Showing posts with label English language. Show all posts
Showing posts with label English language. Show all posts

Monday 12 March 2018

The Truth about English Verb Tenses: There Is Only One!

Tense versus aspect

Some languages do not have verb tenses.  The English language has only one tense:  the simple past tense, also known as the preterite tense, which signals that an action was completed at a specific time in the past.  ESL teachers, like me once upon a time, confuse students by saying that English verb tenses refer to the past, the present or the future, but they don't really.  Once you start teaching verbs in detail you realize that we use modal auxiliaries like "will" and "going to" to refer to the future.  What we traditionally call "the present tense" refers to the present, past and future, as in the examples "I live in Canada" or "The population of Sao Paulo is 10 million."  The more difficult and significant distinction among English verbs are aspects like habitual (I study), continuous (I am studying), perfect (I have studied) and perfect continuous (I have been studying), which usually get taught as being different tenses.

Twelve tenses or four aspects?

The truth is that when I was teaching issues like verb tense I, like everyone else, always instructed my students that there were twelve different “tenses” in English.  In hindsight I recognize that by identifying the various forms of verb as referring to the past, the present or the future, I was mislabelling what the various forms indicated and necessarily misleading and confusing my students.  The crucial concept is not “tense” but “aspect” and most grammar books destined to instruct students learning English don’t even mention the concept of “aspect.”

Tenses do not correspond to the time frames which give them their names

Describing verbs as being “past,” present” or “future” is (with the exception of the past) meaningless and misleading.  The fact that English verbs can be “simple” (or habitual/repeated), “continuous” (or progressive, the French “imperfect” is sensible), “perfect” and “perfect continuous” is much more significant and meaningful.  Teaching “aspect” is a much more promising approach for getting the variations across to students than the self contradictory tradition of referring to every form of the verb as a “tense.”  The only way to prove my point is to consider each of the so-called “verb tenses.” 

Grammar and usage:  no point in one without the other

One caveat:  when teaching it was my ambition to teach grammar and usage together.  In other words, if I found myself teaching a sentence that was grammatically correct but I could never imagine anyone ever saying it in a meaningful context I would take a step back and reconsider what I was teaching.


Present tense.  “He eats spaghetti.”  Not very meaningful.  In context: “He loves spaghetti.  He eats spaghetti every chance he gets.”  We call it the “present tense” but obviously it refers to the past and the future.  The one time period “eats” does not refer to is the present.  The aspect can be described as habitual, repeated, factual or stative.

Present continuous

Present continuous.  “He is eating spaghetti.”  No obvious meaningful context.  Maybe Mom calls home to the nanny to ask what little Johnny is having for lunch.  “Is eating” does refer to the present, but it also refers to the past and the future.  In fact, in the real world we most typically use the “present continuous” to indicate the future:  “I’m seeing the doctor tomorrow.” The important issue is it’s aspect:  it signals something continuing or in progress.   The concept that students will eventually have to grasp is the difference between a “repeated” or “habitual” action and a “continuous” action.  It is difficult to come up with an absolute, teachable distinction between these aspects, but the most obvious distinction is that a continuous action can be interrupted.  (Think about it.  We all think we know the difference between a liquid and a solid but physicists have yet to come up with an absolute distinction.  Exactly at what point is a solid ice cube considered liquid water?  Same problem with continuous versus repeated.)

Present Perfect

Present perfect.  “He has eaten spaghetti.”  Can you imagine yourself saying this in the real world?  Here you would really have to stretch your imagination to come up with a meaningful context.  How about:  “He has eaten the spaghetti, but there is some lasagna left.”  This “verb tense” drives Francophones crazy because there is no equivalent tense in French, but the structure (verb “to have” + past participle) is exactly the same as the simple past in French—but it’s not the simple past in English. Again, we call it the “present perfect” but it refers to an action that has taken place in the past.  The concept that needs to be gotten across to students is the answer to "what does 'perfect' mean?"  The perfect aspect implies a time frame within which the action happens (not the action itself) that is “perfect” or “complete” or like a circle or at least has a beginning point and an end point.  The implied time frame extends from some time in the past to the moment of speaking, and the action occurs at some unspecified time within that  “perfect,”  completed time frame. 
I have presented the following scenario to try to get across the meaning of the “present perfect”:  John wants to ask Mary out, but she wants to politely, indirectly decline.  John asks “Would you like to see Star Wars with me tonight?”  Should Mary say: a) “I saw it.”  or b) “I’ve seen it.”? Native speakers will recognize “b” (the present perfect) as the correct answer but will likely be at a loss to explain that the present perfect is used to signal an action in the past (Mary’s seeing the movie) which touches the present (Mary’s declining John’s invitation).  Adverb phrases like “so far,” “already,” and “up until now” are the strongest signals that the present perfect is required.

Present perfect continuous

Present perfect continuous.  “He has been eating spaghetti.”  In this case the context is easy to imagine:  something you would say because Johnny has spaghetti sauce all over his face.  Take note that the action of this supposed “present” tense is in the past. In terms of aspect it’s “perfect” because the implied period of time extends to the present, but it’s continuous because some consequence (sauce on face) of the past action has spilled over and is continuing into the present.

Past tense

Past tense.  “He ate spaghetti.” This is a verb tense.  The one tense in English that it makes sense to describe as a tense.  The action takes place at a specific time in the past or it was repeated in the past.  It’s past tense because  the action takes  place in the past.  The past tense uses all four aspects:  simple, continuous, perfect and perfect continuous.

Past continuous

Past continuous.  “He was eating spaghetti.” The important distinction to be learned is between the simple past aspect and the continuous aspect—exactly the same concept necessary to grasp the difference between the simple present and the present continuous; i.e., the continuous can be interrupted.

Past perfect

Past perfect.  “He had eaten spaghetti.” This usage seems a bit off.  When might you say this?  More likely, the context would demand “some spaghetti” or “the spaghetti” as in “His sister was angry because he had eaten the spaghetti” or “He got sick after he had eaten some spaghetti.”   The context needs to make the “spaghetti” more specific in order for the action of eating it to have been completed in a past time frame. The action took place in the past, but the important distinction is the implied, “perfect,” “completed” time frame within which the action took place.

Past perfect continuous

Past perfect continuous.  “He had been eating spaghetti.”  Here an imagined context jumps out at you.  It’s “perfect” (in the sense of completed, defined,  limited, or full-circle) because the action happened within an implied (or expressed) time frame, but “continuous” because some consequence passed or spilled over the implied limit—“ . . . and had noodles on his shirt” or “ garlic on his breath” or “he had to stop when someone knocked on the door.”


Future.  “He will eat spaghetti.”  Unless prefaced by something Biblical like “God said . . . ,” I find it hard to imagine how this might be a statement about the future.  In general, I don’t see this as being a tense.  “Will” + the root infinitive seems more like all the other modals—“can,” “should,” “may,” “must,” “might,” “would”—than a verb tense.   Our sample only makes sense to me as a conditional sentence:  “If there is nothing else available, he will eat spaghetti.” Anglophones typically express the future by using the expression “going to.”

Future continuous

Future continuous:  “He will be eating spaghetti.”  Same argument as above—not a verb tense.  Still seems a modal to me.  Again, the important distinction is aspect:  continuous versus habitual.

Future perfect

Future perfect:  “He will have eaten spaghetti.”  Ditto the argument.  This is a modal verb + the perfect aspect, not a verb tense. 

Future perfect continuous

Future perfect continuous:  “He will have been eating.” Ditto previous claims about “will” as a modal and aspect.

Tuesday 28 November 2017

Deconstruction and “Ways of Talking”

Derrida denied deconstruction was of any importance

As I’ve mentioned previously, the last time I saw Jacques Derrida, who is credited with coining the term “deconstruction,” being interviewed he was quite adamant that “deconstruction” was not a concept of any importance, not even a theory, not even a word that he used anymore. ( See "Critical Thinking Skills" and "Family Values")  Nonetheless, the word has taken on a life of its own and, while it may have gone out of fashion, it is still with us and showing no signs of disappearing from the language.  (See footnotes.)

Postmodernist deconstructionist smuggery

If you have ever tried to confront a postmodernist deconstructionist by pointing out that his work was contradictory, illogical, duplicitous, nonsensical and hypocritical, you would likely find him responding with glee, “Exactly!”—as if he were personally responsible for your recent intellectual epiphany.  Given the deconstructionist stance that language is guaranteed to fail and is ultimately meaningless, you might wonder why Derrida seemed so happy with the tens of books (meaningless books, obviously) he had published.  Why write at all?  If you asked your postmodernist deconstructionist friend that question, the conversation would inevitably lead to a tangential monologue about a recent grant application winning hundreds of thousands of dollars, an upcoming publication in a prestigious journal, a conference in Hawaii, and high expectations of promotion.

"Ways of talking" in The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself

So how can we confront deconstruction?  How can we address the malaise of postmodernist deconstructionist smuggery?  Recently I found an answer in an unusual source, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself, by a physicist named Sean Carroll.  The answer lies in an expression that Carroll uses quite frequently:  “ways of talking.”  However, before we get there we need to have a better grasp of what deconstruction is/was.

Deconstruction begins with "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences"

Whenever I taught deconstruction (no, I didn’t only teach the stuff I admired), I would focus on the definition that Derrida provided when he was being cross-examined after his seminal conference paper “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” at Johns Hopkins University in 1966.  (Excuse all of my ellipses which follow but I find they are necessary if you want to pick out what Derrida is saying from the obfuscating verbiage.  I’ll put the full quote in a footnote, so you’ll know I’m not fudging.) Derrida said, “[. . . .] déconstruction [. . . . .] is simply a question  of being alert to the implications, to the historical sedimentation of the language which we use [ . . .  .].”* 

Deconstruction is a very old, and not very complicated, idea

“Being alert to the historical sedimentation of language” is good advice.  In fact, “being alert to the historical sedimentation of language” is exactly what generations of lexicographers and scholars have done over centuries in creating The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) since the project was first begun by Dr. Samuel Johnson in 1746.  If you peruse the OED, you will notice that the meanings of words change over time, until every word in the language seems to have, on average, five or six different meanings. If you imagine a sentence in English with ten words and each of those words has five potentially different meanings, and the meaning of the sentence can be affected by connotation, figures of speech, interpretations, intertextuality, tone of voice and punctuation, you can begin to appreciate postmodernist deconstructionist claims that the language fails, that its meanings are “indeterminate,” “deferred,” even “infinite”—and therefore meaningless.

Deconstructionist ways of talking about language create meaninglessness

How do these claims work?  How is it possible that this deconstructionist idea that language fails to communicate seems so logical and convincing, even though I remain absolutely confident that when I read or hear ten words of a sentence in English I understand the meaning, even if it contains some ambiguity or irony.  The explanation I now see is that there are different “ways of talking” about language.

"Ways of talking" is a profound concept

Carroll’s description of that “innocuous sounding but secretly profound idea that there are many ways of talking about the world, each of which captures a different aspect of the underlying whole” helps us to understand how deconstructionist claims about the meaninglessness of language can be convincing even as we hold onto the strong conviction that we do manage to understand the meaning of language on a daily basis.  

The "way of talking" can determine meaning or meaninglessness

The easiest and most obvious way to reflect upon different “ways of talking” is to consider that the average human being is comprised of seven billion billion billion atoms (7 followed by 27 zeros).  Consider the claim that “I don’t understand Mary because she is comprised of billions of billions of billions of atoms and they are constantly changing.”  It’s pretty hard to argue with the science and the logic of this claim but, at the same time, it seems obvious that this is not an appropriate or meaningful way of talking about Mary or any human being for that matter.  

As Carroll explains,"There is one way of talking about the universe that describes it as elementary particles or quantum states [ . . . .] There is also another way of talking about it, where we zoom out a bit and introduce categories like ‘people’ and ‘choices’.”

Mary may, with scientific certainty, be an octodecillion of atoms and be 99% oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus, but talking about her this way will certainly make her appear impossible to understand and, in fact, meaningless.  In truth, I can sometimes understand Mary and may sometimes misunderstand her, but overall I know that she is comprehensible and meaningful.

Deconstructionists' "way of talking" about language makes it meaningless

Similarly, postmodernist deconstructionists’ way of talking about language reduces it to marks on the page or collections of morphemes and phonemes.  This way of talking precludes understanding and meaning.  To get understanding and meaning you have to use these words in the way of talking in which people--who aren't just clumps of molecules--usually use them.


*”Here or there I have used the word déconstruction, which has nothing to do with destruction.  That is to say, it is simply a question of (and this is a necessity of criticism in the classical sense of the word) being alert to the implications, to the historical sedimentation of the language which we use—and that is not destructive”  (Derrida in Contemporary Literary Criticism 497).

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