English now is international language, as a part of global society people in every country in the world should be able to communicate in English. Like other language, English has its languages structure called grammar.
Grammar is the structure of a language. People who start to learn a language must learn its grammar. Brown (1994:204) stated that learning language also means learning its grammatical system. Grammar is considered to be the system that all speakers of language learn earlier (cook, 1969). Some people may think it is unimportant to use correct grammar because they can understand each other when they talk. But for people who are seriously learning a foreign language, they have to learn its grammar. A grammar of a language tells us what we have to know in order to have native-like competence in the language. The users of correct grammar are also considered more educated.
In communicating, especially writing, grammar’s role is to provide a structure and a form for the word of a sentence so that the meaning becomes clear. it means that people have to use correct grammar in formal situation. Grammar covers numerous things, one of which is tense.
As stated in Wikipedia, the term ‘tense’ has a wide range of perception, particularly when it comes to its real practice. Some people may conceive it as a time marker, others may regard it a verb change that occurs in a sentence. However, both sides have common ground that a verb may change when one means to denote a certain tense. Thus, tense can probably be understood as “a temporal linguistic quality expressing the time at, during, or over which a state or action denoted by a verb occurs.” Since it deals with the grammaticality of a sentence, some grammarians and/or linguists prefer to name ‘tense’ as “grammatical tense”. This paper is, therefore, intended to elaborate the notion of tense and its usage in English.
B. ENGLISH TENSE AND ITS USAGE
As introduced earlier, tense is a temporal linguistic quality expressing the time at, during, or over which a state or action indicated by a verb occurs. In this case, tense change is indicated by the change of a verb being used. The tense change, therefore, indicates a change in meaning. Let us study the following sentences:
(1) John loved Mary.
(2) John loves Mary.
(3) John will love Mary.
Using the paradigm of Betty Azar (1989), it can be said that in the sentence (1) John did the action of loving Mary in the past time. The action, event, or situation of loving Mary happened at one particular time in the past. It began and ended in the past. At this time John perhaps does not love Mary anymore, and he will not love her in the future.
Different from the sentence (1), the sentence (2) shows that John loves and still loves Mary. John loves Mary always, usually, habitually; the action, event, or situation of loving Mary exist now, have existed in the past, and probably will exist in the future. Meanwhile, in the sentence (3), the action, event, or situation of loving Mary will happen at one particular time in the future. John has not loved Mary in the past, nor love her in the time being; and yet, he will probably love her at one particular time in the future.
The above three sentences use different forms of verb: the past form (loved), the present form (loves), and the future form (will love), and each differentiate one sentence from the other ones in meaning. The change of verb forms in this sense can serve as a marker to help us identify whether the action, event, or situation of loving occurred in the past, in the present, or in the future. In other words, in those simple sentences, the change of verb forms is adequate to identify when John has loved, still loves, or will love Mary.
Those sentences are presented to emphasize that English basically has three fundamental tenses by which verbs are inflected, a non-past tense (present tense) and a past tense (indicated by ablaut or the suffix -ed), and a future tense. What is commonly called the future tense in English is indicated with a modal auxiliary, not verbal inflection (Wikipedia).
Tenses in English are formed by combining a particular tense of the verb with certain verbal auxiliaries, the most common of which are various forms of "be", various forms of "have", and modal auxiliaries such as English “will”. In this case, one must be competent enough to produce acceptable utterances or sentences using the appropriate tenses.
Furthermore, to avoid misunderstanding we occasionally need to add a time marker to their utterances or sentences. It means that John belongs to an action, event, or situation of loving Mary at one particular time in the past (sentence 1), one may explicitly add such time markers as yesterday, last month, last year, ten years ago, or when he was young. Analogously, one may also explicitly put such markers as now, still, always, usually, etc. to the sentence (2) to indicate the state of John’s present love for Mary—and uses such words as some time, some day, next time, etc. to the sentence (3) to show that John will perhaps love Mary, not yet at this time being nor in the past.
In this case, when one needs to convey that John did the action of loving Mary in the past, he should utter or write “John loved Mary (yesterday)”—in that he should make the word “love” in the past form (“loved”) and perhaps plus the word “yesterday”. If he makes errors in the verb formation, the meaning of his utterance or sentence can probably be misinterpreted or misunderstood by his counterpart. In other words, if he uses a wrong tense when he speaks or writes to his counterpart, his counterpart will probably be led to misunderstanding.
Since grammar exists mainly to clarify meaning (Simon, 1990:37), one’s utterances might not be understood completely by his counterpart just because the grammar he is using—in which he must use the proper form of a verb or tense—is erroneous or false. Otherwise, his utterances are meaningless and risky.
The sentences John loved Mary (sentence 1), John loves Mary (sentence 2), and John will love Mary (sentence 3) are called by Chomsky as “linguistic evidence” that, meaning that those sentences are the reflections of his thought, feeling, intention, purpose, and target response. When the sentences are erroneous in grammar, including the use of tenses, his thought, feeling, intention, purpose, and target response can probably be misunderstood by others. When the linguistic evidence is unacceptable, the truth of meaning is doubted (Chomsky, 2000). And when the truth of meaning is doubted, misunderstanding is inevitable to occur.
Meanwhile, misunderstanding is what people usually try to avoid when communicating to one another. Rather, they expect that they want to understand one another, and therefore they should use acceptable grammar, including using the appropriate tenses in their utterances or sentences. Without it, their communication may fail, because the language they are using is not in the same situation.
Having discussed the notion of tense, we will take up tenses most commonly used in both writing and speaking. They are as follow:
- Simple present tense
Simple present tense is usually used to indicate “timeless” action or event. It has no terminal points in time, including the past, present, and future. It also means an event that has been done repeatedly before the present time and is open to future repetition. The timeless time of simple present tense is especially useful in general statements which cover eternal truth and generalization. Look at the following examples.
e.g. (1) The sun rises in the east and sets in the west
(2) The players of Real Madrid practice playing football in the afternoon
In addition, simple present tense shows present time with many non action verbs, especially those expressing mental and emotional states and linking verbs. Simple present also expresses future time in terms of verbs used to indicate schedules and time clause or conditional sentence. Below are the examples.
e.g. (1) Genie’s skin feels smooth
(2) We love each other very much
(3) The plane leaves tomorrow morning
- Present progressive tense
The use of progressive tense generally suggests that an event began and is continuing, but does not necessarily include the end of the action. The progressive form mainly covers verbs that express limited duration (work, study, eat) or verbs that express some stages in a progression.
e.g. (1) We are studying semantics right now.
(2) The play is beginning now.
Besides, present progressive tense generally expresses that the future action is part of a plan made in the present time. It often uses verbs that show the intention of the subject. The present progressive emphasizes on the progression of a event, while simple present emphasizes on the general idea expressed by the verb. Compare the two sentences below.
e.g. (1) How are you feeling? I am feeling fine.
(2) How do you feel? I feel fine
Moreover present progressive is used to show anger or annoyance with such adverbs as always, forever, or constantly, as can be seen on the following examples.
e.g. Mary is always leaving her dirty socks on the floor for me to pick up.
- Simple past tense
Simple past tense expresses an action or event that began and ended in a definite time in the past, whether a time word is given or not. It includes the statements about the persons who are now dead, unless the statement has some relevance to the present.
e.g. (1) The couple left last night.
(2) Shakespeare lived in England
(3) Shakespeare is the greatest playwright ever produced in England.
- Past progressive tense
Past progressive has focus on the duration of one past event that has a possible beginning and ending. What is specifically emphasized is the midst of the action. The act taking place may be placed in the main clause or in the time clause.
e.g. When I arrived at the café, they were already sitting down to dinner.
In sentences which refer to two past actions in progress simultaneously, the past progressive form may occur with both of the actions in progress.
e. g. He was watching TV while his wife was washing the dishes.
- Simple future tense
This tense is used when we are simply giving information about the future, or predicting future events which are not already decided or obviously on the way. Besides, this tense expresses our intentions and attitudes towards other people such as requests, threats, and promises. Here are the examples:
e.g. (1) I think Chelsea will beat Liverpool.
(2) I will hit you if you do that again.
- Future progressive tense
The future progressive indicates that something will be in progress (going on) at a particular moment in the future.
e.g. This time tomorrow I will be lying on the beach.
The future progressive tense is also used to refer to future events or actions which are fixed or decided, or which are expected to happen in the normal course of events. It does not imply the idea of personal intention.
e.g. Prof. Sullivan will be giving lecture on Language Relativity.
This tense may be used to indicate a prediction of the present time, that is, to say what we think or guess is probably happening now.
e.g. Don’t phone now- they will be having lunch.
In addition, the future progressive is used to show polite inquiries about people’s plans, as can be seen in the following example.
e.g. Will you be staying here in this evening?
(very polite request which implies that the speaker simply wants to know your plans)
- Present perfect tense
Present perfect indicates the idea that something happened (or never happened) before now, at an unspecified time in the past. The exact time it happened is not important to mention. If it has an exact time, simple past tense is used. And the difference can be seen in the following examples
e.g. (1) I have read the novel
(2) I read the novel last week.
This tense is also used to express the repetition of an activity before now. The exact time is not important.
e.g. I have bought ten novels so far this semester
The present perfect progressive is also used with for and since to express a situation that began in the past and continue to the present.
e.g. I have studied English since primary school.
- Present perfect progressive tense
Present perfect progressive tense is used to indicate the duration of an activity that began in the past and continues to the present. To show this meaning, this tense uses time words such as for, since, all morning, all day, all week.
e.g. It has been raining all day. And it is raining now.
This tense is also used without any specific mention of time, it expresses a general activity in progress recently , lately.
e.g. I have been thinking about changing my major.
- Past perfect tense
The past perfect is used to indicate an activity that was completed before another activity or time in the past.
e.g. The lecturer had began teaching when I came
C. THE USE OF ENGLSIH TENSES IN MARTIN LUTHER KING’SPEECH I HAVE A DREAM
Having elaborated the nature of tense and its uses in English, we will analyze tenses used in the text of Martin Luther King, speech I Have a Dream. This speech is taken based on the consideration that it is an authentic text produced by a native educated person. This speech is well-known worldwide and very inspiring for equality and freedom.
The entire text of Martin Luther King’s speech employs seven kinds of English tense, namely simple present, present progressive, simple past, past progressive, future tense, present perfect, and past perfect. They will be discussed in detail accompanied with the examples extracted from the text.
a. Simple present tense
e.g. The Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity
The sentence uses simple present tense to show that am action or state has been done repeatedly before the present time and is open to future repetition. The sentence is the general statements of Martin Luther King who made a generalization of the state of Negro living in US.
b. Present progressive
e.g. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society
The sentence above uses present progressive tense to suggest that an event began and is continuing, but does not necessarily include the end of the action. To mean that the Negro is still living in misery and unpleasant situation at the moment of King’s speaking of it.
c. Simple past
e.g. Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation
From the sentence above, we can infer that the speaker used simple past tense because he wanted to say that an action of singing Emancipation Proclamation happened a particular time in the past, namely five score years ago.
d. Past progressive
e.g. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.
The above italicized example uses past progressive tense. The speaker use the tense because he wanted to focus on the duration of the event of singing a promissory note that has a possible beginning and ending. What is specifically emphasized here is the midst of the action.
e. Future tense
e.g. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights.
This tense used in the sentence above implies two likely things, namely, the speaker simply wanted to give information about the future and or he expressed his threats.
f. Present perfect
e.g. America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds.
Present perfect is used in the extracted example above to indicate the idea that something happened before now, at an unspecified time in the past. In this respect, the past time America’s giving a bad check to Negro is not particular.
g. Past perfect
e.g. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice.
The italicized sentence uses the past perfect to indicate an activity that was completed before another activity in the past. In this respect, the event of Negro’s having been seared happened earlier and completed before the event of this momentous decree occurred.
Based on the above discussion, it can be concluded that tenses are important in the English language. The proper use of tenses makes it possible for the speakers of English to recognize whether an action or an event occurs at the time at, during, or over the time denoted by a verb change. With tenses, there’s a match between one’s intention and his utterances. If he makes errors in the verb formation, the meaning of his utterance or sentence can probably be misinterpreted or misunderstood by his counterpart. In other words, if he uses a wrong tense when he speaks or writes to his counterpart, the communication will probably fall in misunderstanding. This is what is meant by the importance of tenses in English language.
Meanwhile, based on the analysis of the use of tense in Martin Luther King’s speech I Have a Dream, there are seven types of tenses used, namely, simple present, present progressive, simple past, past progressive, future tense, present perfect, and past perfect. The use of the tense certainly implies what the speaker intended to say in his speech.
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