CALLE

Centre for Applied Linguistics & Language Education

Tense, Part III: Past


Examples:

This post follows the initial article on tense (here) and a discussion of present tense forms (here). The following are examples of varying expressions of tense in different statements. Remember that tense is nothing more than a contrast between the Time of Utterance (TUTT) and either the Time of Assertion (TAST), Time of Completion (TCOM), or Time of Evaluation (TEVL).  All of the examples that follow are past tense, regardless of the nature or aspect of the utterances.

Past Tenses

The past tenses are those in which the secondary temporal reference (TAST, TCOM, or TEVL) occurs before the primary reference (TUTT), or visually, with TAST, TCOM, or TEVL occurring to the left of TUTT on the timeline of an utterance. Technically there is no such thing as ‘the past tense’.  There are in fact innumerable past tenses with varying degrees of temporal distance between reference points.  The greater the temporal distance between the primary and secondary references, the farther in the past the tense is.  Common classifications of past tenses include the general past (that which occurs before the present with no defined time),  and a variety of past tenses with defined times such as these (listed in increasing temporal distance from TUTT) immediate past, recent present, distant past, and far distant past.

TAST precedes TUTT

The temporal relationship of verbs used in utterances occurring in non-durational aspects, in which the verb used does not have a durational aktionsart (John sneezed.) are represented in this diagram. Generalizations and habitual truths are not included in this group (see TEVL < TUTT below).  Although common in many languages, this form is quite rare in English as most verbs either have a durational aktionsart or are used in the durational aspect (English has only one durational aspect — usually called “the progressive”). In utterances of this type, the time of assertion precedes the time of utterance.  In the diagram at left, time of utterance is given as present, but could be in the future or the past.  The utterance remains past tense however so long as TAST occurs to the left of TUTT on the timeline of that utterance.  For example if  TUTT were in the past, so long as TAST is further in the past than TUTT (to the left of TUTT), the utterance is still past tense.  Likewise, if TUTT is in the future, TAST may also be in the future so long as it occurs at a time before that future TUTT (again, visually to the left of it on the timeline of the utterance).  Because verbs in these types of utterance have no measurable duration the TAST is punctular – it’s a single point along the timeline rather than a range.

TEVL precedes TUTT

As with TAST < TUTT described above, a common past tense usage occurs with generalizations and habitual truths. These types of utterances always occur in non-durational aspects. In these types of utterances, there is no specific verb occurance to observe (and thus no assertion). Instead, the purpose of such utterances is to merely inform. In these utterances, a generalization or an habitual truth about the past is attested as true (or questioned for trueness in interrogative forms). The earliest point at which these attestations can be evaluated as true or not serves as the secondary temporal reference for such constructions. This diagram shows this temporal relationship in the past tenses with TEVL preceding TUTT. In other words, for generalizations and habituals, the attestation may be evaluated as having been true at a time prior to the time of utterance.  Examples of this in English include such statements as “John used to drink coffee (generalization)” and “John went to school everyday (habitual).”

TAST occurs during a range of time beginning before TUTT

This diagram reflects the temporal relationship within utterances used in non-durational aspects involving activities (John painted a picture.) or other types of utterance in which the verb employed has a naturally durational aktionsart (John worked for IBM.), and any durational aspect aspect utterance regardless of whether the aktionsart of the inclusive verb(s) is durational or not (John was eating pizza.) in the past. It shows that in the past tenses, the time of utterance occurs after the time of assertion, which for this type of utterance is not a point, but rather a span of time — the duration in which the verb occurs. The smaller arrows in the diagram show that the action begins at a time prior to the time of utterance, and continues for a length of time (also prior to the utterance), and may end before or may continue beyond the time of utterance.  However in past tense constructions, the contrast is made between the TUTT and that portion of the TAST that falls at some point within the range of the verb’s duration which also occurs prior to the TUTT.

TCOM precedes TUTT

In this diagram and the following, that the secondary temporal reference is TCOM – the time of completion, which represents the termination of the verb, an end point. This is the diagram for perfected non-durational forms in the past (TAST < TUTT and TEVL < TUTT).  These forms are often referred to as ‘the past perfect’ or ‘past perfect simple’. These types of utterances do not provide information regarding the duration of the verb, but merely establish that the assertion or attestation of the utterance is completed as of a time prior to the time of utterance. In other words, the verb is finished before now. Because TCOM always prior to TUTT, the time of completion is always read ‘as of [x time in the past].’ For this reason, a specific time prior to TUTT must be used with perfected forms in the past tenses, either as a specific time phrase (last week, yesterday, etc), or expressed as contextually prior to TUTT. Examples of this form include “John had eaten breakfast before lunch, (contextual)” and “They had arrived yesterday (specific time phrase)” (both perfected TAST < TUTT), and “When John lived here, he had eaten dinner at that café everyday” (perfected TEVL < TUTT).

TCOM occurs during or at the end of TAST and precedes TUTT

As with the above diagram, the secondary temporal reference for this type of utterance is TCOM – the time of completion which represents the termination of the verb, an end point. This is the diagram for perfected durational forms (TAST occurring over a duration prior to TUTT).  In the past tenses, these are often referred to as ‘past perfect progressive’ or ‘past perfect continuous’. Whereas in the perfected non-durational forms above, TCOM represents an absolute terminal point of the verb, in perfected durational forms, TCOM may represent either the terminal point of the verb (that time at which it is completed or finished and beyond which it does not continue), or TCOM may represent any point within the duration of the verb, up to which that completed duration can be measured. It is possible that the TAST of the verb could continue beyond the TCOM, but this is irrelevant as the focus of such utterances is not the TAST but the TCOM and its temporal relationship with TUTT. These types of utterances are normally used to provide information regarding the duration of the verb up to a given point in the past, be that point the terminus of that verb’s duration or a point within the duration. In the past tenses, the duration of the verb may be measured up any specific point prior to the time of utterance. Because TCOM always prior to TUTT, the time of completion is always read ‘as of [x time in the past].’ For this reason, a specific time prior to TUTT must be used with perfected forms in the past tenses, either as a specific time phrase (last week, yesterday, etc), or expressed as contextually prior to TUTT.  While a specific measure of duration may be used with such utterances [explicit], it is not required as some verbs which have a durational aktionsart may also be conveyed as having completed duration simply by their nature [implicit]. Examples include “John had been eating dinner when the phone rang, (perfected TAST < TUTT with implicit duration and specific past TCOM)” and “It had been raining for three days.  It’s just cold now.” (perfected TAST < TUTT with explicit duration and contextual past TCOM).

Continue reading Tense, Part IV: Future

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February 3, 2010 - Posted by | English Linguistics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

5 Comments »

  1. […] article on tense (here) and a discussion of present tense forms (here) and past tense forms (here). The following are examples of varying expressions of tense in different statements. Remember that […]

    Pingback by Tense, Part IV: Future « CALLE Teacher's Blog | February 3, 2010 | Reply

  2. […] reading Tense, Part III: Past Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)TenseCloser Part IIlao presents part IIDCSocial […]

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  3. […] initial article on tense (here) and a discussion of present tense forms (here), past tense forms (here) and future tense forms […]

    Pingback by Tense: Conclusion & Review « CALLE | July 12, 2010 | Reply

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