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{This thread has connections to the "May/might - Old rumors" thread

http://www.EnglishForward.com/ShowPost.aspx?PostID=74347

and the "Tenseless Modals" thread.

http://www.EnglishForward.com/ShowPost.aspx?PostID=73196

I've moved the following posting from "May/might - Old rumors" because these discussions can become long and involved and I think it's best to keep them separate. This will help keep any one thread from becoming unweildy}

JTT wrote:
You and Mr P are still clinging to the discredited prescriptivist notion called "sequence of tenses OR concord of tenses.


Mr Pedantic replied by providing an example:

1. 'Can you swim?' 'Yes, I can swim.'

Twenty years later, after an unpleasant altercation with a bunch of discredited prescriptivists:

2. 'Can you swim?' 'When I had the use of my legs, I could swim. But now I can't.'

If 'could' isn't the past tense of 'can', JT, how do you explain 'could' in #2?

MrP

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

JTT:

'can & could' represent the modal pair that are most troublesome, ie. they have similarities that make them seem like they are past and present tenses but they aren't. They are like all other modals in modern English in that they are tenseless.

Tenseless modals can operate in all tense situations.

To Mr Pedantic's query:

It's easy to be fooled and fooled is just what Mr P has been. The connection you see, Mr P, of 'could' as a past tense and 'can' as a present tense is not that at all. It's simply 'could' operating in one of its modal roles.

It's not at all unnatural or unreasonable to expect that historical past tense forms should fill this semantic role to describe a general condition in the past.

What you have mistaken for a syntactic connection is nothing more than a semantic connection.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

The Grammar Book:

I can't speak French now, but I could when I was a child.

..., this is a semantic, not a syntactic relationship, and it does not hold for other modal pairs; ...

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

That the connection between 'can & could' is not syntactic but semantic is made clear when we try to do the same with the other traditional modal pairs:

1. *I won't speak French now, but I would when I was a child.*

2. *I shall not speak French now, but I should when I was a child.*

3. *I may not speak French now, but I might when I was a child.*

The Grammar Book also says, "in fact, in some cases so-called present-tense modals refer to past time". And they give the following example;

Jim may have been late last night. (past meaning)

In actuality, many more than "some" uses of so called "past tense" modals are in present and future situations. And the purported present tense modals very frequently operate in past tense/time situations.

--------------------------------------

When someone uses a past tense verb, they expect that it should operate like a past tense verb, right? So when I watch Mr P jump and he asks me,

What did I do?,

I can safely reply, "You jumpED. Similarly, when Jim says, "Where did you go?", I can safely reply, "I went to Fresno" and he will understand the 'wenting' as a finished action.

Such is not the case with 'could'. Let's look at Mr P's example once more.

'When I had the use of my legs, I could swim. But now I can't.'

Mr P asked; "If 'could' isn't the past tense of 'can', JT, how do you explain 'could' in #2?"

Well, as I explained above, this isn't a past tense in the same way that we use 'jumped' or 'ran' or 'spoke' or 'ate' as past tenses. When we try to use this "general past condition" use of 'could' as a real past tense, to wit,

'When I had the use of my legs, I could swim." {okay so far but, }

MrP's character continues;

*"I remember that one Friday in 1978; I could swim ten miles.*,

we get an ungrammatical sentence. 'could' just won't perform like a past tense for the very simple reason that it is NOT a past tense. It steadfastly resists being used in a manner that is, fundamentally, how past tenses are used.
1 2 3 4 5
Comments  
It's not at all unnatural or unreasonable to expect that historical past tense forms should fill this semantic role to describe a general condition in the past.

If it looks like a past tense, acts like a past tense, and has the 'semantic role' of a past tense – it's a past tense. What other criteria are there?
That the connection between 'can & could' is not syntactic but semantic is made clear when we try to do the same with the other traditional modal pairs...

This is a quaintly primitive form of argument:

'The relationship of X to Y is not Z, because the relationship of A to B is not Z.'

Consult a good dictionary, under 'sympathetic magic'.
When someone uses a past tense verb, they expect that it should operate like a past tense verb, right?...

As it does here, JT:

1.   
'What can you do? 'I can jump.'
'What could you do?' 'I could jump.'

2.  
'When I have the use of my legs, I can swim.'
'When I had the use of my legs, I could swim.'

3. Your '1978' sentence isn't ungrammatical. It's merely semantically odd: when we use 'can swim' in the sense 'be able to swim', we don't expect the 'being able' to last no more than a day. But:

'It is 1978. I can swim ten miles in 3 hours.'
'In 1978, I could swim ten miles in 3 hours.'

As I say, to disprove your original hypothesis, it's not necessary to demonstrate that 'could' is always the past tense of 'can'. It's sufficient to find one example.

MrP
{## ..... ## marks off new responses}

JTT:
It's not at all unnatural or unreasonable to expect that historical past tense forms should fill this semantic role to describe a general condition in the past.

MrP:
If it looks like a past tense, acts like a past tense, and has the 'semantic role' of a past tense – it's a past tense. What other criteria are there?

## JTT: It's these looks that are deceiving you, MrP. ##

JTT:
That the connection between 'can & could' is not syntactic but semantic is made clear when we try to do the same with the other traditional modal pairs...

MrP:
This is a quaintly primitive form of argument:

'The relationship of X to Y is not Z, because the relationship of A to B is not Z.'

Consult a good dictionary, under 'sympathetic magic'.

## JTT: This is no argument at all. Instead of showing why The Grammar Book is wrong, Mr P relies on smoke and mirrors, more pedantry designed to lead away from the issues rather than address them. We see, CLEARLY, [though Mr P has decided to ignore it with his tangents] that this doesn't apply equally to all the modal pairs.

Why would that be when they are all described as having present/past tenses? Could/Can there actually be something about can & could that make them operate differently from the other modals?

'can' and 'could' are different because their meanings are so close, actually identical in some situations. Both can & could mean "It's possible" and the negative forms can also be used to state, "it wasn't possible". That's why they have such a close connection. ##

=



JTT:
When someone uses a past tense verb, they expect that it should operate like a past tense verb, right?...

MrP:
As it does here, JT:

1.
a. 'What can you do? 'I can jump.'
b. 'What could you do?' 'I could jump.'

## JTT: Sorry, Mr P but you should be much more careful in your analysis. Without a clear reference to the past, eg. "when you were young", sentence b. has a future meaning. Add a "right now" to either sentence a or b and we have a question in the present with answers that describe a near future.

a. 'What can you do right now? 'I can jump.'
b. 'What could you do right now?' 'I could jump.'

When 'could' is used to describe a general condition/ability in the past, it doesn't describe past tense in the normal sense. What it means is that ability was there for that person on, say, December 10, 1978 and that same ability was there a day, and two days later, a week later, a month later, a year later and so on.

This is not what a normal past tense does. ##

=



MrP:
2.
a. 'When I have the use of my legs, I can swim.' [??? Did you lend them to someone, Mr P?]
b. 'When I had the use of my legs, I could swim.'
c. 'When I have the use of my legs, I could swim ... .'

## JTT: An ability that was available to that person in the past. This is hardly the same thing as a past tense. And in sentence c. we have 'could' operating in a future with the same meaning as 'can' in 2a. but with a different nuance. ##

------------------------------

MrP:
3. Your '1978' sentence isn't ungrammatical. It's merely semantically odd: when we use 'can swim' in the sense 'be able to swim', we don't expect the 'being able' to last no more than a day. But:

'It is 1978. I can swim ten miles in 3 hours.'
'In 1978, I could swim ten miles in 3 hours.'

## JTT: That makes it ungrammatical for the situation. It's not grammatical because we don't normally use these purported past tense modals 'would and could' to discuss single events.

1) A: Where will you go? B: To the store. B: *I would go to the store.*

2) A: Here, catch this ball. [A throws the ball] B: *I could catch the ball.*

Ungrammatical for the situation. ##

==

MrP:
As I say, to disprove your original hypothesis, it's not necessary to demonstrate that 'could' is always the past tense of 'can'. It's sufficient to find one example.

## JTT: This is so ludicrous, so inane, Mr P that it doesn't really even deserve a reply. But let's knock it out of the ballpark anyway.

I can find at least one instance where we use a plural verb with a singular entity, , with singular . Does that then mean that we can use verbs in any manner we so choose; we is, I are, she am, ...? Since when does an exception make the rule?

If just one example is all that's needed to prove your point, why don't the millions of examples of purported past tense modals operating in the present & future AND the millions of examples of purported present tense modals operating in the past disprove your contention.

Up to now, you've have provided no examples of the purported past tense modals actually being used in the manner you believe they work. You've only provided the same old mistaken notions of prescriptive grammar, that examples of reported speech show past tenses. But it's abundantly clear that they don't.

But let me help you out, MrP, since you're so desperate to find that one instance. There are actually a few state type verbs where we can/could use 'could' as a one instance past time. Examples are verbs like smell, taste, see, feel, etc.

But one must be careful not to be misled by these exceptions for they too just illustrate the close semantic connection between can and could. ##

Students: Are you brave enough to let our tutors analyse your pronunciation?
MrP:
As I say, to disprove your original hypothesis, it's not necessary to demonstrate that 'could' is always the past tense of 'can'. It's sufficient to find one example.

## JTT: This is so ludicrous, so inane, Mr P that it doesn't really even deserve a reply.


This is really the last straw, JT. Mr. P. has practically quoted verbatim one of the most central tenets of scientific inquiry and you find it ludicrous. I think everybody knows what's ludicrous at this point.
Jim:
This is really the last straw, JT.


Perhaps you could use this straw to create some more smoke, Jim. Or you could address the issues.Emotion: smile
If it looks like a past tense, acts like a past tense, and has the 'semantic role' of a past tense – it's a past tense. What other criteria are there?

## JTT: It's these looks that are deceiving you, MrP. ##

You haven't answered the question, JT. What are the other criteria?
This is a quaintly primitive form of argument:

'The relationship of X to Y is not Z, because the relationship of A to B is not Z.'

Consult a good dictionary, under 'sympathetic magic'.

## JTT: This is no argument at all. Instead of showing why The Grammar Book is wrong, Mr P relies on smoke and mirrors, more pedantry designed to lead away from the issues rather than address them. We see, CLEARLY, [though Mr P has decided to ignore it with his tangents] that this doesn't apply equally to all the modal pairs.

I'll put it another way. The way X behaves is only relevant to the way Y behaves if we have already defined the connection between X and Y. In this instance, the connection between X (can/could) and Y (any other modal verb) depends on our answers to questions ABC (how do these verbs operate, with regard to tense?). We can't therefore use the connection between X and Y to answer ABC. (It's called a 'circular reference'.)

2.
a. 'When I have the use of my legs, I can swim.'
b. 'When I had the use of my legs, I could swim.'
c. 'When I have the use of my legs, I could swim ... .'

## JTT: An ability that was available to that person in the past. This is hardly the same thing as a past tense. And in sentence c. we have 'could' operating in a future with the same meaning as 'can' in 2a. but with a different nuance. ##

'Can/could' deals with 'ability': it = 'to be able to', to know how to'. Thus:

2d. 'When I have the use of my legs, it is possible for me to swim.'
2e. 'When I had the use of my legs, it was possible for me to swim.'

The ability was available to the person in the past. 'Can/could' is the carrier of 'possibility' in this sentence. 'Could' can't be replaced with 'can' in 2b. 'Was possible' can't be replaced with 'is possible' in 2e. Therefore that which denotes 'the ability that was available in the past' is 'could' in 2b and 'was possible' in 2e.

Which is the same as saying 'could is the past tense of can'.

MrP
Students: We have free audio pronunciation exercises.
Mr P:
'Could' can't be replaced with 'can' in 2b. 'Was possible' can't be replaced with 'is possible' in 2e. Therefore that which denotes 'the ability that was available in the past' is 'could' in 2b and 'was possible' in 2e.

Which is the same as saying 'could is the past tense of can'.


There's a big difference between an "ability that was available in the past" and a past tense. They are not the same things, Mr P. 'could' can't be a past tense because it's missing that fundamental aspect of past tenseness, the ability to describe one situation.

Modals, standing alone, can't describe past tense situations because they are tenseless. They all need 'have + PP' to state a TRUE past tense.

You always seem to ignore the highly salient fact that the purported past tense modals can all be used with present and future meanings. Strange!!!



You're still missing the central point of all this, Mr P. You and Jim ignored, for the longest time, the example I set for you, hoping you'd see. May I refer you to the thread,

http://www.EnglishForward.com/ShowPost.aspx?PostID=73196 ,

the last posting wherein I showed that there are present/future situations where purported past tense modals work but purported present tense modals are excluded. Here are the pertinent sections.

"... we find that two purported past tense modals, 'might' and 'could' are possible here but a purported present tense modal, 'can', is NOT possible.

Why would "present" tense 'can' be excluded but "past" tense 'could' and 'might' be included? Could/Can it not be that there are semantic/pragmatic considerations that are causing this rather than the mistaken notion of tense."

Then I showed Jim that he was mistaken about purported present tense modals:
"And the borrowings, as Jim calls them, occur with "present" tense modals "borrowed into past points of view".

That will have been Martha that said that.

NO, NO, She can't have died, nooooooo.

He may have purchased a Toyota."

MrP:
'Could' can't be replaced with 'can'


For semantic, NOT syntactic reasons. 'could' can actually be replace by . There is a change in meaning, of course, but that's to be expected. Different modals say different things.Pragmatic differences explain these modal changes. Here's a fictional dialogue but all the language is real language.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Mr Z: [to some people] When I had the use of my legs, I could swim.

Melody: [overhearing Mr Z, says to her mom] Mr Z can't have ever swum, Mom. He's been in a wheelchair since he was a baby. You told me that.

Mother: Yes, that's right, Honey. He hasn't ever had the use of his legs and he hasn't ever swum. But don't say anything.

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

Now, the allowable presence of purported present tense clearly shows us that this is NOT an issue of tense. It all relates to modal meaning. These modals slip in and out of all tense situations, past, present and future, carrying modal meaning but not tense.
This hypothesis appears to account for all the examples given so far by JTT, CJ, and MrP:

Sometimes 'could' acts without apparent tense.¹ Sometimes it acts as the past tense of 'can'.² Sometimes we have to know the context, to know which kind of 'could' it is.³

¹
a) 'Could you open the door, please?' (cf. 'Can you open the door, please?', 'Would you open the door, please?', etc.)
b) 'You could be right.'

²
a) 'Can you speak French?' 'I could speak French when I was young; but now I've forgotten it all.'
b) 'Good game last night?' 'Don't know. I couldn't go.'
c) 'I couldn't see a thing.'
d) 'Why did he drown?' 'He couldn't swim.'

³
a) 'He asked if I could swim.'
<= 'Can you swim?' = 'Do you know how to swim?' (General question.)
<= 'Can/could you swim?' = 'If necessary, can/could you swim?' (The waters are rising.)

b) 'JT said she couldn't answer MrP's question.'
<= 'She can't answer MrP's question.'
<= 'She couldn't answer MrP's question.'

Note 1. If we disallowed tense completely in modal verbs, we would be unable to distinguish between these two sentences:

1. 'JT says you can't make it.' (Never mind.)

2. 'JT says you couldn't make it.' (Why was that?)

Note 2. These sentences, meanwhile, would apparently be tenseless:

'I can't do it.'
'I couldn't understand it.'
'I couldn't help myself.'
'I can't explain.'

Where does tense reside in these examples, if not in 'can' and 'could'?

MrP

(A second hypothesis would posit that form¹ derives from the past subjunctive, while form² derives from the past indicative; but we can leave that for another thread.)
Hello everyone, I've just joined this forum and couldn't but help noticing this thread. I'm doing some research on modals so I'd like to offer my two cents worth:

I will propose that modals bear syntactic tense, not semantic tense. What I mean can be seen by Seqeunce of Tense (SoT) observations. SoT is not a prescriptive thing, it's merely an observation, that is: if the main verb of the matrix clause is in the past tense, the verb in the embedded clause must follow.

(1) I think he is clever.
(2) I thought he was clever.
(3) *I thought he is clever.

The some applies for modals in the matrix clause:

(4) I think he may/can/will be clever.
(5) I thought he might/could/would be clever.
(6) *I think he might/could/would be clever.

This generalisation holds true even if the proposition that the embedded clause illustrates (the proposition that 'he is clever' is true) is true at the moment of speech time rather than before it. So, if I said sentence (2), it does not necessarily mean that the referent of 'he' is now stupid and no longer clever. Different grammatical models have different reasons why this is so (for example, in minimalism the story goes that modals have tense bearing features which value embedded verbs), but there is no doubt that this generalisation is true. Now that we have examined the cases where modal verbs are subordinated by main verbs, let us consider the cases where modal verbs modify the main verbs.

(7) He might kill her.
(8) *He might killed her.

If the modal bears the tense of the sentence, then the main verb remains uninflected for tense. This is a syntactic phenomenon. This however, does not mean that the main verb is semantically 'tenseless', the proposition of 'He kills her' cannot be ascribed to a fixed point in speech time.

(9) He may have killed her.

In (9), 'may' is in present tense syntactic form, but the interpretation of (9) is not semantically present, but past.

>(i) 'What can you do? 'I can jump.'
>(ii) 'What could you do?' 'I could jump.'

Referring to this example, there are two problems. Firstly, in each example, two sentences are being analysed. This is not as much a grammatical phenomenon as one of accomodation and convergence between discourse partners. Because the wh-question in is phrased with 'can' bearing syntactic present, it would do well for the interlocutor to reply in the present. It would however, not be ungrammatical to have an utterance 'I could jump' to the question in (i). There would simply a disjuncture in discourse. The second problem is that in (ii), as mentioned above, semantically, 'I could jump' does not necessarily have the interpretation that 'I cannot jump now'. I'm not saying that it cannot have that interpretation, but the preferred reading would not be the case. Usually, if you wanted the interpretation to mean 'I could jump before, but I can't now', then a time marker is used, as is cross-linguistically case in languages which do not inflect for tense. Markers are used to distinguish between habitual and tensal interpretations which is shown nicely in:

> (iii) 'It is 1978. I can swim ten miles in 3 hours.'
> (iv) 'In 1978, I could swim ten miles in 3 hours.'

This however ilustrates sequence of tense:

> (v) 'When I have the use of my legs, I can swim.'
> (vi) 'When I had the use of my legs, I could swim.'

Past tense main verbs force embedded ones to be past. The converse is not true though. You can say:

(10) When I have the use of my legs, I would swim.

but not

(11) *When I had the use of my legs, I can swim.

One final note that I would like to add is that in languages, one example serves to disprove or to prove anything, at least where linguistics is concerned. Linguists look for patterns in data and develop trends and generalisations, better yet if shown cross-linguistically. Unlike mathematics where things are nice and clear, languages often have exceptions, dialectial differences and ambiguities. It's rare to find phenomena without exception.

eq
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