Hello,
There's been a little debate fired in another newsgroup with an innocent question of how many tenses are used in common English in Ireland. Some people said you'd only need two to get by, others categorically claim you'll use all of the tenses and then some more! Emotion: smile
It might be somewhat difficult to establish what "common English" is. I would agree ALL tenses can be used in speech to express certain... opinions. IF however the question was meant to be: "how many tenses are COMMONLY used in English" I'd personally say, up to 7 -10 perhaps, depending on social and educational background . Is it a fair or ridiculous estimate? And is grammatical "sophistication" irrelevant of social and educational environment ?
I'd be very interested to hear anybody's views on the subject. Perhaps it might even convince me to admit the unthinkable - that I was wrong Emotion: wink

regards,
marek
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marek wrote on 03 Jun 2004:
Hello, There's been a little debate fired in another newsgroup with an innocent question of how many tenses are used ... all of the tenses and then some more! Emotion: smile It might be somewhat difficult to establish what "common English" is.

No problem. It's either "standard English" or it's "the English that most people speak and understand" or it's "the English of the common people". It doesn't matter.
I would agree ALL tenses can be used in speech to express certain... opinions. IF however the question was meant ... views on the subject. Perhaps it might even convince me to admit the unthinkable - that I was wrong Emotion: wink

There are only two tenses in English: past and present. The verb forms and auxiliaries associated with these two tenses are aspects; eg,
simple present: I run.
simple past : I ran.
progressive aspect: am/was running
perfect aspect : have/had run
prefect & progressive aspects combined: have/had been running

There is no future tense in English. Futurity is expressed by the simple present, as in "I run tonight at 9:00 p.m.", a modal plus the "bare" infinitive, "I shall/will run tonight at 9:00 p.m.", or the progressive aspect with "go" or a modal, as in "I am going to run tonight" or "I will be running tonight". There are other possibilities.
Most grammar books will identify more than two tenses because they count the adornments of aspect as separate tenses, but it just isn't so. There is a terminological problem here. Look at a French grammar and you will see four indicative tenses: present, imperfect, past, and future, each with its own verb ending. Look at English, and you will see that each verb has only two indicative forms: present and past.

Franke: EFL teacher & medical editor.
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Most grammar books will identify more than two tenses because they count the adornments of aspect as separate tenses, but ... verb ending. Look at English, and you will see that each verb has only two indicative forms: present and past.

So who gets to decide that a tense is identified solely by a 'verb ending'? What difference does it make that you use an auxiliary to express a 'tense' (by a layman's understanding of th term)?
If I were to invent a new language from scratch, I would almost certainly have it express the difference between past present and future using nothing but auxiliaries - would you call such a language completely tenseless? (I have heard people call some Asian languages just that, but I'm sure they must have the ability to express the equivalent notion).

Dylan
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Dylan Nicholson wrote on 03 Jun 2004:
Most grammar books will identify more than two tenses because ... each verb has only two indicative forms: present and past.

So who gets to decide that a tense is identified solely by a 'verb ending'? What difference does it make ... people call some Asian languages just that, but I'm sure they must have the ability to express the equivalent notion).

You'll have to talk to the professional linguists about that if you want an accurate technical answer. Here is what Quirk et al. say, in small part, about English tense (4.3 The present tense as 'nonpast'; p. 176):
". . . morphologically English has no future form of the verb in addition to present and past forms. Some grammarians have argued for a third, 'future tense', maintaining that English realizes this tense by the use of an auxiliary verb construction ('will' + infinitive); but we prefer to follow those grammarians who have treated tense strictly as a category realized by verb inflection."

There you have the essential definition of a verb tense: an inflection on the verb itself that distinguishes tense by the shape of the inflection, as happens in Fench, English, and other languages. It doesn't happen in Chinese at all. In Chinese we add "guo le" or simply "le" to indicate past action. The verb doesn't change at all. Japanese has a past tense, though.
Who gets to decie? Linguists propose, but nobody "decides". Quirk et al. demonstrate how these things are determined: ". . . we prefer to follow those grammarians who . . ." Why do they prefer one categorization to another? Clarity, consistency, and concision.

If you analyze the semantics of sentences, you discover that they all talk about real or unreal periods of past, present, and future time, regardless of whether their shapes (morphology) changes or they take a marker, like Chinese, or auxiliary verbs, like English. All languages can be used to talk about these three periods of time.

There is an argument to be made for claiming that present simple, present perfect, present progressive, and present prefect progressive, for example, are four separate and distinct tenses rather than one tense expressed in four aspects. It makes sense to people who see the semantic differences but cannot at the same time reconcile those differences with the grammatical/morphological identity found in those four. I suppose it means that some people cannot see things in intellectual 3-D and that some people can. It doesn't change the way we use the language or what we mean when we speak the language. It's structural, analytical, and terminological, not semantic. But to be able to discuss these things meaningfully, everyone must agree on the meaning of the terminology.

Some others who have studied linguistics may prefer to follow the grammarians who have treated tense not strictly as a category realized by verb inflection. Who is right? It's possible for both to be right, I suspect, although I haven't spent much time researching this particular topic. One mode of analysis makes more sense to me than another. It's like asking "Which is the tue religion?" Well, if one must have a true religion, then pick one that seems true to you and have faith that it is true, and then and only then will you have the "true" religion. We aren't dealing with physics or chemistry here, so there is latitude for linguistic sectarianism.

When lay-people attempt to discuss technical material without knowing and understanding the technical vocabulary, they don't talk about it the same way the technical people do. I've been away from linguistics for 22 years and am not familiar with a great deal of the new terminology, and I don't know much about a lot of the old terminology either. My technical and terminological knowledge is both limited and shrinking from disuse, and fairly restricted to what was current among Chomskyites in the 1970s-80s. Evan Kirschenbaum's linguistics MA is much more current and he is much more conversant with the terminology than I am.

Franke: EFL teacher & medical editor.
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"Dylan Nicholson" (Email Removed) schrieb im Newsbeitrag
Most grammar books will identify more than two tenses because ... each verb has only two indicative forms: present and past.

So who gets to decide that a tense is identified solely by a 'verbending'? What difference does it make that ... people call some Asian languages just that, but I'm sure they must have the ability to express the equivalent notion).

That, more or less, is the definition of a tense in the strict sense of the word.For example, the "present perfect" e.g. "I have read the book" is really the perfective aspect of the present tense, formed from the present tense of the auxillary verb "to have" and what is usually called the "past participle" of the main verb "to read". The "past passive" e.g. "The internet was read by millions of people" is really the passive voice of the past tense, formed from the present tense of "to be" and the "past participle".

(I personally think "past participle" is a misleading term, but that's a personal opinion.) What we call the "future tense" is actually formed from the present tense of the modal verb "will" (which has no infinitive form) and the basic form (meaning: the infinitive without "to") of the main verb; and seldom relates to the future specifically, but to a decision that has just been made.
(That last one is the near exact equivalent of the Welsh coloured future, which really *is* a tense: although preceded by a particle (essentially meaningless), the coloured future is actually formed from the stem of the verb to which endings have been attached.)
However, I think the OP is asking about tenses in the broad* sense, the sense we usually meet it in school text books, for example. (Or, perhaps the argument stems from confusion between the two senses of the word.) In the *broad sense, you could probably count at least a dozen tenses in English, perhaps as many as 32, depending on your exact definition of a tense (does "to do" + basic form count as a tense?).
The various tenses convey subtle shades of meaning which may be quite important: for example, "Fred was there" implies that Fred was there when something happened, while "Fred has been there" implies that Fred knows his way to, or around, that place. You could probably communicate quite a lot with just a few tenses; indeed, Shakespeare used far fewer tenses than we do now ("I have been waiting" is an example of a construction unknown to the Elizabethans) and it didn't seem to worry him. However, you'd also lose some information, possibly very important information.
The narrow definition of "tense", as used by CyberCypher, is the one used by linguists; the broader definition by teachers and students of languages.
Most grammar books will identify more than two tenses because ... each verb has only two indicative forms: present and past.

So who gets to decide that a tense is identified solely by a 'verb ending'?

Whoever is doing the defining, of course. I can define "green cheese" as "what the moon is made of". But there are more useful and less useful definitions.
What difference does it make that you use an auxiliary to express a 'tense' (by a layman's understanding of th term)?

The difference is that this definition gives incoherent results. Why do we say that English has a future (using an auxiliary) tense but not a pluperfect (similarly using an auxiliary)? Why do we say that "I will leave tomorrow" is in the future tense but "I leave tomorrow" or "I am leaving tomorrow" are not?
Changing the form of a verb is one thing and stringing on auxiliaries is another thing. More useful definitions will reflect this. If you prefer to call the form of the verb something other than "tense" that is your business. But to simply pull out one auxiliary construction and arbitrarily call it (along with two verb forms but excluding all other auxiliary constructions) a tense doesn't make any sense. It doesn't even achieve the presumed goal of making "tense" correspond with time.
If I were to invent a new language from scratch, I would almost certainly have it express the difference between past present and future using nothing but auxiliaries - would you call such a language completely tenseless?

Yes.
(I
have heard people call some Asian languages just that, but I'm sure they must have the ability to express the equivalent notion).

And, once we seperate "tense" from the ability to express time (as we have in fact already done in English, even if we don't care to notice it), this presents no difficulties.
Richard R. Hershberger
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Most grammar books will identify more than two tenses because ... each verb has only two indicative forms: present and past.

So who gets to decide that a tense is identified solely by a 'verb ending'? What difference does it make ... people call some Asian languages just that, but I'm sure they must have the ability to express the equivalent notion).

What Franke sketches is technically correct, in modern thinking. The point is that 'tense' ultimately refers to time, and the forms of English verbs don't correspond invariably to a relationship between the time of an event and the time of the speech referring to it. (This objection can also apply to languages which do have 'true' tenses, of course.)
For a learner, especially one who already thinks in tenses similar to the Latin ones, it may be clearer to stick with the older terms; and there's nothing at all wrong with that. It's just that it's misleading if you're studying what makes English work for its own sake, or if you want to compare it in detail with some other languages.

Mike.
There are only two tenses in English: past and present. The verb forms and auxiliaries associated with these two tenses ... : I ran. progressive aspect: am/was running perfect aspect : have/had run prefect & progressive aspects combined: have/had been running

That's the simple, and in my opinion, less useful explanation of the tenses. Others include the perfect forms as tenses, and recognize the future as a tense. Auxiliaries are employed to form some tenses and the various aspects.
So, six tenses:
Past perfect I had sung, I had been singing
Past I sang, I did sing, I was singing
Present perfect I have sung, I have been singing

Present I sing, I do sing, I am singing
Future perfect I will/shall have sung, I will/shall have been singing
Future I will/shall sing, I will/shall be singing

The forms with the active participle (the -ing form) are the progressive aspects of these tenses. The forms with "do" and "did" are emphatic aspects. I don't have a name handy for the forms with "going to", but they are used to show intention, rather than actual future time.
There are also various moods, and various incorrect ways to form them(1).
The tenses, aspects, and moods can be combined in certain combinations. There are certain combinations that are not allowed as well.
Some verb phrases have more than one parsing. For example, the modal auxiliary "will/would" can actually be used as a mode, rather than forming a future tense: "He will pick up all kinds of bugs and put them in the cupboard" can be taken as specifying a habitual present action, rather than a future one. The words "had been" can be the past perfect indicative, or the past subjunctive.
Some day, I keep telling myself, I'm going to write a book (or part of a web site) called "An Operator's Manual for the English Language", and explain all this, plus the difference between stuff and things.

Stefano
http://www.steve-and-pattie.com/esperantujo
(1) For example, using "would have" to form a past subjunctive, instead of "had" with the participle.
Stefano MacGregor wrote on 03 Jun 2004:
There are only two tenses in English: past and present. ... have/had run prefect & progressive aspects combined: have/had been running

That's the simple, and in my opinion, less useful explanation of the tenses.

It's the technical linguistic characterization, but it's only one. It makes sense to me, but I agree that it isn't easy for everyone to grasp. Non-linguists will have different ideas about tense than linguists do, but, as a rule, they don't need to know all the terminology anyway. All everyday users of the language really need to know is how to say what they want to say, not what to call what they've said. That's what linguists and grammarians are about.

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