Why linguistic terminology can be useful and misnomers problematic

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Tense and aspect

What are tenses? And why is the answer not: all verb structures? How many tenses does English really have? And does it matter? What is the semantic relationship between verb form and time? What is time? What do we mean when we talk about time? How do we talk about time? And why should this be important?

In my introduction to the concept of the Verb Structure Circle I mentioned the technical definition of ‘tense’. Tense and aspect are two terms crucial to explaining, and in my opinion, understanding, the English verb structure system. I also noted that in many if not most course books of English ALL verb structures are referred to as tenses and, as far as I can tell, ‘aspect’ is rarely used. Perfect and continuous forms are commonly related to as ‘tenses’ though they are actually referred to as ‘aspects’ in linguistic literature.

Note (2016): Some publishers of English course books like MacMillan make the distinction, as I have found in the meantime.

The reason I believe this issue to be important is because I believe understanding the difference between ‘tense’ and ‘aspect’ could help understanding English verb structures’ meaning and function better.

When I try to explain the basics of the English verb system or give an overview, I arrange what I consider to be the four basic forms of the English verb into a circle. The reason is to get away from a verb structure presentation based on the concept of linear time and an isolated treatment of different combinations, often summarized in form of long verb structure lists of ‘the English tenses’..

Many learners of English come to believe that the main function or meaning of verb structures is to express TIME. When asked what they mean by time they answer: past, present, future. If that were the case, though, we would need only three verb forms, but we have many more structural combinations. This, I believe, is why there is so much confusion about English ‘tenses’. And why it is of utmost importance to discuss what we mean when we talk about ‘time’ in relation to verbs.

Conventionally everybody (at least in a Western context) would tell you ‘time’ is the passage of – well, of what actually? Events happening one after the other? By ‘time’ we refer to the passage of time meaning the ongoing of whatever is ongoing. ‘Time’ is a highly abstract concept difficult to define, but nevertheless constantly permeating our lives and thoughts. How we talk about ‘time’ and how we measure it can tell us at least a little about what we seem to believe ‘time’ to be.

So when we speak about time we most often relate to when things happen or happened, took place, were done etc. What happens (e.g.every day), happened (in the past), will happen (prediction about the future). (Other verbs express states of mind and emotions that per se are not activities or events. Which is why we have this other, very crucial conceptual differentiation between ‘dynamic’ and ‘stative’ verbs.)

So how exactly do we express linear time?

Concrete moments of time or time spans we express lexically: last week, yesterday, tomorrow, every Monday, next year etc. in conjunction with an appropriate verb form.

We also express what has happened, is happening, was happening etc. In what way do these forms refer to linear time?

Something has happened seems to be past, but is that why we use it? Because we want to express past time? Or: something is happening?  Is present time the main meaning of this form? Kids in school learning English as a second or foreign language are often told that it is (‘we use the -ing form to express what we are doing at the moment of speaking’), thereby strongly associating both forms ‘present perfect’ and ‘present continuous’ with past and present time respectively – and using the two forms in that way even as advanced adult speakers of English.

But then what is the difference between ‘simple present’ and ‘present continuous’? ‘Simple past and present perfect’? It is the difference between tense and aspect.

First I want to focus on the two simple forms.

Linear time is not always the main aspect for choosing one form over another, but most often when we talk about something past.

Here I believe the distinction between ‘tense’ and aspect’ to be helpful. Not just from a functional or semantic point though, but also from a structural one.

If you look at the two basic simple forms: ‘simple present’ and ‘simple past’, these two are structurally the least complicated. The first simple form takes an -s for 3. person singular, but that’s the only inflection you have (and not all native speakers follow this ‘rule’ – it carries no meaning, thus is semantically non-essential). The second form, commonly referred to as ‘simple past’, is formed by adding an -ed ending to the main verb in its regular form. And when the forms are not regular, the verb changes into a form that needs to be memorized, e.g. went, saw, taught, ate, ran, spoke etc. So in both cases the verb structure is not really a structure, but one word that changes its form. Thus it is appropriately called ‘simple’.

Both forms are used to express ‘factuality’. This is important to note. We use both forms when we refer to things we want to express as facts (not meaning they have to be true). When we tell a story consisting of consecutive events, we use the simple past tense form. This is its most basic meaning: past time – time remote from now (the moment of speaking). We could therefore argue that it is appropriately called ‘past tense’.

The meaning of the so-called ‘simple present’ is trickier when talking about time (linear time). Maybe because the concept of ‘present’ is so unclear or fuzzy. Fuzziness is something we need to accept when we describe language. Meanings are not always clear-cut. This is very important but sometimes hard to accept. ‘Fuzziness’ is a crucial characteristic of language without which we wouldn’t be able to use language as flexibly as we can. (More about fuzziness elsewhere).

I read somewhere that scientists have determined the present to consist of three seconds before it becomes past. So what is present about sentences commonly in the ‘simple present’. We talk about things we do regularly, habits we have, things that happen often, sometimes, always etc. Time adverbials form strong collocations with the ‘simple present’.

This uncertainty in respect to time reference of the first form is why linguists call it non-past. Not a very elegant term, maybe, but at least it does not imply the unfortunate association with present time as does the term ‘simple present’.

As can be demonstrated with many examples, ‘present time’ is simply not the meaning of the first basic form of the English verb. The verb itself is unmarked for time. Time in combination with the ‘first simple form’ is often expressed by words for clock or calendar times (or numbers). Its main meaning thus seems to be non-past ‘factuality’. The term non-past is crucial. The two simple forms can not be combined. They are mutually exclusive. However, a sentence using the first simple form can have a future time reference e.g. ‘The train leaves early tomorrow morning.’

Summary: English verbs, main verbs and – as we will see later – auxiliaries, come in two basic forms. Linguists commonly refer to them as non-past and past TENSE because the most common semantic distinction between the two relates to (linear) time. The linguistic definition for ‘tense’ is: a morphological change of the verb in relation to time.Only the second form of the verb presents such a change by adding -ed (or by changing its form in irregular ways). Thus linguists speak of two distinct TENSES of the English verb:

non-past and past

School and other text books call them ‘simple present’ and simple past’. Alternative names like ‘first’ and ‘second’ forms or ‘remote form’ instead of ‘past tense’ (Michael Lewis, 1983) have been suggested.

The technical definition of tense might not seem so important for learners of English. However, I believe the distinction made by the two terms can be quite helpful, because what is named tense and aspect respectively is not only semantically different, but also structurally.

‘Tense’ is always expressed by a form change within the verb – main or auxiliary (with the exception of BE that has more than two forms). ‘Aspect’ is formed using an auxiliary in one of the two tenses PLUS an unchanging participle, thus structurally slightly more complex, but very regular – more in PART 2.

For learners of English I believe the two tense forms should be in their focus in the beginning stages of learning.The distinction past or non-past is crucial in every conversation. A failure to distinguish past from non-past can lead to misunderstandings.




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