remoteness in time, but other forms of remoteness (or distance) as well.

In the examples above, the remoteness could be described in relation to factuality and likelihood or probability of occurence (or happening).

I don’t know, but I wish I knew.

If they worked a little faster implies that they are not working fast.

Having details would be helpful, but I don’t have any. I am ‘speculating’ about something that is not a fact and therefore use the second form: if I had. In this case e.g. I’m implying something like: If you gave me more details, I could perhaps help.

Notice that in all rephrasings above the actual time reference of the sentences is present time or ‘timeless’:

I don’t know – that’s my current state of mind (no idea when that might change);

They are not working fast i.e. they are working slow (present continuous form espressing an activity in progress, perhaps at the moment of speaking).

Of course it remains likely that teachers will introduce students to the Past Time use of the second form before introducing the concept of remoteness. I am certainly not suggesting that this strategy is in any way unsound. It is, however, helpful, as so-called ‘other uses’ are introduced, to show that they do have something in common with the use students are already familiar with. Teachers often emphasise differences and irregularity; it is helpful to draw attention also to similiarities where these exist. This gives a view of the language as a coherent system consistently used by its native speakers. If the consept of remoteness is introduced at an appropriate time in the teaching programme, time will be saved and confusion reduced as students build up an understanding of a primar semantic distinction of English.   (M. Lewis, 1986: 74. LTP)

 

 

 

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