Verb: Absolute, relative and absolute-relative tenses

June 17th, 201211:44 pm

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Verb: Absolute, relative and absolute-relative tenses

As it has been mentioned above, the notion “moment of speech” is ex­tremely important for the tense category because it provides a reference point with objective time. However, only Simple/Indefinite forms (Present, Past, and Future) use the moment of speech in this way. Forms that relate events with the speaking moment are called absolute.

Use of relative tense is restricted to nonfinite verb forms and will be dealt with in more detail in paragraphs on non-finites. With relative tense, the reference point for location of a situation is some point in time given by the context, not necessarily the present moment. In English, as it has been noted, although finite verb forms have absolute time reference in nearly all instances, non-finite verb forms characteristically have relative time refer­ence. To catch the difference between absolute and relative tenses, it is use­ful to look at the distinction with time adverbials. Some time adverbials serve specifically to locate a situation relative to the present moment, e.g. today, yesterday, tomorrow; these are all instances of absolute time refer­ence. In addition, there are (in general distinct) adverbials which locate a situation relative to some reference point given by the context, such as on the same day on the day before, on the next day; these are all instances of relative time reference. In a sentence with an adverbial of relative time ref­erence, such as on the next day Jill went to her first rehearsal, one’s natural reaction is to look for a reference point in terms of which this time adverbial can be interpreted – the next day after what? In a sentence with an adverbial of absolute time reference, this question does not arise: the time reference of tomorrow Jill will go to her first rehearsal is quite clear.

In contrast to absolute tenses, where a situation is located at, before, or after the present moment; and relative tenses, where a situation is located at, before, or after a reference point given by the context, absolute-relative tense forms combine these two kinds of time reference. In other words, they have as part of their meaning that a reference point is situated at, before, or after the present moment and in addition that a situation is located at, before, or after that reference point. Therefore they denote actions either posterior or anterior to some reference point different from the moment of speech.

The notion of absolute-relative tense describes the Past Perfect in Eng­lish. The meaning of the Past Perfect is that there is a reference point in the past, and that the situation in question is located prior to that reference point, i.e. the Past Perfect can be thought of as “past in the past”. Often, the reference point is given by a time adverbial, as in Linda had e-mailed you her report by two о ‘clock yesterday, where the time adverbial by two о ‘clock yesterday establishes a reference point in the past (2 p.m. yesterday), and Linda’s action is located prior to that time point. The reference point may be given by a principal clause to which the clause containing the Past Perfect is subordinate, as in when Linda had e-mailed her report, she found several mistakes in it, where the past tense of the principal clause defines a reference point in the past (namely, the time of Linda’s finding mistakes in the report), and Linda’s e-mailing is located prior to this. The clauses can also be in the inverse relation, as in Linda had already e-mailed her report when she found several mistakes in it. Or the reference may be given more generally by the context, as in a sequence of independent clauses like John brought new data; she had already e-mailed the incomplete report.

Since the Past Perfect indicates a time point before some other time point in the past, it follows that the situation referred to by the Past Perfect is itself located in the past. Thus time points that can be referred to by the Past Perfect can in principle also be referred to by the Past Simple; this is not, incidentally, true. It is obvious that, in locating situations in time, it is necessary not only to relate situations relative to the present moment, but also to relate them chronologically to one another. A simple sequence of past tenses fails to do this, e.g. John brought new data; Linda e-mailed the re­port, which leaves open whether John’s action preceded or followed Mary’s e-mailing. Given the tendency for linear order of clauses to follow chrono­logical order of events, the example given is most likely to be interpreted as meaning that John’s action took place first, then Mary’s e-mailing followed. If for some reason it is desired to present events in other than chronological order, the Past Perfect is an ideal mechanism for indicating this.

The Future Perfect has a meaning similar to that of the Past Perfect, ex­cept that here the reference point is in the future rather than in the past. Thus I will have e-mailed you indicates that there is a reference point in the future, and that my e-mailing is located temporally prior to that reference point. Just as with the Past Perfect, the reference point is to be deduced from the context: the meaning of the form says only that there must be such a reference point, and gives no indication of where the reference point should be sought. The reference point may be given by a time adverbial, as in I will have e-mailed you the report by two p.m., where by two p.m. establishes the reference point prior to which my e-mailing is located. But equally, the reference point may be given more diffusely by the more general context as in the following se­quence of clauses: so you ‘re not getting the data until lunch; unfortunately, I will have e-mailed the report although it is always, of course, possible to add further specification of the reference point in the same clause as the Future Perfect, e.g….I will have e-mailed the report by then.

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