Verb Time and Tense Correlation – Past

June 17th, 20124:42 pm


Verb Time and Tense Correlation – Past


 The meaning of the past tense is location in time prior to the present moment, and any further deductions about temporal location that are made on the basis of individual sentences in the past tense are the result of factors other than simply the choice of tense. On other words, the past tense sim­ply locates the situation in question prior to the present moment, and says nothing about whether the past situation occupies just a single point prior to the present moment, or an extended time prior to the present moment, or indeed the whole of time up to the present moment, as in the following examples: at two о ‘clock 1 had a meeting with our French partners; Kim worked for the company from 2001 to 2004; up to this moment the results were not analyzed. The concept “past time reference” is neutral as between the interpretation assigned to the two English sentences: Linda was in Lon­don; Linda has been in London. The first implies the existence of a specific occasion on which Linda was in London, the ability to refer to which is shared by speaker and hearer; the second simply indicates that there is some time in the past, not necessarily further identifiable by speaker and hearer, at which the sentence holds.

To develop the discussion on the meaning of the English Perfect, Sim­ple Past, and Past Perfect, it is necessary to compare them in the following sentences: Mary has cut her finger, Mary cut her finger, Mary had cut her finger. Here one gets the impression of a steady movement backwards in time, i.e. although all three refer to a situation in the past of Mary’s cutting her finger, the first seems to be closest to the present moment, while the last seems most remote from the present moment. However, this is not part of the meaning of these verbs forms, and the apparent degrees of remoteness can easily be shown to be illusory. The Present Perfect indicates that the past situation has current relevance (i.e. relevance at the present moment), while the Simple Past does not carry this element of meaning (thus one natural interpretation of the Simple Past in this example is that Mary’s fin­ger is at the moment healed). It is more likely that recent events will have current more relevance than remote events, whence the tendency, out of context, to interpret the Perfect as referring to a more recent event than the Simple Past. However, if Mary’s finger has not healed over, then the Perfect can be used no matter how long ago the cutting took place, as in Mary has cut her finger it happened a week ago and it still hasn’t healed. English has a rule preventing occurrence of the Perfect with a time adverbial refer­ring to a specific time point in the past, so that if we want to locate Mary’s cutting her finger in time by means of such a time adverbial, then the Simple Past must be used, even to refer to a very recent event, as in Maty cut/*has cut her finger five minutes ago, even though five minutes ago is much more recent than a week ago.

It is important to note that the claim is not that no time adverbial is pos­sible with the Present Perfect. There are particular contexts in which the Present Perfect collocates with adverbial modifiers. For example, if the time adverbial is interpreted habitually, i.e. as referring to a class of time points/ periods rather than just to a specific time point or period, then collocation is possible, as in I have arrived at two о ‘clock (i.e. there has been at least one instance in my life when 1 arrived at two o’clock), or whenever 1 get here at two о ‘clock the boss has already left at one-thirty for lunch, in the first of these examples, it is not possible to interpret the sentence with at two о ‘clock referring, for instance, specifically to two o’clock today. It is possible for the Present Perfect to co-occur with a time adverbial having present time reference, or more accurately having time reference including the present moment, e.g. the boss has now left or the boss has gone out this afternoon.

This constraint on the Present Perfect in English does not, however, carry over to the Past Perfect and the Future Perfect. With the Past Perfect and the Future Perfect, it is possible for time adverbials to refer to the spe­cific point or period of time at which the situation is located. Thus John had arrived on Tuesday can be interpreted to mean either that Tuesday was the time of John’s arrival (the rest of the context giving a reference point between Tuesday and the present moment), or that Tuesday is the reference point prior to which John’s arrival is located. The first of these interpre­tations clearly distinguishes adverbial collocation possibilities of the Past Perfect from those of the Present Perfect. The meaning of the Past Perfect is the location of a situation prior to a reference point that is itself in the past, so that in Mary had cut her finger before we entered the kitchen a past reference point is defined by the past tense verb arrived, and Mary’s cutting her finger is located prior to this reference point. Since there is necessarily a past situation prior to some other past situation, the Past Perfect does, other things being equal, receive an interpretation of greater temporal remoteness.

Therefore, it would not be possible in English to say simply, out of context, *the Romans had conquered Britain.

In short, use of the past tense only locates the situation in the past, with­out saying anything about whether that situation continues to the present or into the future, although there is often a conversational implicature that it does not continue to or beyond the present.

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