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Danny on English Tenses

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Let's imagine, just for a moment, that time travel was possible. Let's imagine that, at some point in time, a very clever scientist in a long white coat, black-rimmed glasses and a huge scientific-looking beard happens to be looking up at the sun and thinking "wow! I'm looking at the sun now, but the sun is so far away that its light takes eight minutes to reach my eyes, which means that I'm actually seeing the sun as it was eight minutes ago...". Let's imagine that his next thought is 'Golly gee! If I could travel faster than the speed of light, then I could travel to the sun and I would actually get there eight minutes ago!" So he runs off to find a way to travel faster than light. Now, the only thing faster than the speed of light is the speed of dark (because no matter how fast light travels, darkness is always there first), so our scientist turns off all the lights and gets to work. And he succeeds, and builds a time machine out of old cereal boxes, a couple of toilet roll tubes and lots of sticky tape and staples...

So time travel is now possible. In fact, it's rather commonplace, and our scientist is now trying to figure out a way to land on the sun without instantly turning into a pile of ash with black-rimmed glasses and a big beard...but that's another story, and one that doesn't concern us. So let's stick to time travel.

The obvious question is...where, or rather...when, would you go?

Simple question. I would go back to the night that I first met my wife. It was November the eleventh, 1990, at a Halloween disco party. We were both sitting at the bar, and there was an incredibly drunk person sitting between us. At one point, this person leapt off his barstool, screamed"I'm wanna rock n’ roll all night!"...and promptly fell over. We both watched him collapse, and then looked up at each other, smiling in the slightly superior way that sober people do when watching drunken antics. Our eyes met...

"This party is great!" said I.

"It's not bad" she smiled.

I smiled too, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Today, we've been married for ten years, and we have what I like to think of as a perfect marriage.

The fact that we ever met each other at all is amazing. On the eleventh of November, 1990, there were, apparently, 05288144222 people in the world. The odds of my wife and I ever meeting were, therefore, a staggering 05288144222 to one. But, over the years, we gradually moved closer...I moved from England to Malta, where my wife was born, reducing those odds to 401880 to one. By the time I found myself sitting at the bar...those odds were at two to one. Fortunately for me, the drunk guy didn't stand a chance. Or stand at all, for that matter.

So we danced the night away...

Her name is Katya. The meaning of the name is debated...it either means 'pure' or 'torture', both from Greek, depending on how you translate it.

As for the drunk guy, he was carried away by a kind-hearted healthcare auxiliary who gave him a strong coffee and a complete change of blood.


Walk into any classroom, and ask the students there how many tenses there are in the English language, and the result will always be the same. Some students will frown and start counting under their breath with a look of intense concentration on their faces. Others will use their fingers. Some may even pull out a calculator.

Eventually, the answers start coming. Some students say twelve. Others say eight. Or nine, fifteen or twenty-two. Some say, "Um...what's a tense?"

Good question. Let's say, for the sake of the argument, that tense means time.

Back to the time machine...When would you go?

There are only three answers to this question – to the past, to the future or...I wouldn't go anywhere. I'd stay here, in the present.

So, if tense is time, there are only three. There's nowhere else to go.

Of course, the way I 'view' a particular time may be very different from the way someone else looks at it. Back to the Halloween disco...

"This is a great party", said I.

"It's not bad", she smiled.

Same time, same place. Different ways of looking at it. Let's call it different aspects.

There are three aspects in the English language – the simple, the continuous and the perfect. Mix these aspects with the tenses, and what you end up with is the English tense system.

So far, so good. Now, let's look at those words – simple, continuous and perfect. Forget about the grammatical implications. Let's focus on the meaning of those words, in the same way that 'Katya' means 'pure' (or 'torture', depending on how you translate it!)

'Simple' means 'easy', or 'basic', or 'not complicated', as in 'a simple question'. So why would someone decide to refer to a tense / aspect combination as 'the present 'easy', or 'the past 'not complicated'? Well, as you could probably figure out from the introduction to this article, time is quite a complex idea, full of paradoxes and the speed of light and other stuff that you'd need to grow a big beard and wear black-rimmed glasses in order to understand. So maybe, just maybe, the name 'simple' shows us that 'this is the straightforward one'. Past simple? A point in time before now. Future simple? A point in time after now. Present simple? Just time in general.

'Continuous', from the verb 'to continue', which means 'to carry on', or 'don't stop', or 'keep going'. Back to the Halloween disco...

'We were both sitting at the bar, and there was an incredibly drunk person sitting between us.'

Obviously, we were all sitting there for a while. The action continued for a while, or at least until the drunk guy leapt to his feet and screamed. (Not 'was leaping' or 'was screaming'...that happened in a heartbeat!)
And then we have 'perfect'. This one's a bit trickier. A bit more complicated. If it wasn't...it would be simple.

Katya and I have the perfect marriage. Two people joined together, over distance and dancing and drunk people. If the perfect marriage, basically, is two people coming together, and tense is time, then logically, the perfect tense is two...times coming together. Therefore, the present perfect is the present and past coming together, the past perfect is the past and the earlier past coming together, and the future perfect is the present and the future coming together. And they all lived happily ever after...

...even the drunk guy, who was helped by a healthcare auxiliary. An auxiliary is someone (or something) who gives help of any kind. That's why we have auxiliary verbs. Sometimes they're called 'helping verbs'. What they help us do is change the aspect of each tense...'do' for simple, 'be' for continuous and 'have' for perfect.

Okay, so there's a bit more to it than that, and I may have over-simplified it somewhat, but then again, there’s a bit more to building a time machine than cereal boxes, toilet paper tubes and staples...apparently you also need a black hole, a neutron star with a gravitational pull thirty times that of earth, and a rotating universe – none of which are available on ebay. I checked.

But surely it's just a matter of time?


By Danny