Verb: Paradoxical use of tenses

June 18th, 20122:06 am


Verb: Paradoxical use of tenses

Worthy of note, however, are utterances where the meaning of the past tense stands in contrast with the meaning of some adverbial phrase refer­ring the event to the present moment: Today again I spoke to Mr Jones. The seeming linguistic paradox of such cases consists in the fact that their two types of time indication, one verbal-grammatical, and one adverbial-lexical, approach the same event from two opposite angles. But there is nothing ir­rational here: the utterance presents instances of two-plane temporal evalu­ation of the event. The verb-form shows the process as past and gone; as for the adverbial modifier, it presents the past event as a particular happening belonging to a more general time situation.

A case directly opposite to the one shown above is seen in the transposi­tional use of the present tense in the verb with the past adverbials, either includ­ed in the utterance as such, or else expressed in its contextual environment:

“Well, I’m standing in my shop one morning, and in walks Barry. Says he wants a dozen roses. “Fine, I say, and I turn to get them, and all at once, out of the corner of my eye, I see the strangest thing. (Tyler)

The stylistic purpose of this transposition known under the name of the historic present is to create a vivid picture of the event. This is acknowl­edged in strict accord with the functional meaning of the verbal present, sharply contrasted against the general background of the past plane of the context.

In addition, a regular transposition of tenses, occurring in English sub­ordinate clauses of time and condition, represent an example of complex interaction between meanings of tenses and other aspects of the syntax. In the mentioned subordinate clauses we find that the future tense is either im­possible, being replaced by the present with future time reference, or exists only as an alternative to the present tense, as in the following example: If you go/*will go without the coat, youll catch cold and When I arrive/*will arrive. I will call you. Conditional and temporal clauses provide the most interesting interplay of factors. We thus have an instance where a syntactic rule accounts for an apparently anomalous use of a tense.

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