English Grammar: A Contradiction in Terms #1 – Past Tenses
This is a new series where I will give examples of standard English that are ungrammatical. I’m not talking about idiom, nor about those exceptions that escape the rules. These will not be obscure, nor exceptional, just correct English that is grammatical nonsense.
A particular feature of English tenses is that any action, past, present or future, can be either completed or continuous (the terms usually used when talking about English; you will understand why, I hope, by the time I’ve finished). When talking about other languages, or about language in general, grammarians use the terms perfect and imperfect.
Etymologically, the word perfect just means “entirely completed” or “fully made”. This is the sense in which it is used in grammar. A perfect action is one that is wholly completed:
“Mr Glover made a pair of gloves, then went to bed.”
(“Mr. Gantier fabriqua un pair de gants, puis se coucha.” – because this sounds like a line from a story, the passé simple seems required, though we could say: “Mr Gantier a fabriqué un pair de gants, puis s’est couché.”)
An imperfect action is one that was, is, or will be ongoing, uncompleted or unfinished.
“For most of his life, Mr Glover made gloves.”
(“Durant la plupart de sa vie, Mr. Gantier fabriquait des gants.”)
You will notice that while in English the form of the verb is the same (“made”), in French it is fabriquait instead of a fabriqué.
But, because Grammar likes to try to describe both the meaning and the form of the word at the same time, in French we have the perfect tenses:
- passé simple (past historic)
- passé composé (past perfect)
… and the imperfect tense:
- imparfait (imperfect or past continuous)
Whereas in English we have as our perfect tense:
- simple past (“He killed a rat.”)
… and as our imperfect tenses:
- past imperfect (“He killed rats for a living.”)
- past continuous (“He used to be a ratcatcher.”)
I have already pointed out that English is a contextual language. This is an fine example of just how far context can go. Whereas in French you can tell the tense as soon as you have read the verb, in English you have to read the entire sentence to tell the tense of the verb.
Il tua [le rat] – past historic again, but never mind; as soon as we read the verb we can identify its tense.
Il tuait [les rats pour ganger sa vie] – imperfect this time, and again the tense of the verb readily identified without a need for the rest of the sentence. Here’s the same again in English:
He killed …
He killed …
Anyone care to guess which is which?
A Grammarian would say: we use the same construction in English to indicate a perfect and an imperfect tense. The Frenchman, to his inevitable chagrin, must determine the tense of the verb from the meaning of the entire sentence.
Grammar likes to pretend that verbs have tenses, because in most of the languages known to grammar, the tense is communicated by inflections (changes in sounds, like vowel switching or ending changes) or by the presence of auxiliaries (small words that affect the meaning of the verb). But English neatly demonstrates that it is sentences that have tenses, and that some languages use the verb to communicate them.
Even in Classical Latin, where the verb is King, so much convoluted fun can be had with tenses that at times, it is the paragraph, or the entire text, that has tense. But in simple SOV* statements in Latin, the verb and only the verb communicates tense, which is I believe the cause of modern grammar’s mistaken assertion that tense is the province of verbs. Verbs deal with actions, but at best contribute to our understanding of tense.
In English, therefore, we avoid the terms “perfect” and “imperfect”, and hope to teach the student to recognize when a sentence is describing a completed action or a continuous action. And possibly use exactly the same construction regardless.
“I died. Every day for a year, I died. You might say it was my purpose or profession. But at last, at the year’s end, I did it again, but this time, one final time, I died for good and all.”
I daresay you can come up with better examples of confusion between tenses. I contend that in this particular four sentence statement, the tense is a narrative past. This is a special tense we have in English where all is forgiven by the reader as soon as he realizes that what happens is happening in the past.
* This would normaly be Subject Verb Object, but Classical Latin likes to place the verb in a position of honour, at the end of the sentence.