What do we talk about when we talk about ‘tense’? This question is intentionally addressed on this occasion since the term ‘tense’ has a wide range of perception, particularly when it comes to its real practice. Some may conceive it as a time marker, others may regard it a verb change that occurs in a sentence. In both sides, however, there lies some relation in 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”. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Grammatical_tense.)
Indeed, tenses cannot always be translated from one language to another. While verbs in all languages have typical forms by which they are identified and indexed in dictionaries, usually the most common present tense or an infinitive, their meanings vary among languages. There are languages (such as isolating languages, like Chinese) in which tense is not used, but implied in temporal adverbs when needed, and some (such as Japanese) in which temporal information appears in the inflection of adjectives, lending them a verb-like quality. In some languages (such as Russian) a simple verb may indicate aspect and tense.
Now, how important is tense in English language? Does tense influence the meaning of a sentence when it is conveyed with different tenses? Since “grammar exists mainly to clarify meaning” (Simon, 1990:37), how far does a certain tense probably play role in influencing its meaning? This paper is intended to argue why tenses in English language are important in both oral and written communication.
As introduced earlier, tense is a temporal linguistic quality expressing the time at, during, or over which a state or action denoted 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 ((http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Grammatical_tense.).
We can see now that the more complex tenses in Indo-European languages, like 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; otherwise, their utterances or sentences may be condemned by his counterpart.
To avoid misunderstanding, however, some speakers perhaps need to add a time marker to their utterances or sentences. To mean 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 (2000) as “linguistic evidence” that—as held by field linguists such as Quine and Davidson—reflects a speaker’s “psycholinguistic evidence”, 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 state or situation. Don’t we realize that the failure of communication can mean a serious disaster?
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. Beside the use of time marker (though not always), verb change or formation needs to be made when one means to convey a different intention (meaning) from his previous one. 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.
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