A Little Less Tense

As is traditional, a few hours after posting this, I realised that my model is maybe not wrong but certainly incomplete. I'll have another stab at completing it soon.

How many tenses does english have?

The simple answer is: Two.

Almost all english verbs come in two forms, usually called 'present' and 'past'. The verb 'see' has 'see' in the present form, and 'saw' in the past. There's also 'sees' and the like for third person singular subjects, but that's (almost) always just the present form with a suffix '-s'.

There's 'love' and 'loved', 'think' and 'thought', 'poke' and 'poked' etc., with 'loves', 'thinks' and 'pokes' for hes, shes and its.

'See' also gives us 'seen' and 'seeing', but these are participles generated by the verb, not verbs themselves.

The descriptions 'past' and 'present' are misleading, because the past and present forms often don't refer to corresponding times. For taking about the future, we use present-tense verbs like 'will', and participle constructions like 'going to'.

So how many time-referring forms are there? The usual answer is: Eight.

As well as the two tenses, there are four 'aspects', called 'Simple', 'Continuous' (or 'Progessive'), 'Perfect-Simple' (or just 'Perfect) and 'Perfect-Continuous' (or, amazingly, 'Perfect-Progressive'). Here they are on a table:

Continuousis seeingwas seeing
Perfect-Simplehas seenhad seen
Perfect-Continuoushas been seeinghad been seeing

So what do they mean? Well, of any indicative sentence, you need to ask three questions:

1) Is the important thing the event itself, or the result of that event? The difference between 'Mike learned to drive' and 'Mike has learned to drive' is that in the latter we don't know or especially care when he did the learning - the imporant thing is the present result of the fact that he did it, namely that he can drive now. In the former we know that he learned to drive, but we don't know whether he's since forgotten.

2) Is the event in the past or the present? This isn't actually clearly defined. 'Today' is always in the present and 'yesterday' is always past, which is why 'I have done it yesterday' is wrong - it's mixing up the Present Perfect tense/aspect combination with the past. But if the context is 'this year', then yesterday is surely part of the present. I'm just going to mix my metaphors, and sweep this skeleton in the closet under the carpet.

3) At the time you're talking about, is it finished or unfinished? Remember those participles? In english, the forms of verbs tell us (at least sometimes) whether the action we're describing is in the past or the present. In technical terms, verbs decline for tense. But the participles decline for completion - 'eating' is ongoing, but 'eaten' is finished.

(In Arabic, verbs decline for completion...and they have nothing like participles. The grammar's quite simple, but very different.)

Three questions, three answers of yes or no, giving...yes, eight permutations. So:

* He sees - in the present but completed, and it's the seeing we care about, not the consequences.
* He saw - in the past, completed since then, and we're focusing on the event itself.
* He is seeing - the event is the important thing, it's in the present, and it hasn't finished yet.
* He was seeing - it's the event we care about, it's present, and is unfinished.
* He has seen - the event is in the past and it finished sometime in the past, but the important thing is the result...which is present.
* He had seen - the result is in the past and it's what we care about, while the event itself is further in the past, and at the time of the result has finished.
* He has been seeing - present, still happening, and result is important.
* He had been seeing - past, was still happening at the time but has since finished, and the result is the important thing.

It's quite neat, it's in all the grammar books, and it's what I teach my students. It's also a perfectly adequate model if you care more about communication than grammar. The only trouble is, gee whiz, I don't think it's quite right.

The words 'be', 'have' and 'do' have meanings as ordinary verbs, but they also have grammatical functions as 'helping verbs' - what some books call 'auxiliary verbs', and others call 'non-modal auxiliary verbs'. Actually, I think they're wrong and 'do' is a modal, but that's another story.

In everything except the so-called 'Simple' aspect, 'be' indicates that it's the event which is important, and 'have' foregrounds the result. For the Simples, the event is what's important.

This is the conventional model of the four aspects:

SimpleVerbHe sees/saw
ContinuousBe + ParticipleHe is/was seeing
Perfect-SimpleHave/Had + ParticipleHe has/had seen
Perfect-ContiniousHave/Had Been + ParticipleHe has/had been seeing

I have a slightly different model:

Everything elsebe/have + adjective phrase

 The adjective phrase, also called a 'complement' in grammar books, looks like this:

been been
been being
been had
been having
being been
being being
being had
being having
had been
had being
had had
had having
having been
having being
having had
having having
been been been
been been being

Now, the obvious thing. The vast majority of these are theoretical possibilities and grammatically sound, but pretty useless in real life. Most are either redundant in that there are simpler forms which mean the same thing, or only rarely useful, or so convoluted that it's easier to express them in multiple shorter sentences.

But it does account for sentences like:

* The king is arrived.
* He is having travelled a long way.
* He is being escorted.
* We are having been waiting.
* We are having had much to do.
* It is been cold.

These may be unusual, but I think once you get used to them, you'll realise they're perfectly meaningful.

There are an infinite number of possible auxiliary participle chains, in the same way that there are an infinite number of sentences - including an infinite subset which are infinitely long. But lets put that under the carpet with the skeleton.

Less immediately obvious but more useful: I've done away with the Perfect-Continuous aspect. Or rather, it's now part of the Perfect aspect.

Instead of: I + have been + seeing...

We have: I + have + been seeing.

The Perfect-Continuous has been a thorn in the side of grammarians and TEFLers since people started thinking about english grammar. It doesn't quite fit with the rest of the standard model - for a start, the 'main verb' of the sentence has to be two verbs, both of them auxiliaries, which is a bit weird.

And you can only have 'I have been seeing', never the other permutations - 'I having been seeing', 'I have being seeing' or 'I having being seeing'. This in spite of the fact that they occur in sentences like 'Having been seeing the ghost for a week, I started to investigate', and 'How long have you being seeing my daughter?'

So, have I solved a problem in english grammar? Or have I missed something staggeringly obvious? Or am I going a bit bonkers, and this is the first sign?

For that, you'll have to tell me.

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