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The category of tense Essay

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While the existence of the aspect category in English is a disputed matter, the tense category is universally recognised. Nobody has ever suggested to characterise the distinction, for example, between wrote, writes, and will write as other than a tense distinction. Thus we shall not have to produce any arguments in favour of the existence of the category in Modern English. As to the general definition of tense, there seems no necessity to find a special one for the English language.

The basic features of the category appear to be the same in English as in other languages. [Ilyish 1971: 86] The category of tense is a verbal category that reflects the objective category of time. It correlates with the conceptual category of temporality. The essential characteristic feature of the category of tense is that it relates the time of the action, event or state of affairs referred to in the sentence to the time of the utterance. [Волкова 2009: 119] In English there are the three tenses (past, present and future) represented by the forms wrote, writes, will write, or lived, lives, will live.

Strangely enough, some doubts have been expressed about the existence of a future tense in English. O. Jespersen discussed this question more than once. The reason why Jespersen denied the existence of a future tense in English was that the English future is expressed by the phrase “shall/will + infinitive”, and the verbs shall and will which make part of the phrase preserve, according to Jespersen, some of their original meaning (shall an element of obligation, and will an element of volition). Thus, in Jespersen’s view, English has no way of expressing “pure futurity” free from modal shades of meaning, i.e. it has no form standing on the same grammatical level as the forms of the past and present tenses. However, this reasoning is not convincing. Though the verbs shall and will may in some contexts preserve or indeed revive their original meaning of obligation or volition respectively, as a rule they are free from these shades of meaning and express mere futurity.

This is especially clear in sentences where the verb will is used as an auxiliary of the future tense and where, at the same time, the meaning of volition is excluded by the context, e.g. I am so sorry, I am afraid I will have to go back to the hotel.(R. West)Since the verb will cannot possibly be said to preserve even the slightest shade of the meaning of volition here, it can have only one meaning – that of grammatical futurity. The three main divisions of time are represented in the English verbal system by the three tenses. Each of them may appear in the common and in the continuous aspect. Thus we get six tense-aspect forms. Besides these six, however, there are two more, namely, the future-in-the-past and the future-continuous-in-the-past. It is common knowledge that these forms are used chiefly in subordinate clauses depending on a main clause having its predicate verb in one of the past tenses, e.g. This did not mean that she was content to live. It meant simply that even death, if it came to her here, would seem stale. (R. West)

However, they can be found in independent clauses as well. The following passage from a novel by Huxley yields a good example of this use: It was after ten o’clock. The dancers had already dispersed and the last lights were being put out. To-morrow the tents would be struck, the dismantled merry-go-round would be packed into wagons and carted away. These are the thoughts of young man surveying the scene of a feast which has just ended. The tenses used are three: the tense which we call past perfect to denote the action already finished by that time (the dancers had dispersed), the past continuous to denote an action going on at that very moment (the lights were being put out) and the future-in-the-past to denote an action foreseen for the future (the merry-go-round would be packed and carted away). The future-in-the-past and future-continuous-in-the-past do not easily fit into a system of tenses represented by a straight line running out of the past into the future. They are a deviation from this straight line: their
starting point is not the present, from which the past and the future are reckoned, but the past itself.

A different view of the English tense system has been put forward by Prof. N. Irtenyeva. According to this view, the system is divided into two halves: that of tenses centering in the present, and that of tenses centering in the past. The former would comprise the present, present perfect, future, present continuous and present perfect continuous, whereas the latter would comprise the past, past perfect, future-in-the-past, past continuous and past perfect continuous. This view has much to recommend it. It has the advantage of reducing the usual threefold division of tenses to a twofold division (past and present) with each of the two future tenses (future and future-in-the-past) included into the past or the present system, respectively. A new theory of English tenses has been put forward by A. Korsakov.

He establishes a system of absolute and anterior tenses, and of static and dynamic tenses. By dynamic tenses he means what we call tenses of the continuous aspect, and by the anterior tenses what we call tenses of the perfect correlation. The evaluation of this system in its relation to other views has yet to be worked out. [Ilyish 1971: 86-89] The tense category is realized through a number of oppositions. The binary principle of oppositions remains the basic one in the correlation of the forms that represent the grammatical category of tense. The present moment is the main temporal plane of verbal actions. Therefore, the temporal dichotomy may be illustrated by the following graphic representation (the arrows show the binary opposition):

Present Past

Future I Future II

Generally speaking, the major tense-distinction in English is undoubtedly that which is traditionally described as an opposition of past::present. But this is best regarded as a contrast of past::non-past. [Волкова 2009: 119-120] When speaking of the expression of time by the verb, it is necessary to strictly distinguish between the general notion of time, the lexical denotation of time, and the grammatical time proper, or grammatical temporality. All the lexical expressions of time, according as they refer or do not refer the denoted points or periods of time, directly or obliquely, to this moment, are divided into “present-oriented”, or “absolute” expressions of time, and “non-present-oriented”, “non-absolute” expressions of time. The absolute time denotation, in compliance with the experience gained by man in the course of his cognitive activity, distributes the intellective perception of time among three spheres: the sphere of the present, with the present moment included within its framework; the sphere of the past, which precedes the sphere of the present by way of retrospect; the sphere of the future, which follows the sphere of the present by way of prospect.

Thus, words and phrases like now, last week, in our century, in the past, in the years to come, very soon, yesterday, in a couple of days, giving a temporal characteristic to an event from the point of view of its orientation in reference to the present moment, are absolute names of time. The non-absolute time denotation does not characterise an event in terms of orientation towards the present. This kind of denotation may be either “relative” or “factual”. The relative expression of time correlates two or more events showing some of them either as preceding the others, or following the others, or happening at one and the same time with them. Here belong such words and phrases as after that, before that, at one and the same time with, some time later, at an interval of a day or two, at different times, etc.

The factual expression of time either directly states the astronomical time of an event, or else conveys this meaning in terms of historical landmarks. Under this heading should be listed such words and phrases as in the year 1066, during the time of the First World War, at the epoch of Napoleon, at the early period of civilisation, etc. In the context of real speech the above types of time naming are used in combination with one another, so that the denoted event receives many-sided and very exact characterisation regarding its temporal status. [Блох 1983: 137-138]

Literature cited

Блох М. Я. Теоретическая грамматика английского языка: Учебник. Для студентов филол. фак. ун-тов и фак. англ. яз. педвузов./ М. Я. Блох – М.: Высш. школа, 1983. – 383 с. Волкова Л. М. Теоретична граматика англійської мови: Сучасний підхід. Навч. посібник./ Л. М. Волкова – К.: «Освіта України», 2009. – 256 с. Ilyish B. The Structure of Modern English./ B. Ilyish – Л.: Просвещение, 1971. – 387 р.

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