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Some (new insights) on verbal tenses

By Valentin Pradelou

Everybody here studied verbal tenses. In English, in French, in whatever language. One who speaks a language correctly uses the verbal tenses correctly. For instance, in English we know that the present perfect is somehow used for past situations with a certain relationship with the current moment, whereas preterit is for a past and closed action that has no fallout in our actuality, and so on. Well, yes. However, if we zoom out and think outside the box, maybe we can find some other elements about verbal tenses. That is what a French researcher, Jean-Michel Adam, did (or has done? Does it have anything to see with the current moment? I’m about to lecture about verbal tenses and I can’t even sort out an easy case like this? Come on… I should stop by now. Wow, people are looking, keep going and make as if nothing happened). 

That is why verbal tenses are not just related to the things you want to say, it also has a wider relationship about who you are, how you want to talk, and some other various elements. That’s why we are going to see in this article. Before we begin, everything that I’ll explain in this article is taken from the book La Linguistique Texuelle (or “Textual Linguistics” in English) by Adam (published in 2015). I also happen to study verbal tenses in my scholar works, so I base everything on the book and my own works. 

There are four drawers in verbal tenses, based on how they function. The article is thus separated in four parts, for each tense’s drawer. We must think about verbal tenses like tools leading to a certain result in a text; however, you can find various verbal tenses in each drawer, which means these categories are more like a continuum and not strictly separated classes. Let’s precise these categories are based on French, but we’ll forecast them to reach some English-speaking examples. All right, enough theoretical logorrhea, let’s get to it!

Tenses to tell stories

This first category uses verbal tenses that tell a story. If you speak French, it gathers such tenses as Passé composé or Présent narratif. It defines a narrative discourse which is assumed by the person talking, so we could say he can invent what he says. It’ll be basically the case in novels. Therefore, it can target real facts or not, as long as the story is described through the narrator’s eyes assuming he’s biased. “I was at the fair last week. Man if it has been failed!” is for instance an utterance in which the tenses used are to tell a very short “story” through someone’s eyes. This is the tense drawer used to tell a story with a bias from the narrator. 

Tenses to tell history

The second verbal drawer is close to the previous one. What did I mean by saying “tell history”? Well, that’s pretty simple: a story has different versions, we could say history has only one. Or at least has less versions. Tenses used to tell history are used to describe a situation in a neutral way, something that happened and is known by all. If we search “Battle of France” on Wikipedia we find that: “German armies invaded Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands on 10 May 1940. Italy entered the war on 10 June 1940 and attempted an invasion of France”. In that example, we only find preterit verbs expressing a historical version of the events. No personal view there, only facts. If you want to do so in a text, you’ll have to use tenses that tell history. 

Tenses of Me, You, Here and Now

This third category is maybe the hardest to get. This one is about tenses related to the direct enunciative parameters. In Linguistics, we can call that a deictic anchor point. The structure of this tense drawer is the following: [Me] talking to [You], [Here] and [Now]. This is very theoretical, I’ll admit. Let’s see a particular example. There’s a kind of verbs that we can call performative, in other words accomplishing a precise action by pronouncing it. If you say something like “I promise you I’ll stay”. “Promise” is integrated into a deictic process: you are talking to someone and promising something; thus, it can only be by you to someone else, at a precise moment and in a precise place. It is integrated into a special context, and cannot function without it, which is very different from what we saw in the first two categories. These are the verbal tenses of direct enunciation. 

Tenses of general knowledge

Let’s end with an easy drawer. In this one, everything you’ll say is pretty much accepted by a consensus. These are the tenses used for definitions, so most of the time, the present simple. We could even say that this category is close to tenses used to tell history. We could, yes, except here we don’t tell a story, we give definitions. Let’s imagine someone asks you “what’s a dog?”, you’ll answer something like “A dog has for scientific name Canis Familiaris and is a domesticated descendant of the wolf”. If you answer that, you’re a nerd, okay? nerdog hey! Sorry… 

Then, these are the tenses used to define something, and we can extrapolate it to the tenses used to tell history, and if you use this drawer to tell a story, you meet our second category. 

That’s it! We had a quick overview, but let’s say it pretty much covers most verbal tenses’ functions. Even if the theoretical origin is the French language, it seems to work well in English. There sure are a lot of English based works on verbal tenses that will go way further than what we saw today. 

Thanks for reading guys!

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