Topic 19 – Real time and verbal time. Aspect and mood

Topic 19 – Real time and verbal time. Aspect and mood

In this topic I will deal with aspects related to verbs, including tense, aspect and mood. In my first section I will begin by establishing a difference between time and tense, and presenting the tenses used in English are. Then I will move on to see the meanings expressed by each of the English tenses, that is, by present and past. I will also have a look at the different ways of expressing future time. In my second section I will deal with aspect, and will have a look at the perfective and the progressive aspect. My third section will be devoted to verb mood, and I will deal with the indicative, the subjunctive and the imperative moods. Finally, in my last section I will explore the differences between Spanish and English verbs that cause problems to Spanish learners of English.

By tense we understand the correspondence between the form of the verb and our concept of time. Tense can be defined as the linguistic expression of time relations when these are realised by verb forms. Time is independent of language and is common to all human beings. It is conceptualized by many peoples, though not necessarily by all, as being divided into past time, present time and future time. Tense systems, on the contrary, are language specific and vary from one language into another, both in the number of tenses they distinguish and in the ways in which these tenses reflect temporal reference. In English, for instance, it would be erroneous to imagine that the Past Tense refers exclusively to events in past time, that there is a present tense to refer exclusively to events in present time and a future tense to refer exclusively to events in future time. Besides tense forms of verbs, other linguistic forms, particularly adverbs of time and prepositional groups such as “in 1066” can make reference to time; English relies to a considerable extent on such units to make temporal reference clear.

As I have already mentioned, tense is a way of expressing events as occurring at points situated along the linear flow of time. Within the linear flow, a point of reference must be established, with respect to which past events precede and future events follow. The normal, universal and therefore unmarked point of reference is the moment of speaking. This is the “now”, which is implicitly understood in everyday interaction. Further distinctions such as “remote past” and “immediate future” can then be additionally made.

In English, the verb has only two tenses: the present and the past. In our everyday use “at present” and “at the present time” have a wider application than simply to the present moment of speech time. Thus, the example British people come from the Celts includes in its time reference the present moment but also past and future time. In this sense, present time can therefore mean “at all times” or “at no particular time”. The grammatical tense which is used in this example is the unmarked form, having no modification, consisting of the lexical verb alone with no grammatical meaning beyond that of “verb”. It can consequently cover a wide range of temporal references. This unmarked form can be used to make specific reference to a future event but not normally to a past event.

The past tense in English is the morphologically and semantically marked form; morphologically in that the vast majority of verbs have a distinctive past form, and semantically in that the past tense refers to an action that is visualized as remote, either in time or as unreality.

In accordance with the criterion that tense is a category realised by inflection of the verb, English, strictly speaking, has no future tense. This could be argued, as the enclitic form ’ll is very similar to an inflection. However, this is not so. Future time can be referred to by a number of grammatical and lexical forms.

After seeing the distinction between time and tense, and establishing the tenses (Present and Past) found in English, I am going to deal with the main meanings expressed by each of these tenses. Let’s begin by having a look at the present. The meaning expressed by a verb in the non-progressive present tense, that is, in the present simple, depends to a great extent on whether the verb is stative, such as be, seem, belong, or is used statively, or if on the contrary it is dynamic, such as kick, eat, write, or is used dynamically.

1) With stative verb meanings, the present can express timeless statements, that is, statements that apply to all time, including speech time.

Fat is not good for health

2) With dynamic verbs, the present expresses a series of events which cover an unspecified time. Speech time is not necessarily included, although such statements are valid at speech time.

British children eat a lot of fast food

3) Sometimes the event coincides, or is presented as coinciding, with the moment of speaking, and without having a duration beyond speech time. The present is used in such situations, which can be classified as specific types:

· Performatives: I warn you that fast food has a lot of fat

· Commentaries: He passes and John heads the ball into the net

· Demonstrations: Fat is absorbed by your stomach, reaches your blood and adheres to your veins.

4) The present can be used to refer to past events in certain limited ways:

· In newspapers headline, in order to dramatise the event.

The President suffers a heart attack due to cholesterol

· Historic present, which is motivated by a desire to achieve dramatic effect. It highlights the main point in a narrative by bringing it into the moment of speaking.

She was about to be 40 when all of a sudden Kylie Minogue discovers she has cancer

· There is a tendency to use the present in recounting the plots of books and films.

· In reporting information: with verbs of communication and perception the use of the present implies that the reported information is still operative, even though the communicative process took place in the past.

The doctor says I should go on a diet

5) We can use the present simple to refer to future events which are conceived as “certain” because they are part of a plan or arrangement thought of as unalterable.

I go to the doctor to have a check-up made next month

Up to this point I have been dealing with the meanings of the present. Let’s see now the different meanings that can be expressed by means of the past. The global meaning of the past tense in English may be said to be “remoteness” or distancing from the moment of speaking, whether in time towards the past, or with regard to potential or hypothetical events which have not yet occurred in the present or the future. When used to refer to a past event or state, the past in English contains two semantic features:

  • The speaker visualizes the event as having occurred at some specific time in the past.
  • The event was completed in the past, and a gap in time separates its completion from the present.

I decided to give up smoking yesterday

Past is also used to express hypothetical past tense, that is, to refer not to a fact but to a non-fact. This use of the past is found in adverbial clauses denoting a condition which is not likely to be fulfilled.

If I looked after myself I would not have so much pain

Past tense can be found in independent clauses expressing a question, request or suggestion. Its effect is to make the question, request or suggestion less direct, implying a polite attitude on the part of the speaker.

I wondered if you could design a training programme for me

Although I have stated that future is not considered to be a tense in English, I will briefly look at some different ways of expressing future time. We cannot refer to future events as facts, as we can with past and present situations, since events in the future have not yet happened. We can predict with more or less confidence what will happen, we can plan for events to take place, and express our intentions and promises with regards to future events. I will outline the main syntactic means of referring to future events.

· Safe predictions: these are predictions that do not include the subject’s volition, and include cyclical events and general truths. In order to express them, we use WILL / SHALL + INFINITIVE.

You’ll find it difficult to give up smoking

· Programmed events: future events seen as certain because they have been programmed can be expressed by the PRESENT + TIME ADJUNCT or by BE DUE TO + INFINITIVE.

His rehabilitation starts / is due to start next week

· Intended events can be expressed by BE + GOING TO + INFINITIVE or simply by the PRESENT PROGRESSIVE + TIME ADJUNCT.

I am going to start looking after myself

I am starting my diet tomorrow

· An event which is seen as occurring in the immediate future is expressed by BE + GOING TO or BE ABOUT TO + INFINITIVE.

Bad habits are about to cause him a serious illness

These are the main forms of talking about the future, but not the only ones. Future can be expressed by means of different modal auxiliaries, time expressions, etc.

I am going to move on to my second section, dealing with aspect. While tense relates the event to speech time or to a reference point in the past, aspect is concerned with the internal character of an event as it is presented by the speaker; it focuses on such aspects as durative (extending in time) or non-durative, whether the event is seen in its initial stage or its final stage, whether it is completed or uncompleted. We can therefore say that aspect concerns the manner in which a verbal action is experienced or regarded. Having fewer aspectual inflections, English has fewer aspectual choices than some languages. English has two marked aspects: the progressive aspect and the perfective aspect.

Basically, the perfective aspect is used to denote a relation between the past and the present time, either in that a period lasting up to the present moment is involved or in that a past event has results persisting at the present time. We need to distinguish two cases of the perfect construction: the present perfect and the past perfect. I am going to begin by looking at the present perfect. It is expressed by some present form of HAVE + PAST PARTICIPLE. The present perfect places an event in a period of time which extends up to and includes speech time. There is, therefore, no disconnectedness from present time such as is implied when using the Past.

The present perfect is used in English when the speaker does not wish to refer to a definite moment of occurrence of the event, but simply to the anteriority of the event in relation to the speech time. The action is viewed as occurring at an indefinite or unspecified time in the past. Compare:

Britain has increased the consumption of fast food

Britain increased the consumption of fast food last year

The continuative use of the present perfect, associated with state verbs, denotes that a state extends over a period lasting up to the present moment, possibly extending into the future as well.

British people have had diet problems since the Middle Ages

The iterative use of the present perfect denotes habit of repetition in a period lasting up to the present moment. This notion is similar to the continuative use, and is often reinforced by an adverbial expressing frequency.

British people have always had a great breakfast

The resultative use of the present tense denotes that the present result of a past event is still operative at the present moment.

It seems British food have improved now

Let’s see now the uses of the past perfect. The use of the past perfect implies a past in the past, that is, reference is made to events or states as belonging to a past stretching before some definite point of orientation in the past. When we wish to express a particular sequence in which certain past events occurred, we can indicate the temporal relation by using past perfect for the earlier event and simple past for which followed.

The government imposed restrictions on fast foods after many people had accused them of damaging their health

Up to this point I have been dealing with the perfective aspect. Now I am going to move on to deal with the progressive aspect. Progressive aspect is expressed in the verb phrase by means of the construction BE + -ING participle. The most common use of the progressive aspect is to convey the notion of temporariness. The action is seen as in progress and has a limited duration. As we saw when talking about the future, the progressive aspect may refer to the future in connection with definite plans or arrangements.

Verbs which normally admit the progressive aspect are generally event verbs denoting activities, happenings, occurrences, processes and so on. Verbs which normally do not accept the progressive aspect or do so only in certain uses generally refer to states. A curious fact is that less than 5% of all verb phrases in English appear in the progressive form. They are most frequent in conversation.

The perfect and the progressive aspect may combine with the category of tense. Moreover, they can appear together (perfective and progressive) and combine with the category of tense. Let’s see the meanings expressed by the progressive:

· Present / past progressive: as I have stated, the present and past progressive indicates that the action expressed by the verb is seen as having a limited duration, either within the present or within the past.,

The PM was thinking about restricting smoking

· Present perfect progressive: the present perfect progressive has the same sort of meaning as the simple present perfect, except that the period leading up to the present typically has a limited duration. The perfect progressive can suggest that the results of the activity remain in the present. It may express a temporary habit up to the present that may extend into the future.

Fast foods have been trying to offer healthier menus

· Past perfect progressive: the past perfect progressive can be interpreted as either a past progressive shifted back or a present progressive shifted back.

Fast foods had been designing new menus when a new law regulating restaurants came out

Up to this point I have been dealing with tense and aspect of the verbs. In my third section, I am going to deal with mood. Mood is defined as the grammatical term used to denote the forms that a verb takes to show the manner in which the action is thought of by the speaker, that is, as ordinary statements or questions (indicative mood), as wishes or recommendations (the factual mood) and as commands (the imperative mood). The indicative mood is defined as the unmarked, whereas the subjunctive and the imperative are marked. The three moods are not so clear-cut in English as they are in other languages, as for instance, the indicative and subjunctive share the same spelling.

Let’s start with the indicative. It indicates facts and states concerned with the truth-value of the speakers’ speech, that is, with their attitude. It is mainly conveyed by factual verbs which express the action as a real fact. The indicative mood has tense contrast, that is, a distinction between present and past.

Smoking is dangerous for one’s health

The subjunctive mood is often used to express the actions from a subjective point of view, not as real facts but as volition or wish. Therefore, it is common to find it in subordinate clauses. Three main categories of subjunctive may be distinguished:

· The mandative subjunctive in that-clauses has only one form, the base, so there is no concord between subject and verb in the 3rd person singular present. This subjunctive can be used with any subordinate that-clause when the main clause contains an expression of recommendation, resolution, demand, and so on. It occurs chiefly in formal style.

It is necessary that every person look after their health

· The formulaic subjunctive also consists of the base but is only used in clauses in certain set expressions which have to be learned as a whole.

Come what may, I will try to be fit

Suffice it to say that you are to worry about yourself

· The subjunctive were is hypothetical in meaning and is used in conditional and concessive clauses and in subordinate clauses after verbs like wish. The form “were” is used with 1st and 3rd person singular subjects.

She spoke to him as if he were to die.

In the past, subjunctive was much widely used than it is today. Subjunctive mood is now chiefly expressed by means of modal auxiliaries and verb phrases such as perhaps, certainly, possibly…

Finally, let’s see the imperative. The imperative is formally identical with the base of the verb. Grammatically, it is marked by the non-existence of subject. It is used in the second person. There is no tense distinction or perfect aspect, and very rarely does the progressive form occur. It is used to give orders or invitations or to make entreaties or suggestions.

Stop smoking / Go to the doctor

We can distinguish:

· Commands without a subject, which are the most common type of imperative. Eat some veggies

· Commands with a subject, which are confirmed when the second person pronoun “you” appears as a tag question. Take care, will you?

· Commands with let, which are formed by LET + US/ME/YOU + INFINITIVE to indicate an objective point of view.

Let’s analyse the dangers of smoking

  • Negative commands. Don’t eat too many hamburgers
  • The persuasive imperative, which is used to express persuasion or insistence by the addition of “do”.

Do let’s go to a vegetarian restaurant

Before finishing, I would like to reflect on the difficulties of English verbs for Spanish speakers. Many of the uses of verb tenses are different in English and in Spanish and this may cause important problems. Let’s see some of the differences.

  • In Spanish we can use the present tense to express instant-present time, but in English we usually use the present progressive for this purpose.

¿Qué haces aquí? / What are you doing here?

  • Spanish present progressive cannot be used to express future arrangements or plans.
  • In English present perfect expresses a string connection with the present time. In such cases we may use a verb in present tense in Spanish.

I’ve lived here since 1980 / Vivo aquí desde 1980

  • Spanish habitual actions in the past are normally expressed by means of the past imperfect. In English, habitual activity in the past can be expressed in ways such as used to, simple past, would + infinitive.

Antes fumaba / I used to smoke

  • The Spanish simple present is used in sentences where we do not use an English simple present, but a Will form or a going to future.

Mañana te lo digo / I’ll tell you tomorrow

Of course these are only some of the differences between the two languages. There are many other nuances associated to the uses of the different tenses that may differ, but I have concentrated on the main ones.

To conclude, although English verbs are much simpler than Spanish ones, there are different tenses, aspects and moods that help speakers express different nuances. In this topic I have had a look at English verb tenses, perfect and progressive aspects, and indicative, subjunctive and imperative mood, and have presented the differences between Spanish and English verbs that cause problems to Spanish learners of English.