Metaphors of time and grammar

One of the most common EFL grammar lessons, especially at Beginner or Pre-Intermediate levels, is the ‘Present Continuous to Talk About Future Plans’ lesson. While this is an important usage for the present-in present and should be introduced at some stage, the problem I’ve always had with these kinds of lessons is that it doesn’t explain why we might choose that tense in that situation. Recently however, I’ve been trying to introduce the notion of grammatical metaphor in relation to time and tense choice: the dichotomy between real-world time and grammatical time. Let’s call then R-T and G-T.

If R-T and G-T match, then we are presenting some fact about the world directly. For example, I go hiking on weekends, where R-T and G-T both construe a primary present, expresses a true condition about my habitual action while I’m going hiking on weekends these days, where the G-T shifts to a secondary present-in present, expresses some change that has occurred (hence the Circumstance these days – we want to know when the change started). Often, when R-T and G-T match it can be too pragmatically direct. Compare, for example, Do you want a drink? (R-T = G-T) with Did you want a drink? (R-T ≠ G-T).

When talking about the future this grammatical metaphor also comes into play. Imagine explaining there is a meeting tomorrow (there is/tomorrow – R-T ≠ G-T construing the meeting as a hypothetical event). We may wish to construe this as confirmation of a fact about the future with primary future (I’ll have a meeting tomorrow – R-T = G-T) or shift it slightly into the primary present (I have a meeting tomorrow – R-T ≠ G-T) to suggest some slight hypotheticality or that it is one as usual out of a regular scheduled series. This slight difference can be used by writers to subtle effect. Here are two newspaper versions of the same story written by the same reporter. Note the shift in the last two sentences of each:

Power firm angry over new rule on shipments By Barry Turnbull A ROW has erupted over the construction of the controversial coal imports terminal in Bootle. Furious bosses of electricity giants Powergen claim environmental protection measures demanded by Sefton Council will add £12m to the cost of the £40m project. The company is to challenge the conditions imposed by Sefton Council on the grounds that they are unnecessary. Powergen got the go-ahead for the £40m Gladstone Dock facility earlier this year. But cautious councillors demanded that all coal-laden rail wagons leaving the site should be fully enclosed and washed down to avoid spreading dust. Hazard claim Campaigners claim deposits of coal dust released into the atmosphere are a health hazard. But Powergen bosses have reacted angrily to the new council demands. A spokesman for the electricity generators said today: ” There is no evidence that the release into the atmosphere of coal dust from rail wagons will be in quantities which are harmful. The cost would be grossly excessive when compared to any environmental benefit. ” The company claims providing covered wagons would cost £12.6m, with an additional £900,000 a year running costs. Instead, the company suggests installing a £30,000 spray system at the terminal to dampen coal. Local councillor Eddie McEvilly said: ” I don’t really want to talk about conditions on the operation, because I don’t want to see it at all. ” Councillors on Sefton’s environment committee meet tonight to discuss the issue. The Bootle coal mountains are to be the focal point of a demonstration against imports and pit closures tomorrow.

Costs row over coal terminal By Barry Turnbull A MULTI-MILLION pound row has erupted over the construction of the controversial coal imports terminal in Bootle. Electricity giants Powergen claim environmental protection measures demanded by Sefton Council will add £12m to the cost of the £40m project. The company is to challenge the conditions imposed by Sefton Council on the grounds that they are unnecessary. Powergen was given the go-ahead for the Gladstone Dock facility earlier this year, but councillors demanded that all coal-laden rail wagons leaving the site should be fully enclosed and washed down to avoid spreading coal dust. Campaigners claim deposits of coal dust released into the atmosphere are a health hazard and a nuisance. But Powergen bosses have reacted quickly to the new council demands. A spokesman for the electricity generators said today: ” There is no evidence that the release into the atmosphere of coal dust from rail wagons will be in quantities which are harmful. The cost would be grossly excessive when compared to any environmental benefit which may result. ” Instead, the company suggests installing a £30,000 spray system at the terminal to dampen coal. Councillors on Sefton’s environment committee will meet tonight to discuss the issue . The dockside coal depot will be the focal point of a demonstration against imports and pit closures tomorrow.

Why does the writer do this? Note the use in the first article of evaluative language – furious bosses, cautious councillors, reacted angrily – which is largely absent from the second which is more concerned with taking a factual tone. This change is then also expressed through the shift from metaphorical grammatical choices (meet tonight, are to be…tomorrow) to non-metaphorical (will tonight, will be…tomorrow).

To return to our meeting, a shift to primary present (I have a meeting) may then be narrowed in focus with the present-in present to express who (I’m having a meeting with John), where (We’re meeting in the boardroom) or what time (We’re starting at 2pm). It’s also possible, however, that we might want to put some metaphorical distance between speaker and event. In this case we might shift to a present-in future (I’ll be having a meeting with John).

Hopefully, by presenting the event in this way the students can begin to think about the ways in which speakers make grammatical choices and the reasons why those might be made.

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Verbal Group 5 – finite tenses

The distinction between the finite tenses in the verbal group is, I think, one of recursive delicacy. But this is not to say that it may continue indefinitely. There are stop rules (where α = primary tense):

  1. Apart from α, future on occurs once.
  2. Apart from α, present only occurs once, and always at the deepest level.
  3. Apart from α, the same tense does not occur twice consecutively.

Taking these stop rules into account gives us a total of 36 tenses in English:

  1. past (took/did take)
  2. present (takes/does take)
  3. future (will take)
  4. past-in past (had taken)
  5. past-in present (has taken)
  6. past-in future (will have taken)
  7. present-in past (was taking)
  8. present-in present (is taking)
  9. present-in future (will be taking)
  10. future-in past (was going to take)
  11. future-in present (is going to take)
  12. future-in future (will be going to take)
  13. past-in future-in past (was going to have taken)
  14. past-in future-in present (is going to have taken)
  15. past-in future-in future (will be going to have taken)
  16. present-in past-in past (had been taking)
  17. present-in past-in present (has been taking)
  18. present-in past-in future (will have been taking)
  19. present-in future-in past (was going to be taking)
  20. present-in future-in present (is going to be taking)
  21. present-in future-in future (will be going to be taking)
  22. future-in past-in past (had been going to take)
  23. future-in past-in present (has been going to take)
  24. future-in past-in future (will have been going to take)
  25. past-in future-in past-in past (had been going to have taken)
  26. past-in future-in past-in present (has been going to have taken)
  27. past-in future-in past-in future (will have been going to have taken)
  28. present-in past-in future-in past (had been going to have been taking)
  29. present-in past-in future-in present (has been going to have been taking)
  30. present-in past-in future-in future (will be going to have been taking)
  31. present-in future-in past-in past (had been going to be taking)
  32. present-in future-in past-in present (has been going to be taking)
  33. present-in future-in past-in future (will have been going to be taking)
  34. present-in past-in future-in past-in past (had been going to have been taking)
  35. present-in past-in future-in past-in present (has been going to have been taking)
  36. present-in past-in future-in past-in future (will have been going to have been taking)

(H & M, p/339-342)

🙂

Activity: Verbal group, discourse and Harry Potter

If we teach ‘the tenses’ separately, I think students might not get the interaction between them and how they are used in discourse for different effects. Here is an activity I’ve used with Upper Intermediate – Advanced students, though you could use it in a more simplified form for lower levels. The activity compares the first paragraph of each of the Harry Potter novels and the tense choices made for each one and why.

Here is the first book:

Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

Here we can see it is the primary past that is mainly used, with one modal ‘would’. Taking it a rank up to clause, we can also see that it is mainly relational clauses. The first book of a series like this establishes the tone and introduces the characters. The Dursleys are ‘proud’, ‘normal’ and not ‘strange or mysterious’, to be compared of course with the characters to come. The opening establishes a simple tension between the two worlds.

The second book is slightly different:

Not for the first time, an argument had broken out over breakfast at number four, Privet Drive. Mr Vernon Dursley had been woken in the early hours of the morning by a loud, hooting noise from his nephew Harry’s room.

Here the past-in past is mainly used. The tense choice in the opening here provides a continuity link between the action in the first book (secondary past) and the action to come (primary past). On a higher rank, we have also shifted from relational clauses (establishing character) to material clauses (continuing story).

Here is the third opening:

Harry Potter was a highly unusual boy in many ways. For one thing, he hated the summer holidays more than any other time of year. For another, he really wanted to do his homework, but was forced to do it in secret, in the dead of night. And he also happened to be a wizard.

Here we have a much more complicated interplay of primary past and hypotactic expansion of the verbal group. Whereas the first book introduced the characters and the second built on the story, the third book now expands on the character of Harry, reflected in the language choices. Notice also the shift from relational ‘was’ to mental processes ‘hated’, ‘wanted’.

By the fourth book, the characters, story and Harry are fully established and so there is a shift in tone from this narrow focus to introduce the wider wizarding community and the larger story arc that is to come:

The villagers of Little Hangleton still called it ‘the Riddle House’, even though it had been many years since the Riddle family had lived there. It stood on a hill overlooking the village, some of its windows boarded, tiles missing from its roof, and ivy spreading unchecked over its face. Once a fine-looking manor, and easily the largest and grandest building for miles around, the Riddle house was now damp, derelict and unoccupied.

Here we have an interaction between the main action of the story (primary past) and its causes (past-in past). This presages the story arc of Dumbledore delving into Tom Riddle’s past and his evolution into Voldemort.

Book Five sees a pause in the story and back to the Dursley’s:

The hottest day of the summer so far was drawing to a close and a drowsy silence lay over the large, square houses of Privet Drive. Cars that were usually gleaming stood dusty in their drives and lawns that were once emerald lay parched and yellowing – for the use of hosepipes had been banned due to drought. Deprived of their usual car-washing and lawn-mowing pursuits, the inhabitants of Privet Drive had retreated into the shade of their cool houses, windows thrown open in the hope of tempting in a non-existent breeze. The only person left outdoors was a teenage boy who was lying flat on his back in a flowerbed outside number four.

After all the Horwarts action of the first four books and battle within the wizarding world that is to come, here is the mid-point between them. The past-in present takes us out of the main story and gives us a respite away from all the drama, almost like taking a breather before your second wind. Literally the calm before the storm.

Here is the penultimate sixth book:

It was nearing midnight and the Prime Minister was sitting alone in his office, reading a long memo that was slipping through his brain without leaving the slightest trace of meaning behind. He was waiting for a call from the president of a far-distant country, and between wondering when the wretched man would telephone, and trying to suppress unpleasant memories of what had been a long, tiring and difficult week, there was not much space in his head for anything else. The more he attempted to focus on the print on the page before him, the more clearly the Prime Minister could see the gloating face of one of his political opponents. This particular opponent had appeared on the news that very day, not only to enumerate all the terrible things that had happened last week (as though anyone needed reminding) but also to explain why every one of them was the government’s fault.

In this book, all the various strands of the story that have been introduced so far come together and move towards the final denouement and showdown with Voldemort that will come in the final book. Here also, all of the primary and secondary tense choices, as well as expansion, that have been made previously are used in one long passage. This almost creates a kind of exophoric cohesive tie to the other six books – not of reference or collocation but of tense choice.

The seventh book is the final battle:

The two men appeared out of nowhere, a few yards apart in the narrow, moonlit lane. For a second they stood quite still, wands directed at each other’s chest; then, recognizing each other, they stowed their wands beneath their cloaks and started walking briskly in the same direction.

Here we have the primary past. It is literally and metaphorically a final showdown. We have no more need of background. Only the primary past is needed.

I think this exercise is useful for demonstrating that tense choices are also discourse choices and it is the interaction of these choices that is important. Notice also how the passages get progressively longer, reflecting the increasing ages of the characters and the increasing complexity of the story.

Verbal group 4: tense, discourse and trains.

When teaching the future tenses it’s very common to talk about ‘present tense as scheduled future’. For example, ‘The train leaves at 7.30′. Personally, however, I think this might be somewhat misleading. The present tense is the present tense. Importantly, this is the eternal present. I believe, then, that the trains in ‘The train leaves at 7.30‘ and ‘The train will leave at 7.30‘ actually refer to two different trains. The first is an idealized, scheduled train that may, or may not in the case of Sydney trains, actually exist. The second, however, refers to an actual train.

Here is an advertisement from the BNC:

A special ” Victorian Belle ” period costume evening train will also be run over the line on Saturday July 4 headed by ” City of Truro “. Dining accommodation for this train is already fully booked, but ordinary seating is still available for this 40-mile special run, price £6.00 per head. A commemorative headboard will be carried featuring the Taunton 150 logo and the train leaves Bishops Lydeard at 19.15. Trade stands, ephemera stalls and a real ale/cider bar tent, including a limited anniversary beverage, will also add to the carnival atmosphere of this event.

Here we can see both the primary present and future used, and I think there is a subtle difference between them. The first is referenced by a long noun group describing an actual train, ‘A special ” Victorian Belle ” period costume evening train’, while the second, ‘the train’, refers to the scheduled time that this particular train is supposed to leave. Notice, also, that all other references to the event itself carry future tense.
So as I said I think the ‘simple present describing future event’ is a bit misleading. It is a future event but that does really help explain why we might use that form and not use future ‘will’. Another common example is ‘I catch the 4.30 train tomorrow‘ but I think this actually carries a meaning of ‘I am scheduled to catch the 4.30 train tomorrow’ so we are, in fact, talking about the present state of the schedule and not really the future event.

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.

Sports commentary and tense choice

Usually when teaching tenses for EFL classes we focus on time as the key element that differentiates each one. We compare simple and continuous in terms of ‘usually’ and ‘now’. Recently, however, I’ve been trying to take a more discourse approach to tenses by focusing on why each tense is selected a text and, rather than just comparing present simple and continuous tenses (aspect really), Halliday’s notion of Primary and Secondary tenses is more useful. A good way to do this is with sports commentary.

Ideationally, sports commentary really has two main focii: the game as a whole and the participants in it. Interpersonally, we also need to distinguish between describing the game and commenting (offering opinions) on it. Often, these are distinguished through varying Primary and Secondary tenses.

For example, in football the main focus of describing the game is on the ball – he gathers the ball, threads a pass through, shoots and scores! – and here the Primary present tense is used. When switching the focus to the teams and comment, on the other hand, the Secondary present-in-present or past-in-present tenses are more commonly used – Liverpool are playing particularly well here, they have shut done the Manchester attack all night – while the players often need a further level of delicacy to a present-in-past-in-present – Gerrard has been playing particularly well. The choice of tense then reflects not so much the passage of time of the game but the focus of discourse about the game.

Finite

The Finite is the element that “brings the proposition down to earth, so that it is something that can be argued about” (H & M, p.115). This can be done in one of two ways: (i) tense and (ii) modality. Tense allows a proposition to “become arguable through being located in time by reference to the speech event” (p116). Modality allows a proposition to become “arguable through being assessed in terms of the degree of probability or obligation that is associated with it” (p116). The negative sometimes belongs functionally with the Finite. Compare:

You may not stay (are not allowed to)
You may not stay (are allowed to)
Subject Finite Residue  

Tense and modality allow the Finite to “locate the exchange within the semiotic space that is opened up between the speaker and the listener” (p.116). This, I think, is an important point for EFL. Tense is not necessarily just related to the real-world time in which the exchange takes place. If we compare, for example, two questions that take place in the same real-world time:

  1. Do you want me to copy the report?
  2. Did you want me to copy the report?

The second of the two examples creates a greater space between the real-world time of the participants and tense in the clause and it is this greater “semantic space” that allows it to be perceived as more ‘polite’.

I think it’s also a good point to remember that within the interactive event, the primary element is the Finite – this is what makes it arguable – and the Predicator is secondary. This helps explain the difference between, for example, will and going to. When we say I will play tennis the event is being construed as taking place in a primary future that is, as such, unaccessable to the speakers now. It cannot change. In the case of I am going to play tennis, however, the primary element is the present am which locates the event as being still accessable to the speakers. The Predicator going to play is thus still within the present (future in present) and, as such, may be changed, altered or cancelled.