Re: aspect of present tense

Don Wilkins (
Fri, 13 Dec 1996 21:42:14 -0500 (EST)

I had a follow-up thought to my earlier post, which probably proves that
the earlier post was too much of a knee-jerk reaction.

At 3:39 PM 12/12/96, I wrote:
>At 6:53 PM 12/12/96, KULIKOVSKY, Andrew wrote:
>>Fellow Greeks,
>>Just had a sudden thought about verbal aspect and the present indicative.
>>The present tense indicative mood can also have past time reference and
>>future time reference. Remember that time is a complete dimension and
>>can't be simply pinned down. Let me demonstrate:
>>"I am a software engineer" uses a present tense indicative verb but
>>this statement not only refers to my current state, it also refers
>>to my past state - I was a software engineer yesterday as well -
>>and my future state - I will be a software engineer tommorrow (Lord
>>willing) - although I'd like to be a Greek Prof one day!
>>This statement is also true when I started saying it and when I
>>finished saying it.
>>Taking a Biblical example, when Jesus said "I am" it means "I am" and
>>"I was" and "I will be".
>Technically I think not, Andrew; those are reasonable inferences we make.
>However, I do think that the present is the most flexible time period, and
>the most difficult one pin down as to its beginning and end. Carl and other
>eminent scholars on the list have a wealth of valuable comments to offer
>about this, and I believe they have done so in the past. BTW, I am a Greek
>prof today, and I think I might prefer to be a software engineer one day
>but would be too old and underqualified! If only I could get paid for doing

Andrew's statement about being an engineer didn't really impact me at first
because he limited it to including the day before and the one after, and
this time frame is narrow enough to comprise the "present" in a general
sense. However, it occurred later to me that if he makes the statement with
the intent of referring to his life's work, then he means what he means,
after all, and his meaning is what we are trying to determine. So does this
indicate that the English present can be timeless (or gnomic)? I thought it
might, but then I realized that the options to say "I was" or "I will be"
or "always have been" remain, and it is the way he phrases it (like the
German "Ich bin" without "ein" to speak of vocation, perhaps?), or the
inflection of his voice, or the social context at the moment that clarifies
the statement for us. The phrasing issue is probably very close to what
Mari describes as "cancellability" (the papers haven't come yet so forgive
me, Mari, if I am wrong), but this does not, in my mind, redefine the
present tense. The element of social context seems the most interesting and
challenging, because it theoretically opens Pandora's box by necessitating
us to learn as many variations on syntax and lexical meaning as there are
different social contexts (Mari could probably do a far better job of
expressing this concept than I can). But after that thought, I made another
U-turn back to the idea that the "rules" of the language are still
operative, as evidenced by the very fact that ambiguities (and often humor)
result from breaking the rules. Idiomatic or syntactically poor statements
can be understood in the appropriate social context, but precision in
syntax and diction through adherence to the rules can probably make such
statements clear regardless of context. The only question is "Whose
rules?", and to determine that for a "dead" language we still need to do as
exhaustive a study of the relevant literature as possible. I hope this
doesn't all sound half-baked, even though it probably is.

Don Wilkins
UC Riverside