Author Topic: How many tenses? (english)  (Read 32 times)

Offline josephusflav

  • New Linguist
  • *
  • Posts: 4
How many tenses? (english)
« on: January 17, 2018, 02:25:27 PM »
So I have run across contradictory information about what is and is not a tense.

Some websites say there are six and treat present continuous as something else.

Others claim the present  continuous forms of verbs are tenses.

Who's right?

Or is it a Oxford comma situation, where it just depends on who's rules you accept at the start?

Offline Daniel

  • Administrator
  • Experienced Linguist
  • *****
  • Posts: 1626
  • Country: us
    • English
Re: How many tenses? (english)
« Reply #1 on: January 17, 2018, 05:31:03 PM »
It depends on the definition of "tense".

In a narrow technical sense, linguists define "tense" as an indication of when the action described by the verb occurs. (It's slightly more complicated than that, but that's close enough for the moment.) Since the present progressive really does take place during the present, it's just the present tense. In other words, tenses are just windows of time-- generally only past, present and future, although actually some languages have multiple past (or future) tenses such that there might be a "since yesterday" tense versus a "distant past" tense, etc. -- still, those refers to windows of time.
But then there is aspect which further adds information about how the verb interacts with time, or how the events are carried out relative to the tense. The progressive is an "ongoing" aspect, versus for example the perfective which is an "already completed" aspect. So "I have eaten" is present perfective, because it's a present tense but perfective aspect (the eaten finished before now, with the idea of "present relevance" explaining why this is present tense). Compare also the past perfective "I had eaten", referring to some time in the past, before which the eating had already been done.
If you want to read more you can find information on Wikipedia, etc., but there are two very good books to refer to, simply named Tense and Aspect, written by Bernard Comrie. (They're popular and well known so it won't be hard to find them at any academic library.)

On the other hand, more loosely, many non-linguists, especially language teachers (for practical purposes, and sometimes casually a few linguists, will define "tense" as simply any sort of verb form. Usually it's limited to actual prefixes or suffixes on the verb, so you might hear someone say, for example, "has" is the "third-person tense" of "have" (instead of "person agreement"), or the "subjunctive tense" (which is a mood). That's sort of a bizarre use of the word and confusing, but makes sense when you know they just mean "verb form".

It's rarer, but still happens sometimes, that people will describe a complex form like "be + V-ing" as a "tense", although more common as a "complex tense" (or similar wording). More technically we'd call that a periphrastic (multi-word) verb form.

In short, language teachers (and others) just use the shortcut term "tense" to refer to "ways we say verbs". It's not very precise or clear, but when your goal is just explaining different verb suffixes in a textbook I guess it works.

Quote
Or is it a Oxford comma situation, where it just depends on who's rules you accept at the start?
Yes, sort of. But there isn't much uncertainty about the data (at least for linguists). Instead, in this case, it's about which labels you use for what. The actual things you're describing don't change. (The oxford comma is a separate issue, related to prescriptivism, telling people how to write, rather than describing how people actually write. Although the label itself just describes that usage I suppose.)

--

As for the broader question of "how many" tenses English has, it of course depends on the definition.

Narrowly, English clearly has three tenses (plus various aspects, etc.).

More broadly, there are dozens of possible verb forms if you include multi-word forms: for example, "used to", or "gonna", etc.
« Last Edit: January 17, 2018, 05:32:53 PM by Daniel »
Welcome to Linguist Forum! If you have any questions, please ask.

Offline panini

  • Linguist
  • ***
  • Posts: 93
Re: How many tenses? (english)
« Reply #2 on: January 17, 2018, 10:49:59 PM »
I will add that as a linguist, I use "tense" to cover the entire panoply of inflectional distinctions about the action, following traditional (millenia-old) use of the term. At some point when general linguists "discovered" aspect, there was a move to replace the term "tense" with "tense-aspect", but eventually it was realized that even this is inadequate and we'd have to talk about "tense-aspect-mood". Well, that ignores the fact that many languages also mark negation on verbs via the same means, hence the monstrosity "tense-aspect-mood-polarity" was born. Needless to say, it really has to be "tense-aspect-mood-polarity-focus-clause type-propositional attitude", and we are constantly discovering all sorts of other meaning and structural features about events that can get encoded in verbal inflectional systems.

If you are deeply interested in just the semantic properties, the correct term to use would be "time reference" (as one example). If you're interested in what is signaled by a particular morphological pattern, it's a bit of semantic un-realism to expect that a particular morpheme signals only time reference. Some languages use syntactic expressions to encode event-related meanings (e.g. "used to"), and some encode them with morpheme selection (many Bantu languages, for example).

I agree that there is a dominant and narrow technical convention in the field of semantics that tense is about event time, but I think that narrow definition misses the boat and doesn't actually benefit semantics in the slightest.


Offline Daniel

  • Administrator
  • Experienced Linguist
  • *****
  • Posts: 1626
  • Country: us
    • English
Re: How many tenses? (english)
« Reply #3 on: January 18, 2018, 07:56:42 AM »
Having a narrower label is helpful when you want to be precise. Having a broader label is helpful when you want to list out all forms.

I think you make a good point. However, I will add that it isn't just technical usage by semanticists. It's also standard practice in typology, and increasingly common in language description by fieldworkers. Less common in, say, theoretical work by morphologists on verb paradigms, and maybe some syntacticians looking at clause structure broadly but actually crucially distinguished by those trying to figure out how the verb gets various features (sometimes to the point of much more narrowly distinguishing categories within aspect, etc.).
« Last Edit: January 18, 2018, 08:02:10 AM by Daniel »
Welcome to Linguist Forum! If you have any questions, please ask.

Offline panini

  • Linguist
  • ***
  • Posts: 93
Re: How many tenses? (english)
« Reply #4 on: January 19, 2018, 12:03:01 PM »
In the realm if language description, I think it's an open question whether the use is increasing or decreasing. It probably depends on what kinds of systems are lurking out there waiting to be discovered, i.e. in how many languages is the matter purely a matter of tense and aspect, and in how many languages do you have to expand the classes of meaning properties that are part of the event-inflectional systems? When negation, focus and disbelief get called "aspect", I assume there would be a similar objection that that misconstrues the concept "aspect", so the descriptor has to grow in length. Some of us are of the opinion that enough is enough and it's time to simplify. The nice thing about "tense" as the broad term is that is is already there and is traditional, and you can still use "time reference" if you mean that sense of "tense".

Offline Daniel

  • Administrator
  • Experienced Linguist
  • *****
  • Posts: 1626
  • Country: us
    • English
Re: How many tenses? (english)
« Reply #5 on: January 19, 2018, 01:42:51 PM »
Almost all descriptive grammars written since 2000 make a distinction between tense and aspect (where applicable). They don't always do it precisely the way that a semanticist would, but the terms are there.

As for misuse of "aspect" to cover other terms, I know it well. And yes, it should be split for clarity also. I'm doing research on motion affixes (associated motion, directionals, etc.), and oddly enough one in a while (or not even so rarely) these are lumped in with "aspectual suffixes" (etc.). Really odd. At least they're not (often) called "tenses".
Welcome to Linguist Forum! If you have any questions, please ask.