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English can do perfectly well without “Tenses”

In my opinion,  the greatest pain in the English language is the so-called Tenses.

Generation after generation, grammarians and linguists have been trying to use the term for describing how English Verb System works writing more and more wise books on the subject, without any visible results.

Millions of ESL/EFL learners find Tenses to be hopelessly tangled, confusing and totally incomprehensible. So do a great number of ESL/EFL teachers.

And it is no wonder, because describing English grammar as having only past and present is like trying to describe a car as having three wheels. 

I think  that English can do perfectly well without “Tenses” because it is a meaningless and therefore useless term.

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The use of verbal structures in English has indeed evolved into something argueably too finely nuanced or just plain quirky. It was not a case of intelligent design! However, we do need to give each structure some kind of label in order to talk about it when teaching.

I'm afraid frustration with verbal structures in English is the gateway to the path which leads to a much better understanding. It is a sort of Kutuzov tactic where one retreats to victory.

By the way, some forty years ago three-wheel cars were common in the North of England.

jayles the unwoven August 7, 2015, 3:31pm

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I get tense just thinking about it.

Hairy Scot August 8, 2015, 12:34am

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There are basically two ways of defining tense: morphological and functional. Linguists tend to use the former, and therefore see only two tenses, past and present (as the main verb itself only has these two different forms). In EFL we usually use a twelve tense system. This consists of three times: past , present, future. Each is combined with four aspects: simple, continuous, perfect, perfect continuous. So 'I'll have been waiting' is Future Perfect Continuous (the most exotic tense). There are also a couple of forms that don't fit into this system: 'going to' and 'used to'.

This makes more sense to me, as in English it is the auxiliary verbs, rather than morphological change., that do most of the tense work. And it also reflects closely how we use verb forms. And I rather agree with Leonid on that one.

Whether you call them tenses or forms or whatever, the terms such as 'present simple', 'past continuous', 'future perfect' are widely used, and are very useful. And as jayles says, we have to call them something. It always amuses me that those who say 'there is no future tense' often have no problem talking about 'future continuous' or 'future perfect'.

The worst thing for foreign learners, I think, is when we switch systems. One well-known brand of English language books happily talks in terms of narrative tenses (i.e. the four past tenses) and present tenses, until Advanced level, when they suddenly announce that 'there are two tenses - past and present'. Now that is confusing.

Incidentally, some time ago I wrote a blog piece 'A brief history of tense', looking at how the idea of tense has been treated from the earliest English grammar books until today. At various times grammarians have seen 2, 3, 6, 9 and 12 tenses. I've even seen one suggestion of 32 tenses (he assigns different tenses to different modals).

http://random-idea-english.blogspot.com/2014/01...

Warsaw Will August 10, 2015, 12:06am

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Of course languages are not designed, but terminologies are.
The terminology in “the use of verbal structures in English has indeed evolved into something arguably too finely nuanced or just plain quirky.” Now, was it not a case of intelligent design?
I think Warsaw Will’s “A Brief History of Tense” http://random-idea-english.blogspot.com/2014/01... (Simply great! Many thanks for this piece of work!) provides more than sufficiently convincing proof of that.
Or, if we need more:
“How many tenses are there in English? This is a simple question, to which, however, almost every linguist gives a different answer.“
“…2500 years of research have not led to any precise or universally acknowledged definition of the category 'tense'…”
http://www.glottopedia.org/index.php/Tenses_of_...

It is clear that nothing is clear to anyone, and hasn’t been for 2500 (!!!) years.
Just think: How does a foreign teacher/learner feel about and what is he/she supposed to do with all this?

In reality, the number one problem of the English tenses lies in the terminology we use trying to describe/explain what tenses are, what they mean and what they do.
“The focus of linguistics is not English, but all the languages of the world.” (“How Many Tenses in English?” by Maeve Maddox, http://www.dailywritingtips.com/how-many-tenses...).
“As far as I'm concerned, this is just EFL writers being trendy, like the fashion for calling Phrasal verbs Multiword verbs. It doesn't help the students one jot, unless they're going to go on to study linguistics at an English-speaking university…
The needs of linguistics and language teaching are very different: linguistics is mainly to do with analysis, not teaching.” http://random-idea-english.blogspot.com/2014/01...
Like the authors of the articles, I am strongly of the opinion that for teaching, we should only use simple/major grammatical terms letting the rest of them go to the labyrinths of linguistics. The problems will disappear all by themselves.

Leonid Kutuzov August 11, 2015, 12:18am

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@LK Many English teachers would agree with much of what you say. In practice though, course books often dictate the terminology and syllabus used.

jayles the unwoven August 12, 2015, 2:29am

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I'm an EFL teacher, and to a large extent British EFL course books stick with the same time/aspect combinations, present simple etc. I'm not too worried whether we call these tenses or forms, as long as we all sing from the same hymn sheet. Which is why I was rather taken aback with that advanced course book suddenly introducing the idea of two tenses.

I've also written a piece on what I call 'The twelve tense system', which I hope shows why I think it's a system that makes some sense, and that it's useful to compare aspects across the time lines: to see, for example, that past perfect, present perfect and future perfect have certain usage features in common, and are not just a buch of separate tenses to be taken in isolation, or simply compared with other aspects in their own time frame (i.e. past perfect vs. past simple vs. past continous).

And I'm glad to see Maeve Maddox also talks of twelve tenses, and makes a similar distinctiion between the needs of linguists and those of teachers. Incidentalluy, I'm all for native speakers being taught the same system.

http://random-idea-english.blogspot.com/2013/08...

Warsaw Will August 12, 2015, 6:28am

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Unless Warsaw Will finds a way to deny me access to his blog, I’m afraid it’s going to be for very long that I have little time left for something else.

If I had read “The twelve tense system in English - an overview” http://random-idea-english.blogspot.com/2013/08... thirty
years ago, when I really felt nothing but “frustration with verbal structures in English”, I think, I wouldn’t have had to start looking for something else as an alternative to “tenses”. But I hadn’t, so I had to.

By the way, there is one more work on the tenses (US English) I like and feel attracted to:
http://www.chabotcollege.edu/languagearts/esl/v...

Anyway, that English can do perfectly well without “Tenses” having been declared,
perhaps there is someone who’s expecting me to explain in more detail what I mean by that.

TERMINOLOGY

1. The same all well known words like Sentence, Verb, Mood, Aspect, etc., except
that “tense” is not mentioned anywhere in their definition/description/labeling.
For example, there are no things like:

“While aspect always includes tense, tense can occur without aspect (David falls
in love, David fell in love).”
http://www.ucl.ac.uk/internet-grammar/verbs/ten...
or
“For each grammatical tense, there are subcategories called aspects. Aspect
refers to the duration of an event within a particular tense.”
http://www.elearnenglishlanguage.com/blog/learn...
or
We are waiting for the bus. = Present Continuous Tense

2. As a follow-up to the above, I am inclined to think that MOOD, VOICE, ASPECT,
TIME are not grammatical categories at all, which means that as such, there is
no need for EFL/ESL teachers/learners to waste their time on explaining/trying to
understand them.

If I am not going to be regarded as complete anathema right away, I will only be happy to discuss these and all the rest of the issues with you.

Leonid Kutuzov August 14, 2015, 2:30am

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1) I do not agree that cleaning up the terminology will automatically make it that much easier for students. The usage and meaning of English verbal structures is not straightforward and therein lies the rub.

2) English is taught in many diverse situations, and not necessarily with the expectation of producing fluent near-native competence with verbal structures. Factors such as motivation and opportunity are important for the outcome.
Now that we have access to the internet and English is more often being taught to young learners, methodologies are changing, with less emphasis on teaching "grammar" per se in an academic way, and more emphasis on listening to English and using it on a day-by-day basis. We may see a new generation of English learners who are far more adept at verbal usage, in much the same way as many Dutch/Swedish/Danish people are today.

jayles the unwoven August 14, 2015, 8:50am

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@LK your comments reminded me of a student from Eastern Europe whose English was almost indistinguishable from a native speaker, and who never made a mistake with English verbal structures. I was indeed wondering what on earth I could teach them! It turned out they just did not know what "past perfect" was, although they understood and used it correctly whenever needed. Of course they had spent two years in England as a teenager; but what an excellent outcome!

jayles the unwoven August 14, 2015, 5:42pm

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1. It is far from being what you call “cleaning up the terminology.”
2. I absolutely agree with everything you are saying here.
Plus a couple of interesting PDFs:
Bridging the Grammar Gap: teaching English grammar to the iPhone generation 1
BAS AARTS, DAN CLAYTON AND SEAN WALLIS
University College London
http://www.ucl.ac.uk/english-usage/staff/sean/r...

The Future of English?
A guide to forecasting the popularity of the English language in the 21st century
David Graddol
https://microsites.bournemouth.ac.uk/business-p...

There are a couple of things that make me feel a little uncomfortable, too:
1. My students (Russian speaking adults and teens) say that for them listening without understanding is much more boring than learning grammar.
2. We are sure to see a new generation of English learners, but will we see a new generation of English teachers?

I think in your example with a foreign teenager spending two years in England, it is mostly a matter of time and money rather than any teaching methodology.

Leonid Kutuzov August 15, 2015, 12:45am

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@LK Re your (1): After TEFL-ing twenty years in various countries, I often ignore the course book itself and just work intensively from the listenings provided or from a graded CD such as:

http://english-e-books.net/meet-me-in-istanbul-...

Works for me if you can get the level and content right: detective stories the best.

Your (2): there must be a new generation: I'm way past my expiry date!

BTW I always have an audio book of Dr Zhivago playing in my car : it certainly helps over time.

jayles the unwoven August 15, 2015, 3:46pm

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I like the UCL site, but here grammar (naturally enough) is seen mainly from a linguistics point of view, so it is perhaps no surprise that they go down the two-tense avenue. And I can't actually find the word tense at all in the PDF of theirs that you link to.

But all the others (EFL/ESL-based) you quote from seem to follow the same 12-form pattern, so I'm not really sure what the problem is. I doubt many of our students are looking up tenses on linguistics sites; they may well be confused about how to use them, but I don't think there's much confusion about nomenclature.

In terms of the UCL PDF it's interesting that they point out (not for the first time) that EFL students are much better catered for in grammar terms that native speakers, and I don't see why a system that seems to work for foreign learners shouldn't be used with native speakers. I'm old enough to remember being taught pluperfect and imperfect (a combination of past continuous and 'used to', presumably based on Latin). But I now much prefer the standard EFL 12-tense system.

There was a lot of fuss on the Internet a few years ago about a line from Snow Patrol's Chasing Cars :

If I lay here
If I just lay here
Would you lie with me
And just forget the world?

Many native speakers (and even Grammar Girl) seemed to think this was a misuse of the word 'lay'
(instead of lie). It seems largely to have been foreign learnerswho pointed out that this was a classic example of Second conditional, with the past simple of 'lie' being correctly used with 'would'.

If there's confusion about grammar out there, I'd look to native speakers, and not foreign learners, who in my exerience often have a better grasp of the basic concepts. And of tense names.

Warsaw Will August 18, 2015, 3:24am

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English verbs look pretty simple when compared to all those endings in French, or other inflected languages like Russian, Hungarian, or Armenian, so I've always been amazed at the amount of time and space in EFL textbooks devoted to the vagaries of English verbs and "tenses". Is there a simpler alternative and what would that be?

A) 'will' does not construct a future tense. Any modal verb can do that: eg "Can you come tomorrow?". Projecting 'will' as a 'future' auxiliary logically leads to: "I will can come tomorrow".
At present EFL students have to run thru a long checklist before uttering a single word:
- past, present, or future? Future!
- timetable, plan, already decided or evidence to hand, opinion or prediction, or using a modal ?
For most purposes this is too nuanced; we are overteaching it all.

B) Continous is an aspect: could we not just say anything can be made continuous; and then just concentrate on present continuous. "While we talked, there was an explosion" is not quite a mistake. Again we are overteaching. Far better to concentrate on forming and using the passive which is really common in business and academic writing.

C) One needs to keep a firm grip on achievable goals in EFL. Most students need English for business purposes; some need it for academic purposes or immigration. That means we need to pick out which verbal structures they need to master and which they just need to get the gist of.

D) It's pretty difficult to say anything constructive if you don't understand what the other person is saying. Much more emphasis on listening and wide vocabulary would be more beneficial. Often better if student pick up nuances of verb by hearing it in action, rather than having spaghetti-like "rules" drummed in and endless picky tests. Teaching grammar, grammar, grammar does not work - as any Korean will testify.

jayles the unwoven August 19, 2015, 1:41pm

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E) There is a world of difference between the needs of West European students and the needs of, say, SE Asian students. A Romance language speaker starts with a good knowledge of about ten thousand English words; a SE Asian student starts with perhaps a couple of hundred borrowed words at best. To catch up, a SE Asian student needs to learn, say, one hundred words per week for two years - an almost impossible goal. I suspect the whole EFL syllabus (and methodology) originated from dealing with Romance language speakers.

jayles the unwoven August 19, 2015, 2:52pm

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F) The Truth about "Will":
AFAIK "will" is a normal verb - "I am willing", "as God wills" etc. The reason you don't often see it with an 's' is that it is normally in optative mood, (which looks like subjunctive). In the Middle Ages, monks used 'will' to translate the future tense from Latin, French, and Spanish. If one buys into the same fudge, then one has to teach all the time and conditional clause cases which use present simple, as an exception.

Other modals - can, may, shall,must - have no 's' because they come from using an old past tense form.

jayles the unwoven August 19, 2015, 6:42pm

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@jayles - Yes we can use other modals to talk about the future, and if you want to get linguistically technical, you can come up with various arguments why 'there is no future tense'. It's possibly an interesting intellectual discussion point, but I don't think that it helps students in the slightest. I repeat, it's not the nomenclature my students have problems with, but the use.

"will is a normal verb" - but how often do we use it as a normal verb, I wonder, compared with its use to create future tenses, or forms if you prefer. But in any case, the other auxiliaries we to create tense forms, do, have and be are also normal verbs.

"There is no future tense, because we have several forms to express the future." Well, welcome to the club. Both Spanish and French use present forms and 'going to' but this doesn't stop them having a future tense.

"Will is a modal, not a basic auxiliary, so it can't be a tense." Doesn't German have one or even two future tenses built on 'wollen', which in German is also a modal.

And the argument never seems to be extended to other future forms, such as future continuous and future perfect.

You teach academic English, so perhaps passive is more important for your students than for mine, but even to form passives you have to have a basic grasp of tenses: "His company was being investigated at the time of his arrest" is not the same as "His company was investigated at the time of his arrest". And if a student uses tenses too far away from the norm, they are going to sound strange, or worse, funny. And as a teacher, my greatest responsibility is to try and make sure that doesn't happen.

In any case, let's keep this in context. I certainly don't teach grammar, grammar, grammar, and nor do any of the course books I use. In fact I would say grammar takes up about one fifth of the average unit. In business English, perhaps even less.

Far from being a fudge, I think the 12 tense system is simply a schematic way of looking at the forms we actually use (however you want to characterise them) in a coherent and realtively simple way.

Warsaw Will August 20, 2015, 3:20am

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@WW agreed it is the usage which is the issue.
I sometimes wonder whether we would not be better off focussing on a decision tree (like a flowchart). For instance:
1) Active or Passive?
2) Present or Past?
3) Simple, Continuous, or Perfect?
4) Modal?

In my experience of using non-English tongues, the best way is often to just copy what one has heard and hope for the best: better to say something than nothing. Not quite so true when writing but one still needs some easy-to-follow ideas when texting and emailing.

jayles the unwoven August 20, 2015, 2:44pm

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"We are able to exchange knowledge, beliefs, opinions, wishes, threats, commands, thanks, promises, declarations, feelings – only our imagination sets limits. We can laugh to express amusement, happiness, or disrespect, we can smile to express amusement, pleasure, approval, or bitter feelings, we can shriek to express anger, excitement, or fear, we can clench our fists to express determination, anger or a threat, we can raise our eyebrows to express surprise or disapproval, and so on, but our system of communication before anything else is language. ... it is a system of communication based upon words and the combination of words into sentences." "What is language?" PDF.
http://www.uio.no/studier/emner/hf/ikos/EXFAC03...
The number of sentences in a language is infinite. But every language has a mechanism that enables human beings to utter or understand an infinite number of sentences using a finite number of building tools.
To my way of thinking, knowing what those building tools are is of paramount importance for every learner/teacher of the language because they can help us in many ways.

How can we find them?

According to my own very simple theory:
Everybody knows that Past, Present, Future mean TIME.
TIME is an extralinguistic category. That is, it exists independently of both Life and Language. If it is really so, then the hierarchical structure of the main concepts looks like this:
TIME > LIFE > LANGUAGE.
TIME created LIFE and is superior to it.
To retain its superiority/= control over LIFE, TIME has three key features
placed inside LIFE. They are PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE.
Being the creator of LIFE, TIME is also in charge of it.
The three key features are not only to keep control, they are to keep
everything in good order (to avert chaos)/= to help LIFE as well.
The implication is that LIFE is free to do whatever it wants to, but everything that
happens in LIFE must obligatory be PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE.
The three key features are property of TIME, they are untouchable for anything
that belongs to LIFE.

LIFE created LANGUAGE and is superior to it.
Now, does it not seem logical to assume that (likewise): to retain its superiority/= control over LANGUAGE, LIFE must have some key features placed inside
LANGUAGE (to keep everything in good order to avert chaos)?

If the premise is true, we are sure to find those key features placed by LIFE inside LANGUAGE. It is also logical to expect that like Past, Present, Future are everywhere in Life, they are everywhere in LANGUAGE.

If what I am saying makes sense, we only have to answer this one question:
WHAT IS IT THAT WE CAN FIND IN ABSOLUTELY ALL ENGLISH SENTENCES?

Leonid Kutuzov August 20, 2015, 10:56pm

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@Leonid Kutuzov - The only trouble is that it is a bit more complicated than past, present and future, as English (and not only English) often uses past forms to distance things, call it the unreal past, remote past or whatever. We use it this way in reported speech, hypothetical conditionals, and certain constructions such as 'I wish, I'd rather, it's time, as if' etc.

What's more, English often uses present forms with future meaning (as do certain other languages), and we can even use modal 'will' for present meaning - 'Ah, you'll be Leonid'.

So although I think we already have a perfectly good system, we are at pains to point out to students that the use of past, present and future tenses is not totally bound by their time name.

Warsaw Will August 21, 2015, 6:22am

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Yes     No