present tenses - are they really past tense?

Discussion in 'Etymology, History of languages and Linguistics (EHL)' started by Biffo, Aug 30, 2013.

  1. Biffo Senior Member

    English - England
    I'm interested in the history of and motivation for the naming of verb tenses and forms in English. It seems to me that any so-called present-tense statement is really past tense.


    Suppose I say "The vase is falling off the shelf."
    Unless I speak very quickly, the chances are that the vase has already hit the floor and maybe has even broken before I finish the sentence. Surely I can never describe the present accurately because, by the time I utter a statement about it, it is already history.

    Suppose I say "The wedding dress is pure white" and at that instant someone throws ink over it - again I am only reporting what was the case. It is not even clear what it means to say that a statement is true. I believe we can only talk about what was true or will be true.

    There are only past and future tenses/verb forms in English if we name them accurately.

    I have more to say and to ask but I'm interested in people's comments first.

    Thank you.
    Last edited: Aug 30, 2013
  2. Ёж! Senior Member

    Before more qualified people proceed with telling facts about the history of philosophical investigations on this matter (I don't know anything about these investigations except that they existed and were probably numerous), I chime in with an interesting fact about the Russian verbal system. In Russian, you can talk of events in two manners: either considering them momentary, or considering them continuous. Naturally, the physical nature of the event is the same, no matter how you talk of it; but what is interesting is that only continuous verbs (they are called imperfective) can have the present tense. 'Momentary' verbs (they are called perfective) never have the present tense; that is, their forms of the present tense mean instead that the event is expected in the future.

    So, when you're talking about yourself in the present tense, you mean that you were doing something during some time in the past, and you will continue to do the same in the future (perhaps with major breaks, in Russian there is no 'continuous' aspect in the English sense). You are 'inside' this action temporally. As for English, I suppose when I say 'I like to read books', I mean about the same.
  3. Biffo Senior Member

    English - England
    That's very interesting. It makes me wonder about what I shall call "eternal truths". Suppose I say "2 + 2 = 4" then (given careful definition of terms) I have stated something that is true right now and always will be true. I distinguish this from what I shall call a transitory truth, e.g "John is a man". The latter may change at any moment, for example if John is evaporated by a huge explosion or a wizard converts him into a frog.

    How do you cope with eternal truths in Russian? (Note I don't speak Russian so I would appreciate an explanation in English if that is possible :)).
    Last edited: Aug 30, 2013
  4. Ёж! Senior Member

    For things like physical or mathematical laws and definitions we use the present imperfective: 'it is always possible to draw a plane through three dots that do not belong to the same line, yet this plane is single'; 'a corpse, completely put in water, forces out the volume of water which is equal to its own volume'. The same about Socrates, by the way: when you want to say he is a man, you can choose either the present or the past imperfective. When you mean an 'eternal truth', you use the present (Socrates remains to be a man even when he is dead); when you want to be more specific, you use the past. So, for example: 'Sir Isaac Newton (...) is a British physicist, mathematician, mechanician and astronomer, one of the creators of the classical physics' (literally translated from here). And, in the same vain, wolves eat hares in Russian, which is considered eternal truth, even though wolves and hares didn't exist from the beginning of the world and won't exist when the world will be dying out: whether they exist or not, their essential qualities remain the same.
    Last edited: Aug 30, 2013
  5. Hulalessar Senior Member

    English - England
    Linguistics, like all branches of learning, is not totally self-contained. Even so, it is still its own thing and it is particularly its own thing when describing a particular language, rather than language as a phenomenon. Every language is an act of classification which enables it speakers to talk about the world, events in the world and how they feel. The number of possible phenomena, events and experiences is huge, if not infinite, and for any language to be manageable, they have to be described with a limited number of segments organised according to rules. The segments and rules vary from language to language. Any description of a language sets out how the segments are manipulated having regard only to what can and must be expressed. It is not concerned, just as we are not in routine communications whether or not we are philosophers or scientists, with any philosophical or scientific notions of time, truth or universal categories. It asks rather: What are the conventions you have to follow?

    When describing anything in detail there comes a point when you have to start using labels. Notions of time play a significant part in the English verbal system. It is not therefore surprising that the words "past", "present" and "future" appear in the labels applied to different forms of the verb. The snag is that any label may not be sufficiently inclusive to describe every use of the form. I fear that is something that just has to be accepted. If the present tense was called the "base form", the "dictionary form" or the "marigold form" then this thread would never have been started!

    What I think we ought not to do is to look too closely too see whether any verbal form or the name it is given matches some concept we may entertain about time. Whilst in a philosophical discussion we may want to argue that there is no such thing as the present (or indeed that there is only an Eternal Now) the fact remains that when we speak English we need to use what is called the present tense.

    Whatever our philosophical or scientific view of time may be, in our everyday dealings I think we experience time as a series of packets so that we feel that "the present" actually is something that exists. Language reflects that so that whatever verbal system a language may have everyone feels that they can meaningfully talk about the past, present and future even if, on reflection, they may be hard pressed to explain exactly what the present is. No language has a verbal form used to express what is happening at the point where past and future meet for the simple reason that we rarely need to talk about that point. For the most part when we talk about "the present" we do not mean the vanishing point between past and present, or even some scintilla of time, but something much vaguer.
  6. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    These are two a bit constructed limiting cases of states changing/actions ending exactly at the time of utterance. It is a bit far fetched to use these examples to re-interpret the complete verb structure.

    As we are a history of language forum, we might start the discussion with a history of the Germanic verb system and the PIE verb system out of which it developed: The Germanic verbs had a system of only two tenses: past and present. The future had no special form but was expressed by the present (Tomorrow I go to London). There were no verb forms express aspect.

    In the PIE verb system (this is or course a reconstruction) out of which the Germanic system developed things were the opposite way round: If had originally only aspects: The stative aspect expressing states without reference to time and two eventive aspects: the perfective aorist that expressed an action as a singular event in time without specifying the time and an imperfective aspects that describes an action as ongoing. And only the imperfective aspect was split into tenses: past and present.

    The Germanic past developed out of a merger of the stative and the aorist while the present developed out of the present imperfect. There are a few exceptions, the "present-preterite" verbs were the present tense developed out of stative. In modern English you can still identify them by the missing third person -s: He can do that and not He *cans do that.
  7. Biffo Senior Member

    English - England
    I'd like to pick up on just this point initially. I chose extreme examples because I am looking for a formulation that will include extremes and not be confounded by them. I reserve the right to invoke a recalcitrant wizard who can dissolve a scene at will. Why? Because I believe that current state is irrelevant to our (perforce historical) utterances.

    John and Mary are on the phone. John is describing a scene to Mary.

    John: There is a vase on the table in front of me. I am pushing it. It is falling. It is broken.

    It is clear to me that John has used what we call present tenses/verb forms but what do they mean? For one thing, John may be lying. There may be no vase and no table. Or there is a vase and a table but John is lying about the actions. Even if if John has told the truth as he sees it, the wizard can wave his magic wand and nullify everything that happened.

    It is clear to me that the verb forms are precisely the same regardless of whether John presents factual information or not.

    Now, let us suppose that John is entirely truthful and there is no wizard. What does Mary know? She doesn't know about the present state of affairs. Suppose there is a delay on the phone line (there always is to some degree). Mary only knows what happened in the past.

    I'm looking for a description of tenses that is independent of state or truth. The forms of the verb are the same in any of my scenarios even though the reality is different. The big question for me is Functionally, what remains the same?
    Last edited: Aug 30, 2013
  8. Ёж! Senior Member

    A little fact for thinking: I don't know whether it is possible in English, but in Russian we can use the past tense to denote events that will happen in the near future: "I went" => "I will go soon". In a very limited number of contexts, of course. Maybe it's better not to look at the reality, but to look instead at what happens inside people's minds/brains when they hear something.
    Last edited: Aug 30, 2013
  9. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    The way you start your inquiry you are about to produce a perfect explanation for an extreme case and get confounded by all the regular cases. Doesn't sound like a good idea to me.

    John explains event unfolding as he speaks. This usage is called narrative present. It is not limited to the current time. It expresses describes events as "present" in the time line of the narration. If this time line is in the past we call it "historic present". But there are different uses of the present as well.
  10. Biffo Senior Member

    English - England
    I am not setting out to exclude other cases. I will be happy to accept examples put forward by others, provided that the explanation covers my extreme examples and their (perhaps) less extreme ones. I'm looking for a universal formula. This seems a reasonable thing to ask.

    It seems to me that there is no real difference between narrative and historic present outside of a wider context. "The vase is on the table" could be either. I am interested in the verb tense not the context. If I say or write "The vase is on the table" what have I actually said? What does it mean to me and what does it mean to a listener? These may be two different answers but they must have something in common - what is it?
  11. Ёж! Senior Member

    That the listener proceeds to (or decides how to) act, feel and think judging by the situation described as 'present'. See the 'present future' ('So, I go to the police tomorrow'), for example: its job is exactly to show to the listener that he should think more closely about the event, make decisions now. The delay that you described is just a technical limitation. After all, even if the vase is already on the floor, Mary will think how cruel you are only when she hears your message, and she'll think about this 'presently', i.e. in a 'present' way, like about a situation which is important exactly for the current work of mind.

    Still, I don't think we can have a completely universal formula, since the brain is an adaptive machine, working through setting new rules...
    Last edited: Aug 31, 2013
  12. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    Hmm.. If you want a formula that covers all uses in one, continuous and non-continuous, I am afraid the only thing uses of the present of the indicative (as far as I can see from your examples, you are only concerned with the indicative) have in common is that they state a fact that is not explicitly marked as being true or false (if used with a negating particle) in the past. Please note that is an essential part of the meaning of the indicative that it states something to be true or false. Please also note that this is about stating a fact to be true not about it being true in reality.
    Last edited: Aug 31, 2013
  13. Tunalagatta Senior Member

    English - England
    As Hulalessar said, the grammatical names of the English tenses do not always correspond to the time frame that they can describe, and it is often confusing and unnecessary to think of them as strictly time markers.

    Michael Lewis, in The English Verb, tries to find a common characteristic for all uses of the present tense, all uses of the past tense, each aspect and each modal verb. He nearly does it! Basically, choice of tense, aspect and modality tells us how the speaker perceives the situation they describe.

    Regarding tenses:

    The present tense is used by a speaker to convey closeness.
    The past tense is used to convey remoteness.
    This closeness can be temporal (i.e. to the time of speaking), hypothetical (likelihood of something being true or happening) or interpersonal (intimacy / distance between speaker and someone else).

    Each aspect conveys the speaker's perception of time:

    The simple denotes something unchangeable within a time frame.
    The continuous describes something that is limited by a time frame.
    The perfect is a retrospective look at something, with the point of time reference either given or implied through the context.

    So, for any given chunk of language in which at least one verb appears, even an extreme example, you should be able to make sense of the choice of tense and aspect with these "empirical" rules of use: closeness/remoteness + permanence/transience/temporal perspective. Modality tweaks it just a little bit more.
    Last edited: Aug 31, 2013
  14. ireney

    ireney Modistra

    Greek Greece
    Isn't it a case of what you consider present though? I mean, one could say that there is no present whatsoever, because the "now" consists of the smallest possible unit of time and "now" is therefore gone before any human can perceive it in any way, let alone speak about it.
    If you look it that way, there's no present and therefore no present tense. If you change the definition things change. May I say by the way that, if the ink has not fallen by the time someone has finished saying that the wedding dress is white, then, at present, even if the present is only a nanosecond or something, the dress is, at present, white. The fact that it was white in the past too is immaterial. Same for a case of me washing the dishes and telling someone that this is what I'm doing. As long as I am still doing it by the time I've finished saying it then, at present, I'm doing the dishes. I may have been doing the same for the past seconds but that doesn't change the fact that this is, in fact what I'm doing now and may stop doing in a second.
  15. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    I am afraid this means close to nothing to me without examples.
  16. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    It is obviously an attempt to explain the tenses of the indicative and the subjunctive with a single concept.
    - Indicative: The present and the future are closer to us than the past.
    - Subjunctive: The past subjective expresses something that is only hypothetically possible while the present subjective expresses something more probable. In older use (until early 20th century) you have the contrast if his be so we are all at fault in vs. if were so we would all be at fault where the first sentence expresses a reserve on the part of the speaker while the second sentence expresses rejection or at least severe doubts.
    Last edited: Sep 9, 2013
  17. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    Curiously, I have always thought of the future as more remote than the past. We "have" the past, but we "will" the future.
    To me the first sentence is a sort of prediction (kind of like "If this should (turn out to) be so, then we must all be to blame") and would be better with must, will, or some other present tense modal added, and the second sentence concerns a hypothesis that is either doubtful (e.g. improbable or impossible) or dubious (e.g. scary or unthinkable).

    "It's time you learned the truth" means something very like "It's time for you to learn the truth", but with the suggestion that the "learning" is overdue. I see nothing remote about being overdue, but maybe this construction is just, well, exceptional.
  18. Gavril Senior Member

    English, USA
    "It's time you learn the truth" (present subjunctive?) sounds more urgent to me than "It's time you learned the truth". The first sentence strongly suggests that the person is planning to tell me the truth right then and there; the second could imply this as well, but it could also simply be an exhortation for me to go and find out the truth.
  19. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    Hmm.. I thought I had been very explicit in stating that this is an outdated use of the present subjective (Example and explanation are taken from C.T.Onions, Modern English Syntax, §90, posthumous 1971 edition; first edition is from 1904). Nevertheless it is an interesting approach to explain the underlying meaning of Germanic tense system (past vs. present).
    Last edited: Sep 5, 2013
  20. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    The form "if it be so" is actually still used sometimes, but much less often than it used to be. At one time (17th and 18th century I think), (some) writers always wrote "if this be so" where today we would write "if this is so", with no apparent nuance. This habit is certainly outmoded.

    But I doubt "if this be so" ever showed reserve on the part of the speaker, unless it was hesitation at making a pronouncement about the future, as in the once-common "if the good Lord will (it)".

    In other words, I believe "if this be so" has always meant either simply "if this is so" or else the predictive "if this (should) be so".

    I am most curious about the purported use of past tense to express interpersonal remoteness.
  21. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    Ok, for the sake of the argument let's assume if this be so... and if this should be so... to mean the same. I see no problem in describing if this should be so... as reserved hypothetical and if this were so... as doubtful/rejecting hypothetical.

    Yeah. I've been pondering for a few days now what couldn't be meant by this... to no avail.
    Last edited: Sep 5, 2013
  22. Ben Jamin Senior Member

    Your question reminds me of the Zeno of Elea's paradoxes, like the one about the arrow, or Achilles and the turtle. I think that the answer lies in another way of looking at things.
  23. francisgranada Senior Member

    Even more, the interaction among subatomic particles can happen also backwards in time, and according to the theory of relativity, the contemporaneity is also relative. E.g. an event may have happend in the past for one observer and will happen in the future for an other obsever.

    Thus the term "present tense" may be ok from the practical point of view, as it expresses a subjective attitude and not the "objective reality".
  24. Biffo Senior Member

    English - England
    My concern is different. It has more to do with language than reality. I can say "Subatomic particles are made of cheese." I have used the present tense but I haven't described reality. More to the point, I haven't even expressed my subjective attitude because I don't believe that subatomic particles are made of cheese.

    As far as I can see, the truth value of my statement and what I believe are irrelevant to the tense but, even if they were, what would I be saying? At what point does a statement become true or false?

    It seems to me that a present-tense statement only has a meaning once I have finished saying it. It has no meaning whilst I am still speaking because it isn't grammatically complete. Only at the instant that I stop vocalising does my statement have grammatical closure. The problem is that when I stop vocalising, my statement is already history. It refers to a situation that was true or false (or non-existent) when I was speaking. Therefore it is past tense.
    Last edited: Sep 7, 2013
  25. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    1) It cannot be past tense because past tense expresses pastness and in your scenario the event is only incidentally and not expressly in the past.
    2) The scenario you describe is hardly relevant for the semantics and pragmatics of the present tense. The present tense expresses events or states that are
    • Static, i.e. by there nature tenseless, like two plus two equals four.
    • States prevailing/actions during long enough so that the time it takes to utter the sentence is irrelevant: He is preparing to a lecture.
    • ... And if the present tense is used to describe an event of very short duration/that is atomic in time, it is used to mean (near) future and not (recent) past: The bomb explodes at 23:11:25.
    • Habitual actions: He goes to the gym every day.
  26. Tunalagatta Senior Member

    English - England
    Sorry :eek: - I did originally start giving examples, but then I thought my post looked too long and ungainly!

    Interpersonal: I'll try to explain they mystery!

    Your name?
    What's your name?
    Can you tell me your name?
    Could you tell me your name?
    Sorry, what was your name?
    I was wondering what your name was?

    Each example performs the same basic function, but the increasing grammatical complexity, including change in tense, shows that the relationship between whoever the people are is more and more distant. Something like that.

    Other examples that might be relevant to Biffo's question:

    Present tense (closeness) + simple aspect (unchangeableness):

    Time: The vase is on the table/subatomic particles are made of cheese.

    I perceive it as somehow relevant to the "now" of the time of the utterance, or the time of the scene being described [present tense use], and it is unlimited by time - its truth extends beyond it in the temporal past and future [simple aspect use].

    It doesn't matter that once I've finished saying it, time has moved on. It covers more bases than the moment of utterance. It remains true until I say otherwise.

    The "future timetable" use of the present tense I'd say is more connected to hypothesis than time.

    The first commercial flight to Mars departs on 31st January 2040.

    We cannot actually know the future, but this suggests that it is incredibly likely [present tense] and unchangeable [simple aspect].

    Present tense (closeness) + continuous/progressive aspect (limitedness)

    The vase is falling.

    The time of the action and utterance actually coincide [present tense], but I am aware that it will not fall forever [progressive aspect].

    Past tense [remoteness] + simple aspect [unchangeableness]

    The vase fell.

    I see it as being temporally remote from now [past tense] and I don't perceive it as something that was changeable within that time frame [simple aspect].

    The vase was falling.

    It is temporally remote from now [past tense] and within that time frame the action was limited [progressive aspect].
    Last edited: Sep 7, 2013
  27. sotos Senior Member

    When languages were formed, people were not thinking orthologically or scientifically. Yet, there are conditions that cannot change instantly. "Food is ready" or "it is hot" cannot be false the next second, unless you transit to a parallel universe.
  28. Biffo Senior Member

    English - England
    Well of course "It is hot" can change instantly if you throw ice-cold water on "it". The real point however is what you just said. You said "Food is ready." You used English perfectly correctly but were you referring to a fact? Was there any food involved at all or did you just make it up? This is the point I'm having to repeat. What we say and what is true are different things entirely. I can say "You are a talking rabbit." This is in present tense, the grammar is correct but what is the time that it refers to?
  29. Tunalagatta Senior Member

    English - England
    When language is used, people are involved. The language they choose reflects either their perception and opinion of time and reality, or at least the way that they wish to present it, regardless of whether it is true or not. There isn't a separate language of impartial truth, spoken or written by an objective, non-human observer.
  30. Hulalessar Senior Member

    English - England
    More than that it is just not possible for a language to describe "life, the universe and everything" accurately.
  31. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    I find Lewis' solution to the problem of finding a common underlying notion for the semantic of the Germanic tenses (the fact that only the original tenses past+present are contrasted and not the modern ternary system of tenses, past, present and future, suggests that he tries to unveil the inner logic of these inherited tenses). But I am much more sceptical about this one. The past tense of the subordinate clause in I was wondering what your name was? are in my opinion more convincingly explained as being due to Romance consecutio temporum rules that were imported at a later stage and have nothing to do with the underlying semantics. It is a piece of circumstantial evidence for this that other Germanic languages that did not adopt these strict consecutio temporum rules use present tense here. German, e.g., uses present subjective or in colloquial speech also present indicative here. The usage of past tense would imply that the person who is asking the question assumes the other person's name to have changed in the mean time.
  32. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    No sentence of a natural language can carry all its context within it. Every speech act requires some shared background knowledge to be meaningful. You're right when you say the the objective truth of this shared background knowledge is irrelevant to the meaning of an utterance. But the existence of such shared assumption (whether true or false) is essential to the meaning of the sentence. For the sentence the soup is hot to be meaningful in the way it is in ordinary conversation, there has to be an underlying assumption that the state of the soup of being hot persists sufficiently long to inform a listener of this fact while the state still persists and for the listener to react to it. Otherwise the speaker wouldn't use present tense in this situation. And if, my some unknown magic, the assumption later turns out to be false and the soup to cool down before the speaker can finish this short sentence, the listener would not understand the sentence to represent a past state but would object to the speaker's claim (But the soup isn't hot any more).
  33. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    This does not fit with the way I use English or have observed English to be used.

    I would explain the tenses here in terms of temporal relationships, except that could is more likely to be conditional than past tense. They really say nothing in themselves about interpersonal relationships.

    Besides, I feel that the first example "Name?" is most likely to be spoken by a complete stranger, and "Could you tell me your name?" suggests I am asking for the first time whereas "Sorry, what was your name?" suggests I have forgotten your name.
  34. francisgranada Senior Member

    A question: Can we give examples also from other languages, or this thread is exclusively about the English?
  35. Biffo Senior Member

    English - England
    I see no objection to discussing other languages. :) Personally I would find an accompanying description in English helpful but that is up to you.
  36. francisgranada Senior Member

    In English, of course, but giving examples from other languages as well, as your original question
    seems to be rather general ("language independent"), as far as I understand it.
  37. Biffo Senior Member

    English - England
    I agree. No problem :thumbsup:
  38. Lugubert Senior Member

    Or, the future is closer, because we are moving towards it and will eventually reach it, but the past is so remote that it can't be reached again, ever. Do you feel that the future is more like upwards or downwards? I suppose you see it as reached by struggling upwards and leaving the past below. In Chinese, next month is down month etc. Again, easier moving downhill than uphill.
  39. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    We carry the past in our memories, and we have photographs and recordings, but the future is unknown. I have never thought of past or future being up or down, but we say "before now" for the past and "before us" for the future, "behind us" for the past and "after this" for the future.
  40. Biffo Senior Member

    English - England
    Yes, in English even the word 'past' indicates something that we have 'passed' in our journey through life. The past is therefore 'behind' us and hence the future is in front of us as we move 'forward' along the road of existence.

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