Verbal Group 2 – time and space

The tenses are usually presented as a time line where each tense can be named separately yet this is somewhat misleading, or “distorted” as H & M put it (p.345). I think it might be more useful to think in three-dimensional terms of time and space. Take a simple example of these two sentences:

  1. Do you want a copy?
  2. Did you want a copy?

The second is seen as more ‘polite’, not through any inherent semantic marker of politeness but from the fact that the past tense is (metaphorically) distanced from the speaker. It opens a space between the event and the speaker through language.

I think for EFL it can be useful then to ‘picture’ the tenses in terms of this space-time. Here is two people on a date:

The primary event here is the date, so we could say:

  • They are on a date.

This is the primary present tense. We might want to also “narrow down and sharpen the focus” (H & M, p.346) of this primary event by making increasingly delicate distinctions as the date progresses. At the time of the picture, they might have had dinner already and are now walking around looking for a good place for coffee. It still looks early so it’s possible they have been walking for 20 minutes enjoying the summer evening.  These are the secondary tenses. We might then picture it as below:

The primary tense used alone, being deictic, construes the event as suggesting some truth or fact about the world whereas the secondary tenses, being relative to that event, suggest the possibility of change. This might be why we say “we are dating“, with a possibility of it ending at some point, and then “we are married“, construed as a permanent state. We can also see this in the distinction between “you are silly“, which suggests a permanent character flaw, and “you are being silly“, which a parent might say to stop some temporary behaviour in a child.

I think from this we can also see that there is some overlap between the tenses rather than the traditional naming. As H & M put it, listing tenses “suggests that there is a clear-cut distinction between those tenses that exist and others that don’t, whereas the system varies for different speakers” (p. 346). Using a visual representation of this might help students ‘see’ how the tenses interact and form a system of choices that enable speakers to construe events in different ways.

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