In the last issue of the magazine I initiated a new thread in the Skills Academy column. The article covered handling a communication breakdown caused by our temporary inability to express ourselves due to a lack of the necessary vocabulary. There is of course another, equally important area of language where such breakdown may occur—namely the usage of tenses. Even those learners of English whose native languages contain more than just three tenses (the past, the present and the future) encounter problems with building and using English ones, let alone those who distinguish only three tenses in their mother tongues. In this article I would like to outline the basic rules and logic governing English tenses so that you can use them with greater confidence and therefore mitigate the risk of being misunderstood.

How often have you got stuck in your communication with others because you were thinking about what tense to use? Should you say “He did it” or maybe “He has done it”, “Our company is offering…” or “Our company offers…”, “I am going to the cinema tomorrow” or “I will go to the cinema tomorrow”? It would seem that it really does not matter if we are understood properly and that in a specific and narrow context, confusing tenses does not carry huge risk of a communication breakdown. It is true in part, but on the one hand there may be situations when wrong application of a given tense leads to such breakdown and on the other hand the constant, frivolous usage of forms hampers thorough comprehension of tenses. After all, you want to speak without mistakes and handle your communication well.

How to approach and embrace this multitude of different tenses and their usages? Should you start in the most common way, learning the name of a tense first, then its construction followed by all the usages and concluded with examples? Or maybe you should immediately immerse yourself in the language by analysing the contexts and working with translations? The answer to these questions lies in individual learning preferences which are basically divided into two categories—methodical, based on understanding the theory first, and practical, based on linguistic intuition. However, no matter which approach you take, the application of tenses must be a conscious choice and not a blind guess. In order to make such informed choices, one ought to comprehend the fundamental division of tenses and English native speakers’ perception of time, within which they place actions and events.

The fundamental division of English tenses

If you want to handle tenses better, it’s worth realizing how the tenses can be divided according to the nature of actions and events. Additionally, each category has its representation in three basic time frames—the past, the present and the future. There is the logic behind each category based on the interpretation of points in time, time brackets and passing of time. Let’s start by looking more closely at the first category of tenses represented by simple tenses.

Simple tenses

Simple tenses in three time frames are: Present Simple, Past Simple and Future Simple. We could say that simple tenses are called simple because of their simple construction, meaning taking no auxiliary verb between the subject and the verb, if it wasn’t for Future Simple, which uses an auxiliary verb “will”, hence its construction is not as simple as in the case of Present Simple and Past Simple. We could say that all three describe repetitive actions or events, if not for the fact that each of them has additional usages which go beyond this one criterion. Nevertheless, this one usage simple tenses have in common is a good starting place to analyse them and their representation on the timeline.

Present Simple Tense

As you all know, Present Simple Tense is used to talk about activities or events which happen repeatedly, among other usages. Let’s take an example:

I go to work by bus.

What does this really mean? If it refers to a repeated activity, we cannot just focus on the present, which, by the way, is a somewhat artificial notion (see Section The present does not exist). We should, then, interpret this sentence more broadly. It actually means that:

I went to work by bus in the past.

Today I am going to work by bus. I will go to work by bus in the future.

All this information is contained in the sentence presented above.

To illustrate the equivalence more clearly, let me present the activity on the time axis, also called the timeline. Each instance of going to work (e.g. every day) can be presented as a point on a timeline, spanning from undefined past to undefined future:

This is a precise illustration of the Present Simple Tense activity we are considering here. In such case, the present stretches from the past to the future and although the time borders could be specified (we started this activity when we started going to this particular work and will finish it along with terminating the job contract), they are not in the scope of our interest. What is important is the fact that every time we state we go to work by bus, IT IS TRUE in the present. Another important thing is that the activity is never a single one as it is impossible to say in Present Simple Tense that something was true yesterday but is not today or is true today, but will not be tomorrow. These two basic assumptions are the foundation for the usage of Present Simple. Of course, there are more usages which are not covered here but certainly will be to show how else we can interpret this tense.

Past Simple Tense

The best way to introduce this tense would be to compare directly to Present Simple to see if the former can be used in exactly the same way but with reference to the past. Let us consider the following sentence:

I went to school in Warsaw.

At first glance the interpretation is obvious: in the past I attended some school in the city of Warsaw. The activity of going to school was a repetitive one, since attending school is not a single, one day activity. In this dimension Past Simple is the past reflection of the usage of the Present Simple. But you are well aware of the fact that we more often use Past Simple to describe single activities or events in the past, like for example:

I broke the glass.

It’s rather obvious that I am not talking about a repetitive activity I performed in the past but a single one—one day in the past I broke the glass. This is because of the nature of the verb and the first assumptions we make when we hear our interlocutor. But is it a rule—that some verbs are immediately interpreted as those describing repetitive activities and some refer strictly to single actions? Unfortunately not—we will get to that after presenting Future Simple Tense. It is easy to show by giving another example with the verb “to go” in its past form:

I went to the bank in the morning.

Here, quite the opposite from the first example, we know that the verb describes a single activity in some undefined past. We also know that the translation of this verb will be a little bit different than in the first sentence—we are dealing here with imperfective and perfective form (do not confuse it with Perfect Tenses). Imperfective and perfective forms can be different in some languages (e.g. Polish), but do not have to be in others (e.g. English). What conclusion does it bring us to? That context rules! Both sentences with “went” can be interpreted in perfective and imperfective forms:

I went to school in Warsaw. (on that particular day)

I broke the glass. (I did this on purpose many times in the past)

Maybe you can’t see it yet, but it is very important to understand that Present Simple Tense always takes imperfective forms. Past Simple is much broader in this regard.

Future Simple Tense

Unlike Present Simple and Past Simple, Future Simple Tense is yet another case of interpreting the verb forms—for almost all verbs it is interpreted according to perfective forms, which means that it expresses single actions in the future. The exceptions are the state verbs which have the inherent quality of continuity and this is evidently visible in Future Simple. The examples of such verbs are: ‘to know’, ‘to remember’, ‘to love’, ‘to hate’, ‘to live’ and the like. Therefore there is a big difference in translating sentences containing such verbs and so called action verbs which can be subject to dual interpretation. Action verbs in Future Simple, however, are usually perfective. Let’s consider the following examples:

I will open the door.

I will cut the onion.

I will visit her.

I will sell it.

The above verbs represent single actions in the future (they do not last) in opposition to such state verbs:

I will always love you.

She will hate him for this.

He will remember till the end of his life.

Nevertheless, Future Simple has very specific applications and usage, since it is not the only way in which we can express future activities or events. But this is a topic for one of the next articles and will not be discussed here. What is important to remember is connected with the auxiliary verb ‘will’. As you may know, the noun ‘will’ is close in meaning to the noun ‘willingness’. If used as the auxiliary verb for Future Simple it expresses that we are willing to do something, but this willingness is spontaneous and more unconditioned. The decision or the premises behind the future activity are known at the very moment of our statement. To fully understand Future Simple and different ways of expressing future activities it is best to juxtapose all of them together, or at least the three most common constructions: Present Continuous, ‘to be going to’ and Future Simple. This will certainly be a topic for one of the next articles. Now, however, I would like to discuss another group of tenses to conclude my disquisition. We are going to take a closer look at continuous (progressive) tenses.

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