Tense category of verbs: Definition

June 16th, 20123:25 am


Tense category of verbs: Definition

The idea of locating situations in time is a purely conceptual notion. All the events are referred to one of the three time dimensions – the present, the past, or the future. All human languages have ways of locating in time but they do, however, differ from one another on two parameters. The first dif­ference is the way in which situations are located in time, in particular the relative weight assigned to the lexicon and to the grammar in establishing location in time.

The second is the degree of accuracy of time location that is achievable in different languages. For example, though objective time has the three dimensions mentioned above, English offers much more forms for their expression. The three temporal dimensions can be expressed by means of different English verb forms: Simple/Indefinite (Present, Past, Future), Pro­gressive/Continuous (Present, Past, Future), Perfect (Present, Past, Future), and Perfect Continuous (Present, Past, Future).

The sum total of expressions for locating in time in English can be di­vided, in terms of their importance for the structure of the language, into three classes. The largest set is composed of lexically composite expres­sions, since this set is potentially infinite. This gives English expressions of the type ten minutes after the train arrived, which simply involve slotting more accurate time specifications into the positions of a syntactic expres­sion. The second set is the set of lexical items that express location in time, and would include such items as now, today, yesterday. Since the stock of items listed in the lexicon is necessarily finite, the range of distinctions pos­sible lexically is necessarily smaller than that which is possible using lexi­cally composite expressions.

Various lexical units are not the only language means to indicate tempo­ral characteristics of events. Moreover, these lexical items and expressions may be omitted, since certain verb forms function to locate a situation or event in time. As time distinction is permanently expressed in grammatical verb forms, the third set of language means is a grammatical category of tense defined as a grammaticalized expression of location in time. Tradi­tional grammar regards tense as a category of the verb on the basis of its morphological attachment to the verb, i.e. tense is indicated on the verb, by the verb morphology (as with past liked versus non-past likes).

Before examining further differences between kinds of location in time that can be grammaticalized versus those that can be lexicalized, it will be useful to include some further discussion on the distinction between gram-maticalization and lexicalization in general. The simplest statement of the difference would be to say that grammaticalization refers to integration into the grammatical system of a language, while lexicalization refers merely to integration into the lexicon of the language, without any necessary repercus­sions on its grammatical structure. The clearest instances of grammaticali­zation are both obligatory and morphologically bound, whereas the clearest instances of lexicalization are neither.

There is a major distinction between the kinds of location in time concepts that are characteristically grammaticalized, versus those that are characteristically lexicalized. The notions that are most commonly grammaticalized across the languages of the world are simple anteriority, simultaneity, and posterior­ity, i.e. with the present moment as deictic center, past, present and future.

The tenses relating the situation described to the present moment are referred to as absolute tenses. Another possible form of time reference is relative time reference where, instead of the time of a situation being located relative to the present moment, it is related to the time of some other situation. In English, nonfinite participial constructions, for instance, involve relative rather than absolute tense. In the sentences (a) when talking with Mary, I ask about her family and (b) when talking with Mary, I asked about her family, the present participle talking in both cases indicates a situ­ation located simultaneously with the time of the main verb, irrespective of the tense of this verb. In the (a) sentence, the situation described by talking holds at the present, given the present tense ask, while in the (b) sentence it held in the past, given the past tense asked. The relevant factor in the choice of the present participle is thus relative time reference, not absolute time reference. Similarly, the perfect participle in non-finite participial construc­tions indicates relative past time reference, e.g. Having talked with Mary, I know everything about her family, versus having talked to Tom, I knew all the gossips. In English, typically, finite verb forms have absolute tense, and nonfinite verb forms have relative tense.

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