Friday, April 25, 2008
Tense about Tense
Whenever I open an ESOL grammar book and look at the table of contents, I wince a little. I see things like “present continuous tense,” “present perfect tense,” “past perfect tense,” and this terminology makes me tense. Although many people don’t realize it, linguistically speaking, there are only two tenses in English, the present and the past. What I’m really talking about are the simple present and the simple past. That’s it; two tenses. How can that be? Well, linguists explain that tense is only tense when it’s created by just using the basic form of a verb, adding a prefix, infix, or suffix to a verb, or when there is an internal change to a verb. So when I say I work, she works, that shows tense, and when I say she worked, I’ve added another suffix to the verb, -ed, so that’s tense. And, of course, with a verb like speak, if I want the past, I make an internal change and get spoke, which once again shows tense. So English only has two tenses according to linguists, unlike Latin. Now there’s a language with oodles of tenses! Ego laboro (I work/am working), laborabam (I was working/used to work), laboravi (worked), laboraveram (had worked), laborabo (will work), laboravero, (will have worked). Latin’s got all kinds of suffixes and all kinds of tenses.
So what are all those other forms of a verb in English if they’re not tenses? Linguistically, they’re called aspects, aspects of the verb. The present progressive is an aspect of the verb, and so is the present perfect and the present perfect progressive, and the past perfect, and the future with be going to or will — and I could go on. Now, in a practical sense, is there really any benefit to thinking of these as aspects of a verb rather than as tenses? I think so. I think there really is a practical benefit. When I say I feel great or I’m feeling great, I’m not changing the tense (the time) of the verb feel; I’m simply applying a different aspect to that verb. And when I say He finished the job or He’s finished the job, I’m once again applying a different aspect to the action of finishing something rather than a different time. I think that matters. I think that might help some students understand why we have forms like the present perfect and the role those forms play in English grammar.
The only other thing that makes me wince when I look at those tables of contents is some of the names I see given to those tenses and aspects. My reaction isn’t based on the aesthetics of the names, but on the fact that they can be very misleading and end up confusing our students. I’ve already written a piece about the so-called “simple” present (“A Present for You”), but that’s the first one that comes to mind. Then there are the so-called “present continuous” and the “past continuous.” “Continuous”? What does that mean, continuous? Doesn’t continuous mean the action never ends? Is it like the earth is on a continuous orbit around the sun? If I were a student and saw that name, that’s exactly what I might imagine. Kudos to the person who started calling this aspect “the present progressive.” Now that I can understand. It deals with an action that’s in progress at that moment. Teachers can get that ― and so can their students. And we’ve got the so-called present “perfect.” What’s so “perfect” about it? Come to think of it, most teachers I know wish the present perfect didn’t exist at all because it’s so tough to teach and get students to internalize. Some perfection that is!
I think it would be nice to go back to using such terms as the “preterit” instead of the simple past, don’t you? It’s a nice, neutral name that carries no opinions about it. Let me judge for myself if it’s “simple” or not. If you’ve got any names for the tenses or aspects that you think would work better than the ones we’ve got now, let’s hear them. Who knows . . . We may just start a small ESOL grammar revolution! So let me hear from you, fellow rebels!