Re: Tense and aspect in English

From: roland milanese (
Date: Sun May 04 1997 - 18:53:47 EDT

I submit the following effort to clarify Jonathan's English soap:

The present continuous form [BE + VERB + -ing] is often used to refer
to a definitely scheduled future event; for example: "He is flying to
Montreal tomorrow," or, "He is working tomorrow." This usage is
attributable to the nature of the event in its situational context. If
I am going to fly to Montreal tomorrow, I am already in the process of
making the flight because I have already taken some of the necessary
steps to fly: I have made a plane reservation and purchased a ticket,
and I may have already packed my bags and arranged for a cab to pick
me up. Likewise with the work example: he is responsible to be at work
tomorrow and he knows it because his responsibility exists beforehand
-- the work schedule was drawn up and presented to him previously, and
he is expected to follow it. And if he has accepted that
responsibility then he is probably taking the necessary steps to be at
work on time -- e.g. he has already determined when he will go to
sleep in order to be ready for work when the time comes.

Of course additional contextually specific considerations also affect
interpretation of any utterance.I understand Jonathan's
reported/hypothetical? conversation to be an exchange between two
college students interested in dating each other:

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...

The conversation is an example of indirect speech, in which each party
hints at the possibility of making a joint plan for the future. We may
paraphrase the special usage of the present continuous for a
definitely scheduled future event and then display the implicit
information which is hinted at, as follows:

Jim: What are you doing tomorrow?
 = You have definite plans for tomorrow, don't you?
+ ---> If I am wrong, please inform me so that I may propose a plan.

Mary: Well, I was going to my brother's house...
= I had definite plans until now.
+ ---> If you have a better plan, please propose it.

Jim: How would you like to go horseback riding? I have a friend who
horses, and...

The INCOMPLETIVE aspect in Jim's question is a present form because
Jim wishes to probe what steps Mary is presently taking for tomorrow;
the INCOMPLETIVE aspect switches to a past form in Mary's response
because Mary wishes to communicate that she has stopped taking these
steps. Whether or not she will resume taking these steps remains to be
seen, and it depends, at least in part, on her evaluation of Jim's

Hope this helps!

Roland Milanese
Adult ESL instructor

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