This Event Takes Place in the Past


No it doesn’t. Yes, it took place in the past, but that was the past, so it doesn’t take place in the past. It did, but now it doesn’t.

I got the message that forms the title of this post from my Outlook calendar today, as I was looking for a document that had been attached to a meeting from Tuesday this week (18.12.18, today is 23.12.18). Naturally, it confused me a little.

That being said though, it didn’t really stand out as an error to me. I could hardly complain about Microsoft using the wrong tense when I was taking advantage of the fact that I can still access the event in the present. That’d be ungrateful to say the least.

That’s the interesting thing about virtual events, or virtual records of events at least, which can continue to be live on in cyberspace long after the actual meeting took place. So it kind of makes sense that the message used the present simple to refer to the event, because it’s still there, in my calendar. And always will be.

But it was still useful to know that the meeting was in the past. Outlook probably saw me clicking on the meeting and decided to let me know that this was a meeting from the past, in case I started preparing for it.

And it sure, it could’ve been pedantic and said This meeting took place in the past. But that feels a bit odd to me. It seems too final. That meeting’s done, gone, finished, get over it. It’d almost feel like it was chiding me for being foolish enough to click on a meeting that had long since finished.

But saying that it takes place in the past feels right, not just because I have access to it. It feels right because on my work calendar I have all of the past, present, and future laid out before me. And the usual presentation of the movement of time from left to right doesn’t always apply. Sure, the earlier months and days appear to the left of the ones that come after. But I can click on a specific week or day or month from the past, present, or future, and it’s there in front of me, as the only day, month, or week that might exist. Regardless of whether it’s past, present, or future, it’s (present simple) in front of me now.

Seeing this message also made me think of the following passage from Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe:

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe is one of the most extraordinary ventures in the history of catering. It has been built on the fragmented remains of… it will be built on the fragmented… that is to say it will have been built by this time, and indeed has been—

One of the major problems encountered in time travel is not that of becoming your own father or mother. There is no problem in becoming your own father or mother that a broad-minded and well-adjusted family can’t cope with. There is no problem with changing the course of history—the course of history does not change because it all fits together like a jigsaw. All the important changes have happened before the things they were supposed to change and it all sorts itself out in the end.

The major problem is simply one of grammar, and the main work to consult in this matter is Dr. Dan Streetmentioner’s Time Traveler’s Handbook of 1001 Tense Formations. It will tell you, for instance, how to describe something that was about to happen to you in the past before you avoided it by time-jumping forward two days in order to avoid it. The event will be descibed differently according to whether you are talking about it from the standpoint of your own natural time, from a time in the further future, or a time in the further past and is futher complicated by the possibility of conducting conversations while you are actually traveling from one time to another with the intention of becoming your own mother or father.

Most readers get as far as the Future Semiconditionally Modified Subinverted Plagal Past Subjunctive Intentional before giving up; and in fact in later aditions of the book all pages beyond this point have been left blank to save on printing costs.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy skips lightly over this tangle of academic abstraction, pausing only to note that the term “Future Perfect” has been abandoned since it was discovered not to be.

To resume:

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe is one of the most extraordinary ventures in the history of catering.

It is built on the fragmented remains of an eventually ruined planet which is (wioll haven be) enclosed in a vast time bubble and projected forward in time to the precise moment of the End of the Universe.

This is, many would say, impossible.

In it, guests take (willan on-take) their places at table and eat (willan on-eat) sumptous meals while watching (willing watchen) the whole of creation explode around them.

This, many would say, is equally impossible.

You can arrive (mayan arrivan on-when) for any sitting you like without prior (late fore-when) reservation because you can book retrospectively, as it were, when you return to your own time (you can have on-book haventa forewhen presooning returningwenta retrohome).

This is, many would not insist, absolutely impossible.

At the restaurant you can meet and dine with (mayan meetan con with dinan on when) a fascinating cross-section of the entire population of space and time.

This, it can be explained patiently, is also impossible.

You can visit it as many times as you like (mayan on-visit re-onvisiting… and so on – for further tense correction consult Dr. Streetmentioner’s book) and be sure of never meeting yourself, becauses of the embarrassment this usually causes.

This, even if the rest were true, which it isn’t, is patently impossible, say the doubters.

All you have to do is deposit one penny in a savings account in your own era, and when you arrive at the End of Time the operations of compound interest means that the fabulous cost of your meal has been paid for.

This, many claim, is not merely impossible but clearly insane, which is why the advertising executives of the star system of Bastablon came up with this slogan: “If you’ve done six impossible things this morning, why not round it off with breakfast at Milliways, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe?”



I haven’t read that book in many years, and looking at those made-up verb forms, I’m impressed at how plausible they look! And that’s probably because they’re not too different from what we actually do all the time. Take a sentence like this:

I’ll have finished writing this post by half past nine.

A simple sentence (future perfect simple, which still exists for now!), but think about how complex the temporal relationships involved are. It’s referring to an action now (though it doesn’t necessarily have to have started yet), that will continue in the future, but will have finished before a certain point in the future. Past, present, and future all together in one sentence, and an action in progress now, and continuing into the future, and being finished, all together.

It’s actually quite complex, but most of us would naturally come up with a sentence like that without any effort. And now the computers have started doing that too, or even coming up with their own gramatical logic, so maybe we should be worried this is the beginning of the robot apocalypse!

6 thoughts on “This Event Takes Place in the Past

  1. That just about melted my head, it’s been a lifetime since I’ve read anything by Douglas Adams. He always made me laugh, particularly talking about deadlines. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

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