Tense Times

EDIT: I’m reposting this from May last year. Despite the title and featured image, it has nothing at all to say about the current political climate, being instead entirely concerned with grammar!

Q. How many tenses are there in the English language?

a) 3

b) 12ish

c) 2

If you said a), you were probably thinking the three were the past, present and future, but that’s incorrect.

If you said b), you’re probably an English teacher or have been an English student, and started ticking them off on your fingers: present simple, present continuous, present perfect simple…, but that’s not it either.

The answer is 2: past and present. You may be thinking that’s wrong. You may also be thinking Oh no, I told my students yesterday that the future perfect simple is a tense!

Well, don’t worry. In practical terms, it’s fine to say that the future is a tense, or that specific combinations of tense and aspect like the present perfect continuous are tenses.

But in strict linguistic terms, a tense is defined by the use of specifically inflected verb forms to express temporality. Take the verb to walk, for example. We can change it to walked to denote the past, and walk(s) for the present. But there’s no specific way to inflect the verb that’s unique to the future. We can use present simple forms, present participles, perfect infinitives and other forms of verbs, but those are all forms that can also be used in the past and/or present.

Does it say anything about how our minds work that we don’t have a specific verb form for the future? Does it suggest that English speakers are not so forward-thinking, to the extent that we use language forms of the past and present to refer to the future? Or could one say that we’re better able to imagine the future, so that it feels more present? Why else would we say “I’m meeting my friend for lunch tomorrow,” as though it were simultaneously happening in this moment?

I’m loathe to come to any sort of simple, definitive statement. I think what it shows is that we see the future as complex, abstract and uncertain. It’s interesting that different languages have different ways to refer to and think about time, and particularly the future. Maybe the fact that between different languages and even within English we can’t find a simple way to talk about the future demonstrates that for all of us it’s a fluid, ever-changing, imaginary realm we can never fully pin down, unlike the past that’s already happened and the present we see before our eyes.

16 thoughts on “Tense Times

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