Tense and aspect in English

From: Jonathan Robie (jwrobie@mindspring.com)
Date: Tue Apr 29 1997 - 21:20:44 EDT

Greetings, FILIOI,

I just spent some time on the phone with a Real Live Linguist, and he said
some things which I find clarifying. Tense and aspect are complex in any
language, and the simple generalizations we use when learning languages
don't completely fit.

For instance, let's try a simple question: does the past tense in English
indicate past time? Take a look at this exchange:

Jim: What are you doing tomorrow?
Mary: Well, I *was* going to my brother's house...
Jim: How would you like to go horseback riding? I have a friend who has
horses, and...

In this case, Mary is using the past progressive tense to indicate that she
might be open to another suggestion if Jim cares to make one (doesn't
Wallace have a category for this?). The situation she is describing is in
the potential future, not in the past. Jim, who is a football player, not a
linguist, and certainly not a Greek scholar, knows what she is talking about
and responds appropriately. I, in the same situation, would have spent hours
researching the past progressive and whether it can ever be used with future
reference, which is why I didn't ever date anybody until I was 25 years old.

I don't know how a real linguist would analyze this example (I made it up
myself), but I sure know that *I* don't know how to analyze it. In fact, I
would venture to say that most native speakers of English would understand
this exchange, but very few could explain formally how the past tense is
being used.

The interesting thing is, I think that people like Don Wilkins, Randy Leedy,
Carl Conrad, Mari Olsen, S.M.Baugh, Fanning, Smyth, and Robertson may have
very different ways of describing various uses of tense, but they also seem
to agree on what most uses actually mean. More and more, I like Jim's
approach to tense and aspect.


Jonathan Robie jwrobie@mindspring.com http://www.mindspring.com/~jwrobie
POET Software, 3207 Gibson Road, Durham, N.C., 27703 http://www.poet.com

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