Verb Time and Tense Correlation – Present

June 17th, 20125:42 am


Verb Time and Tense Correlation – Present

Given the present moment as deictic centre, it might seem trivial to de­fine the three basic tenses that have formed the backbone of much linguis­tic work on time reference in grammar, namely present, past and future, as follows: present tense means coincidence of the time of the situation and the present moment; past tense means location of the situation prior to the present moment; future tense means location of the situation after the present moment.


 It is relatively rare for a situation to coincide exactly with the present mo­ment, i.e. to occupy, literally or in terms of our conception of the situation, a single point in time which is exactly commensurate with the present moment. Situations of this rare type do, however, occur, and of course the present tense is an appropriate form to use in locating them temporally. One set of exam­ples falling under this rubric would be performative sentences, i.e. sentences where the act described by the sentence is performed by uttering the sentence in question, e.g. I name this ship the ‘Titanic(under the appropriate circum­stances, the utterance constitutes the act of naming the ship). Although the situation is not strictly momentaneous, since it takes a certain period of time to utter even the shortest sentence, it can be conceptualized as momentaneous.

Another set of examples where there is literal coincidence between the time location of a situation and the present moment is with simultaneous reports of an ongoing series of events. Thus, when a horse-racing commentator says Red Rover crosses the finishing line, his utterance of this sentence coincides, or at least is taken conceptually to coincide, with the event of Red Rover’s crossing the finishing line; and since the report is simultaneous with the situation being described, there is literal location of a situation at the present moment in time. However, situations of the kinds described are relatively rare, and the more normal uses of the present tense go far beyond this restricted range.

A more characteristic use of the present tense is in referring to situations which occupy a much longer period of time than the present moment, but which nonetheless include the present moment within them. In particular, the present tense is used to speak of states and processes which hold at the present moment, but which began before the present moment and may well continue beyond the present moment, as in the Eiffel Tower stands in Paris and the gardener is watering the plants. In each of these examples, it is indeed true that the situation holds at the present moment, but it is not the case that the situations are restricted only to the present moment. In the first sentence, the present tense is obviously used with habitual aspectual meaning, as in Linda wakes up at 7 a.m. (every day). This might seem to be a contradiction to the definition of the present tense, since we can use this sentence to describe Linda’s behaviour by uttering the sentence at midday, when it is clearly not literally true that Linda is waking up at the moment at which the sentence is uttered. This has given rise to the setting up of sepa­rate tense categories to refer to situations that actually hold at the present moment versus situations that do occur habitually but do not actually hold at the present moment. Sentences with habitual aspectual meaning refer not to a sequence of situations recurring at intervals, but rather to a habit, a char­acteristic situation that holds at all times.

Obviously, as far as the present tense is concerned, in its basic mean­ing it invariably locates a situation at the present moment, and says nothing beyond that. In particular, it does not say that the same situation does not continue beyond the present moment, nor that it did not hold in the past. More accurately, the situation expressed by the verb in the present tense is simply a situation holding literally at the present moment; whether or not this situation is part of a larger situation extending into the past or the future is an implicature that is worked out on the basis of other features of the sentence structure and one’s knowledge of the real world. Aspect will be one of the most important factors in deciding whether the larger situation is restricted just to the present moment or not. Thus, the use of the Progressive Aspect necessarily requires that the situation in question be momentaneous, so that use of this grammatical form will lead inevitably to the interpretation where the present moment is just one moment among many at which the larger situation holds – but this follows automatically from the meaning of the Progressive, and does not compromise the meaning of the present tense. In other examples, it will be our real-world knowledge that enables us to de­cide whether a situation is literally to be located just at the present moment or over a period encompassing the present moment.

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