Tense of English non-finite forms – Part 2

July 10th, 20126:21 am


Tense of English non-finite forms – Part 2

Tense of English non-finite forms – Part 1

In looking for examples of relative time reference, it is essential to en­sure that the relative time reference interpretation is part of the meaning of the form in question, rather than an implicature derived from, in part, the context. One area which is particularly confusing in this respect is narrative, where one gains the impression of a sequence of events which are located temporally one almost immediately after the other, the chronological se­quence mirrored in the linear order of clauses.

Thus one might be tempted to think that this sequencing is part of the meaning of the verb forms used, thus introducing a meaning of “immediate past” or “immediate future” relative time reference (depending on whether one defined the time reference of the preceding verb in terms of the following verb, or vice versa). However, this sequencing of events is a property of narrative itself, quite independent of the verb forms used to encode narrative, so that the mere fact that verb forms receive this interpretation in narrative is not sufficient evidence for assign­ing this meaning to those verb forms. Indeed, crucially one would need to look for examples outside of narrative, where the context does not force the immediate succession interpretation, to demonstrate that this is actually part of the meaning of the forms in question.

This property of narrative may also be used to explain the immediate past time reference interpretation often assigned to the English Participle I in narrative contexts, although we have claimed that the meaning of the English ‘Participle I is relative present time reference. An example would be choosing a bunch of grapes, I went to the cashdesk, where the only pos­sible interpretation, given our knowledge of possibilities in the world and relatively common organization of supermarkets, is that I first chose a bunch of grapes and then went to the cashdesk, without any overlap between the two situations.

Another set of problematic instances concerns the relationship between absolute and relative time reference. With the English non-finite verb forms, it seems in general clear that they have basically relative time reference, i.e. time reference defined relative to some deictic centre established by the context, so that the primary interpretation of those making notes could fol­low the narration is as “those who were (at that time) making notes could follow the narration”. There is a secondary interpretation, as “those who are (now) making notes could follow the narration”, where the non-finite verb form is apparently interpreted absolutely, with the present moment as the deictic centre. But in fact both these interpretations can be subsumed under relative tense once one realizes that one of the possible deictic centres for a relative tense is the present moment, especially when the context does not suggest any other reference point.

When analyzing sentences with perfect forms of the Infinitive, the Ger­und and Participle I, we shall arrive at the conclusion that their perfect forms are characterized by the absolute-relative tense, since the deictic centre in these cases is a certain situation (in the past or in the present) and the situa­tion expressed by the perfect form precedes this past situation.