The subject verbs the object
September 28, 2007 6:46 AM   Subscribe

Explain tenses to me? Past/present/future, continuous/simple/perfect, and so on, in English. I can use them with fluency, but I need to be able to explain them (when each is used, how to form them). I've tried Fowler's, Chicago Manual of Style, and a number of other resources, but they seem to subtly contradict one another. Is there a simple, go-to reference for this?
posted by sarahkeebs to Writing & Language (16 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
It is sometimes hard to explain this stuff when you* (as a native English speaker) have been using these forms for your entire life. Most native English speakers learn grammar via repetition, not rules. In other words, you know what sounds correct but you don't know why it is correct.

I am in the process of teaching these concepts to a Korean teenager studying ESL, and I'm having to learn the rules really for the first time myself. It helps that I have a background in French, as many of the rules for various tenses apply to both languages.

Anyway, the book I'm using is Basic Grammar in Use, which I've recommended here before and have found very simple, effective and helpful.

"You" used here in the general form, not specifically in reference to you, sarahkeeps.
posted by Brittanie at 7:05 AM on September 28, 2007

Best answer: The Perdue OWL is a pretty handy online resource: Verb Tense chart with simple explanations of each tense and their use.
posted by notyou at 7:09 AM on September 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

I’m so glad you asked this question. I was thinking about the exact same thing last night. I’m an avid reader of Language Log and they have a lot of posts on tense, but reading through the posts you realize there is massive confusion among even very educated people on what tense means. I admit even after reading all the Language Log posts, I still don’t think I could identify the past tense. Also, I wouldn’t mind someone explaining the difference between voice and tense.
posted by Jasper Friendly Bear at 7:23 AM on September 28, 2007

Study Latin, if you can. No, really... I learned more about English grammar from my Latin classes than I ever did in English classes.

This page has some good examples of the tenses (and other verb forms)
posted by at 7:30 AM on September 28, 2007

Voice. Nothing to do with when it happened. Something to do with who done it.

These next two sentences are in passive voice, first in past tense and then in present tense. (I mean, I guess that's what the tenses are. Don't quote me.)

This sentence was put in passive voice.
This sentence is put in passive voice.

(Who put the sentence in passive voice? Dunno, 'cause it's in passive voice.) (The handy way it conceals the identity of whoever performed the action described is why passive voice is so often resorted to in government documents explaining about predawn verticle insertions, etc.)

Here are sentences in the same two verb tenses and in active voice:
I put that sentence in passive voice.
I put that sentence in passive voice.

English! 2,000 years of ambiguity and obfuscation!
posted by Don Pepino at 7:49 AM on September 28, 2007

Is there a simple, go-to reference for this?

This looks pretty useful.
posted by Jaltcoh at 7:56 AM on September 28, 2007

The Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon is a very readable book on just these issues.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 8:25 AM on September 28, 2007

I used Teaching Tenses when I had to learn these in order to teach them. It was really useful, including all of the unusual uses we put tenses to (for example future continuous for logical deduction/speculation as in "What will he be wearing?")
posted by itsjustanalias at 11:28 AM on September 28, 2007

Steven Pinker's new book "The Stuff of Thought" has a great explanation of tenses on pages 192-203.
posted by AceRock at 3:21 PM on September 28, 2007

Study Latin, if you can. No, really

No, really, don't. Latin grammar has nothing to do with English grammar. And neither do style guides like Chicago and Fowler's (let alone the egregious Strunk & White). You need something by linguists who actually know what's going on with the language rather than parrotting traditional nonsense.

's a quick reference for tense/aspect. This is pretty much the standard reference book these days, but it may be a little much to start with. I'm trying to get an editing job done, so I can't spend more time on this now, but if something occurs to me I'll revisit the thread and add it.
posted by languagehat at 5:55 PM on September 28, 2007 [2 favorites]

In interesting tidbit I heard is that English in fact only has three tenses. The future tense doesn't really exist; we just say "will" followed by the unconjugated verb. Similarly the present continuous is just to be + gerund. That leaves, I think, perfect tense and past tense. All the other ways of taking about verbs are real, they're just not considered tenses.

Possibly one of the better ways to learn this stuff is not by studying another language (which, yes, will teach you grammatical concepts but not necessarily how they relate back to English -- for example, apart from popping up as "were" in a few sentences, English has no subjective) but by studying how to teach English -- i.e., a TEFL book. There are tons of them out there and many of them are written quite simply to be understood and grasped quickly. A particularly good one, I found, was the supplementary material I got while doing a TEFL course called TEFL International.
posted by Deathalicious at 8:02 PM on September 28, 2007

I highly recommend The ELT Grammar Book by Richard Firsten and Patricia Killian. It walks you through an exploration of each grammar point according to your existing knowledge and instincts, then talks about how to present it to others (and teaching activities, if you're in a formal situation). This book is invaluable because it is about how to explain grammar, rather than just how to understand it. It's one of the basic references I recommend to anyone who finds themselves in the situation of training/teaching/tutoring without the necessary specialist education to do so.

However, expect to continue encountering contractions, as English tends to mutate. In addition, even (especially) at the highest levels, grammarians and linguists disagree about the most fundamental concepts of grammar anyway.

Books like The Transitive Vampire are great fun and good for reinforcing the rules you already know, but virtually useless for helping explain things to someone else.
posted by wintersweet at 8:04 PM on September 28, 2007

Oh, and as far as explanations:

Perfect tense: this describes something just recently accomplished
I've washed the dishes
or to relate an experience
He has eaten sushi
Simple: although this can be used to describe a present action, it almost is never used for this purpose. Instead, its normal use is to describe habitual action, or to describe a state of being
I wake up every day at 8am. He plays the clarinet. She is a lawyer. My name is Elmer J. Fudd, millionaire. I own a mansion and a yacht.
Continuous: this is the de fact "present tense" in English. If you are talking about something happening right now, you are using present continuous. Present continuous is formed by to be (conjugated) + gerund (verb in infinitve form, +ing):
I am typing this example in MetaFilter
It gets more interesting when you talk about things like
I had been eating. I was eating. I have been eating. I will have been eating. I will be eating.
All of these deal with subtle indicators as to the time when these actions took place.

Past/Present/Future is much more simple, really:
Past -- it happened before now, and is not happening now
Present -- it is either happening right now, or has been and will continue to be happening
Future -- it has not happened yet

Hope this helps!
posted by Deathalicious at 8:20 PM on September 28, 2007

Studying Latin can give you an excellent command of the terminology we use to describe English grammar and the concepts that we cram it somewhat uncomfortably into.

Trouble with discussing tense is, people are going to mix it up with aspect and with time, and probably with all the other things that, verbs have (like voice and mood), and different people mix uphandle these things differently. I'll detangle them here in the way that's been most helpful for me, as a linguistics student and an EFL teacher, but be prepared for contradictions with other accounts. My treatment of tense and aspect owes a lot to an ESL lesson plan that used Cuisenaire rods, which I am now unable to dig up.

Tense is related to time, but it's not the same thing. 'Cats chase mice' is present tense, but the proposition is predicated to be true generically, at no particular time at all. 'I am buying doughnuts for my Calculus class next week' is present tense, but obviously future time. In 'She said math was hard and she'd rather go shopping', 'was' is past tense, but it also reports a generic assertion without time. (It's coerced into past tense because it's under the control of 'said', you see.)

In fact, let's run with the Talking Barbie scenario for a few more lines, because I want to illustrate something:

Arguably Sexist Barbie: I'm going shopping.

Barbie's Appropriately Concerned Mother: What about your math homework?

Arguably Sexist Barbie: I will do it after dinner, Mother.

Barbie's Appropriately Concerned Mother: You'd better.

[Arguably Sexist Barbie exits stage left. Barbie's Similarly Concerned Father enters left a moment later.]

Barbie's Similarly Concerned Father: Saw our Material Girl on the way in. She say where she's off to?

Barbie's Appropriately Concerned Mother: Shopping again, if you can imagine.

Barbie's Similarly Concerned Father: I couldn't, if I hadn't lived with her this long. She's shopping for another F in Math, I take it.

Barbie's Appropriately Concerned Mother: She said she would do her homework after dinner. I say we bring dessert in atop her textbook and lock the dining room door.

OK. Look first at that reported speech: 'I will' becomes 'She said she would', in much the same way that 'Math is hard' became 'She said math was hard'. Waitaminute, waitaminute. Did we just put 'will' into the past tense? Isn't 'will' in the future tense, by definition?

Let me propose that the correct answers to these questions are 'Pretty much, yeah' and 'Absolutely not', respectively.

Imagine that Barbie's Appropriately Concerned Mother had conversed instead with her brother and houseguest, Barbie's Couch-Surfing Hippie Uncle. 'Shopping again, if you can imagine.' 'Honestly, I can't. The human capacity for vanity and greed must be finite.' 'You haven't lived with my daughter long enough.' Whoa, whoa, whoa, look at that: 'Can/could' and 'have/had' are also in pairs.

(At first it may not be surprising that 'have' shows the same pairing of forms here that it does in 'I had five Philly cheesesteak sandwiches, and now I have three and a big smile.'. But it is surprising: One of them is this very abstract grammatical word that plays with the form of the verb, and the other is just ownership and possession. One of them can't be acted out, and one of them can. Why should they have any more in common than Mary Leakey and leaky faucets?)

OK, then the question becomes, Why did Similarly Concerned Father say 'couldn't' and 'hadn't'? Well, consider these prototypical uses of the words: 'I couldn't then, but I can now. I hadn't then, but I have now.' The purpose there is to draw a division between the other situation and the present one. Well, in what he actually said, the purpose was to draw a division between the hypothetical situation and the real one. And you distinguish between two different levels of hypotheticality every time you choose between 'may' and 'might'.

Now imagine that Barbie's Similarly Concerned Father has, for presumably unrelated reasons, recently ended a pack-a-day habit. He tapered down, and his last cigarette was ten days ago. He still gets cravings, though not nearly as bad as on the first three days. Do you say 'He quit on the 18th' or 'He's quitting, since the 18th'? Well, it depends on the context. It depends on how you're thinking about it. 'Hey, it doesn't smell so smoky in here!' 'Yeah, he quit on the 18th and it's started to clear out.' Past tense. 'Hey, Concerned Pops looks a little fidgety.' 'Yeah, well, you know, he's quitting smoking and it isn't easy.' Present. Why the two tenses? It's the same smokes and the same cravings at the same times, isn't it? Yes, but in one you've drawn a line between the last smoke and the present situation, and in the other one you haven't.

So let's put that all together. All verbs and verby things (everything that can be the head of a sentence, if you're a grammar nerd) come in two and only two flavors. One of them is called present when we call it anything at all. The other one might be called past, or subjunctive, or irrealis, or some other fancy word, depending on the verb, and on the theoretical bias and educational history of whoever's talking. If it helps, forget all those labels and call them 'proximal' and 'distal', or 'hereish' and 'thereish'. Point is, these are the two verb tenses of English. The default one is the proximal one, and we add a distal-sense marker to it when we want to draw a line between it and ourselves.

'Wait, wait, what about future?' ... Well, what about it? We don't have a third form. We express future meanings with the unmarked, proximal, 'present' tense all the time. When we do mark them explicitly, we use 'be going to' for old plans or 'will' for new ones, and these behave uncannily like a whole other group of words called modals, which are widely acknowledged not to contribute any tense of their own, but to do other things entirely. So should we make an exception here and say 'will' breaks the mold for modals and creates an entirely new future tense, a tense that is invisibly not the present tense even though it acts like it in every situation, just because Aristotle or somebody said there are three tenses? Or shall we call a spade a spade and admit that English has two tenses that each can refer to an infinite number of points in time, depending on how we feel about them?

Right. So that's tense. Your question really demands that I go into aspect as well, but this is getting freakin' long and I'm going to go ahead and post it while I write the aspect section.

By the way, the whole tense thing was easier for me to accept when I learned Ukrainian (Russian would work, too). There you've got two ways to decline a verb that are very different. One of them always indicates the past. The other one depends on the verb. In half the verbs, it indicates the present, and to talk about the future you have to put the verb in a tenseless form (infinitive) and precede it with the verb of being (in present tense!). The other half of the verbs have meanings that aren't compatible with a present meaning—they make the action an event, not an activity—and for them the other form means future. Traditional grammars over there assert that there are three tenses, as well, but it's as plain as anything that there are really only two.
posted by eritain at 10:37 PM on September 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

Oh, one more aside. I used the term 'marker' to refer to the past/subjunctive/irrealis/distal ... thing ... that gets added on to the verb. Markedness is an important idea in linguistics these days. The unmarked form of anything, you get for free. The marked form, you have to pay for. It takes up bandwidth in your communication, or working memory in the speaker and listener, or extra effort, or something. This turns out to be directly relevant to the tense-and-aspect thing: Past/subjunctive is marked, perfect aspect is marked, progressive aspect is marked—they're orthogonal, any or all of them can happen to a particular verb—but the more marked a particular form is, the less kinds of use it has and the less often it's used. It's a very neat correlation.
posted by eritain at 10:46 PM on September 28, 2007

OK. I'm back. It behooves me to say that the rest of my discussion is not going to be nearly so controversial. No more abolishing long-standing traditions of analysis, no more ragging on Aristotle (or whoever it really was), nothing that would make your middle school English teacher pop any more veins.

Although Biber et al., Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English, do bear me out in the two-tenses thing (section 6.2.1, p. 453). (They disagree about the tensability of modals, and honestly, over the range of phenomena they cover, that description is better. The historical pairing of may/might, can/could, shall/should, will/would is simpler to explain, though, and adequate for our purposes here.) In fact, I will be checking all my generalizations about usage against their chapter 6 (pp. 452-502) from here on out, so here's due credit for their fantastic work.

Here's a little more on the distancing function of past tense: 'Did you want a cup of tea?' and 'I wanted to let you know we got your swimsuit in.'—past for polite distance. 'And if you were in the mood we could at least go.'—past for hypothetical. (All three examples from the British National Corpus by way of the Longman Grammar.)

Now then. What about 'have eating' 'am eating' 'will have been eating' and all those? Here we add aspect to our considerations.

Remember how I mentioned that Ukrainian has two groups of verbs, one for events and one for activities? Well, that's the kind of thing that aspect deals with. Many languages have it, and no two use it quite the same way, but it has to do with the completedness of actions. Let's look at some English.

First we've got the perfect aspect, which is formed with 'have'. 'I went' is past, 'I have gone' is perfect. Present perfect, I should emphasize: 'have' is a present-tense verb. Er. Primary verb. INFL. Auxiliary. Helping verb, if infuriatingly fuzzy terminology is your bag. Whoops. I said I wasn't going to do that to your English teacher. Hope she can't read the small type. Yes, there is a past perfect as well. As you might expect, it's more marked and less common, except in fiction, where all pasts are unusually common.

Perfect aspect conveys that an action before the reference time still had effects at the reference time. In 'I have gone to the dollar movie theater' it means I'm still there. In 'I had been walking through Spitalfields just before I saw the peculiar-looking man', it sets prior background to a story that's already in the past. ('Had been walking' also has progressive aspect, but wait a minute for that.) 'Where have you been?' implies that, wherever you were, and regardless of your not being there now, your recent absence from my presence is still a going concern.

Look at those past perfects again. Notice that it's 'had' that gets the tense marking. In the present perfects, it's 'have' or 'has', so it gets the person-of-subject marking too. This is because it is the head of the sentence, just the way the main verb was in the non-perfect sentences. But here we get to watch it handing down orders to its subordinates: It demands a verb or verblike word in perfect form on the next level down. Therefore 'have gone' instead of 'have go', 'have been' instead of 'have be' (or, worse, a usurping of tense and person marking as in 'have is' or 'have was'). Have beaten, have run, have flunked, have remodeled. Sometimes the perfect form is identical to the past form. Don't get confused. If you aren't sure which is called for, try it with 'go/went/gone' and some other common irregular verbs.

So there's perfect aspect. Progressive aspect is independent of it. You can have either, neither, or both. However, if you've got both, you get them in the order I discussed: perfect progressive. (And you don't do that often, because again, progressive is the marked form.)

Progressives are formed with 'be', and they discuss action that is/was ongoing at a reference time. Might be continuously, might be off-and-on but frequent enough to notice. Progressives can also describe a temporary state of affairs: 'I've been sleeping with the window open' and 'I'm sleeping with the window open' both denote rather less permanence than 'I sleep with the window open.'

Notice the -ing suffix there. Just as 'have' demanded a perfect-form complement, 'be' demands a progressive-form complement.

Now I'll work through the other tense/aspect combinations. Present progressive: 'You are belching a lot.' Past progressive: 'I was sailing all afternoon.' Perfect progressive: 'How long have they been doing that? Well, they've been going out every Friday since July. Or did you mean, how long have they been sloppily making out in my living room?' And, are you ready for this, past perfect progressive: 'We had been climbing for four hours (when my knee started to hurt).'

That makes eight combinations, from unmarked simple present down through triply-marked past perfect progressive. Notice the 'chain of command' there: Sentencehood assigns tense to 'have', which assigns perfectness to 'be', which assigns progressiveness to 'climb'.

Most grammar books will not be satisfied with these eight, though. You never sold a grammar book by putting less in it. So the modals and semi-modals (can, could, may, might, shall, should, will, would, must, need to, ought to, dare to, used to, had better, have to, have got to, be supposed to, be going to) get thrown in to liven up the picture. Some of these will be listed as forming so-called tenses, and others will not, more or less depending on the ingenuity and tolerance for BS of the author and editor. It is true that you cannot combine them with past marking (except insofar as some of them already have it). You can combine them with aspect, or not: 'You must have seen something. She ought to be finding fingerprints. It could have been running for days. We shall fight them on the beaches.' You can also combine them with voice changes.

All right then. Voice. If a verb takes an object, you can put it in passive voice. This promotes the object to a subject and kicks the former subject out. Thus 'I and my staff made mistakes' becomes 'Mistakes were made'. This has a verb of being, like the progressive aspect, and it has a perfect-form verb, like the perfect aspect, but it is not an aspect, as explained above; it's a way to manipulate the argument structure of the verb. (BTW, how do we know it's a perfect form? 'Laws are flagrantly broken as the dinner is eaten' vs. 'Laws are flagrantly broke as the dinner is ate', that's how.) Formal grammar books generally neglect the other passive, the one formed with 'get', but it works the same way: 'get broken', 'get eaten', 'get married'.

Do aspects and voices combine? Yes, but the only one that's common at all is perfect passive (with or without past tense): 'We have been overeducated.'

For completeness's sake, the other two ways that finite verbs vary are negation (which I have not addressed, but you won't have too much trouble making it fit in) and interrogation (and don't you think we could let that slide?). Then there are non-finite verbs, which don't have tense but do seem to have some aspect at least: 'Be smiling when I get back.' 'Having gone, ...' 'to have been drowning' and so on. But at this point I have strewn my grammatical toys all over the floor, and it's time I pick them up and go to bed.
posted by eritain at 12:37 AM on September 29, 2007 [2 favorites]

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