Introduction

‘I hate learning grammar,’ and ‘Oh no, not a grammar lesson!’ I wonder how many times as a teacher you have heard students say something like this.

Why is it that learners have such issues with grammar? Well, there are multiple reasons, but one of the biggest is likely to be fear of an endless trek through a minefield of breakable rules and exceptions. This creates the disappointing sensation that mastering, or even having control over the English language will always be just out of reach – a scientific formula that they will never fully grasp.

The way English grammar points are presented and then re-presented in a refined form as students improve and go through the levels may result in uncertainty and a lack of confidence in their grasp of grammar and their own grammatical accuracy. The grasp of certain key concepts can help mitigate this.

Over the following three blogs, I will put forward a perspective on the teaching of tenses. I will offer some ideas for the classroom at the end of each blog.

The theory here is not intended to be fed fully and explicitly to your students. If you find value in it, I recommend a gradual integration of these ideas into your teaching. What we cover here is more about giving you an opportunity to reflect on how you might bring the learner to a better understanding of why we choose the tenses we do when we express ourselves.

The 3 blogs will cover:

Blog 1: Time vs tense (nowness vs remoteness)

Blog 2: There is no future tense

Blog 3: Mastering conditional structures

Time vs Tense. (Nowness vs Remoteness)

Finding the common denominator in English tenses.

About 20 years ago I read a book that changed my world. The English Verb: An Exploration of Structure and Meaning, by Michael Lewis.

It put forward Lewis’s fascinating consideration of how the concepts of time and tense differ within the English grammar system. It certainly offered me a new approach to understanding the function of tenses and was like no other book I had ever read. The more I re-read the book, and the more I thought about his ideas, the more pertinent they seemed. As a result, over the years, I have tried to hold these at the core of my teaching and work them into my classroom practice, whenever possible.

‘The Language of Choice’

At the heart of Lewis’s book is what he calls ‘Language of choice.’ That is the way in which we constantly and instinctively choose the language that best conveys our intended meaning in each context. For example, consider the following exchanges:

Conversation 1

  1. Did you watch the match?
  2. Yeah, it was great, wasn’t it!

Conversation 2

  1. Did you watch the match?
  2. What match?

The first conversation is successful because the speakers have enough knowledge in common. This assumed shared knowledge between speakers (in the field of pragmatics, known as the ‘presupposition pool’) allows us to communicate efficiently and effectively. The speaker chooses not to qualify the noun because he or she has made certain assumptions.

In the second exchange, the communication fails – either because speaker A has made a false assumption about what speaker B knows, or because speaker B has not yet tapped into their shared knowledge pool. In the latter case, it’s possible that a roll of the eyes from the first speaker, or a ‘You know – the match!’ will fix the broken communication.

Language goes beyond words and a whole range of contextual features may feed into the way speakers interact and the linguistic choices they make. These include:

  • The physical context (where the conversation takes place, who else is there, what is happening, what the speakers can see);
  • The participants (how well they know each other, their relationship, their socio-economic background, their common experiences and expectations);
  • Cultural awareness (what commonly happens in certain situations and what ‘scripts’ and ‘routines’ are appropriate to the given context);
  • The communicative and linguistic context (the focus and topic of the conversation, what has just been said – even what has been said on previous occasions).

It’s no wonder that clarity in communication is sometimes difficult to come by – in fact it’s a thing of wonder that we manage to convey meaning as well as we do! It’s also not hard to imagine how tricky it can be when a non-native speaker attempts to apply textbook-learnt rules of communication to a real-life situation.

As native speakers, we don’t apply grammar in this formulaic way. In choosing what we want to say, including which tense to use, we are guided by a multitude of factors. ‘You use this tense when you want to express X’, is of course helpful when focusing on a particular function of a tense with your students, but it doesn’t really give them a deeper understanding of the reasons why a particular tense can be used in a variety of ways, and the ways in which we may use omission, emphasis, repetition, levels of formality and register.

The student may well still ask, for example, why we use the past simple for a hypothetical situation when we are taught that we use the past simple to speak about finished actions in the past.

Example:

  • I won the lottery last year
  • If I won the lottery, I would buy a new car

So how can we go about explaining these things?

Tense and Time

When we consider the idea of time, it’s useful to recognise that it is, in part, a human construct. That it can be seen as both objectively real and shared, but also something experienced relative to one’s individual situation and perspective. In conflating tense with time, we sometimes forget this.

The English Verb made me consider how we operate and express ourselves in both universal and subjective time frames. How our notions of linear time are very fluid – and yet how we still manage to create an ordered world view, where we chunk and divide time in nuanced ways, to express, as well as we can, what we wish to convey.

In essence, time is not only linear and regulated but also a feeling. We can perceive time as fluid and removed from the rigid chunking we attach to it in our daily pursuits. Time can fly, it can drag, it can be seen as absolute or temporary, it can feel near, or far. It can feel very unrelated to the clock! We see things as both finished in time, yet also part of other times that we consider to be unfinished.

Consider for a moment the idea of ‘yesterday’. When viewed in isolation we have decided to see it as finished. However, when thinking of yesterday as part of ‘this week’, we can consider it something that forms part of another time frame.

In part, we make reference to times, seasons, even years, because of where we are on a planet moving around the sun and the natural phenomena associated with this. In linear time, we operate within our human way of ‘chunking’ fixed periods to give order to our existence. These divisions provide boundaries that give a sense of order, a way to plan or document when things happen, happened, or need to happen. It is, however, an imperfect concept that requires adjusting sporadically to fit (leap years, daylight saving, etc.)

When looking at the English tenses, what I found of great interest was Lewis’s suggestion that English essentially only has 2 tenses.

Present Simple (He sees this tense as being about ‘now-ness’)

Past Simple (He sees this tense as being about ‘remoteness’ and ‘not now-ness’)

He suggests that the other present and past tenses we use are just nuanced versions of these basic tenses. Basically, a way of looking at the same thing, but from a different angle.

Present Tense (‘nowness’)

Regardless of which variation of the ‘Present’ you use, the common denominator is the expression of a form of ‘nowness’, a connection with the present time (however long that might be in a given context). The aspect of ‘nowness’ you chose to express is reflected in the form you use.

For example, in a sentence like ‘I have been to America’, we conjure up ideas of how the past and the present are connected in some way. So, what are we actually talking about here?

When asked to explain what the word ‘now’ means, it’s quite interesting to hear the different answers from students and it is also a worthwhile exercise in helping guide them toward internalising how fluid that answer can be. ‘Now’ can be as long as the context or feeling requires it to be. Let’s look at another example:

  • I live in London(basic present tense)
  • I am living in London (+ progressive aspect)
  • I have lived in London (+ perfective aspect)
  • I have been living in London for a long time (+ progressive, + perfective, + time marker)

The traditional names given to the English tenses reference time in a rather crude way and this naming does not help us understand their full range of functions. It is partly this that leads to unnecessary confusion over correct use.

The factual, almost timeless statement I live in London can, of course, be modified with a more specific time expression such as ‘3 days a week’However, as a standalone statement, it feels pretty solid. If we look at the other aspects of ‘nowness’ we can see that they all have a feel of the ‘now’ about them, but they are altered to express alternative views of ‘now’.

  • The present continuous always offers an aspect of temporary-ness
  • The present perfect tenses connect remote or past ideas to the present

When one begins to explore the different uses these structures have, I find it very useful to be mindful of recognising its root being in ‘nowness’ and then being clear about what aspect is being applied to that.

Consider these examples and see how the idea of a common root in ‘nowness’ and then the particular aspect of it, sits with you.

Simple:

  • ‘I play tennis.’ (Statement of fact)
  • ‘I sometimes have trouble sleeping.’ (Modified statement of fact)
  • ‘I fly tomorrow at 9pm.’ (Future time reference, but also a statement of fact)
  • ‘If I win the lottery tonight.’ (A contingent statement of fact)

Progressive aspect/continuous tense

  • ‘I am living in London.’ (Temporary view of ‘now’)
  • ‘I am reading a good book, but I left it at home.’ (Temporary activity with an extended view of ‘now’)
  • ‘I am going to America next year.’ (A current plan of a future event, which is temporary and contingent, until it happens)
  • ‘If I am (still) living here when you get back.’ (A future conjecture based on a present temporary state of ‘now’)

Perfective aspect

  • ‘I have met the queen.’ (A life experience – a past event, but with the ‘nowness’ of its topical relevance. We don’t even bother to reference the time it happened because its pastness is incidental – what is important is the event itself and its relevance to the current moment)
  • ‘I’ve worked hard this week.’ (Connecting the past few days to the present, therefore viewing this week as unfinished – an extended ‘now’)
  • ‘If I have offended you…’ (A current situation arising from a past action)
  • ‘I have been running.’ (I am hot and sweaty – current evidence of a previous temporary action)

NB: With perfect tenses, we choose to apply either a more factual (simple) or temporal (progressive) aspect depending on what we wish to express. Many active verbs like waitlearn and play can bring a greater feeling of immediacy and temporality when expressed in the continuous form.

Past tense (Remoteness) 

Regardless of which ‘Past’ form you use, the common denominator here is that one is always trying to express a ‘remoteness from now’, a placing of it somewhere else, a context for it to be understood by the listener. The aspect of remoteness you choose to express is reflected in the structure you use.

  • I played tennis (basic past tense)
  • I was playing tennis (+ past progressive aspect)
  • I had played tennis (+ past perfective aspect)
  • I had been playing tennis (+ past perfective and progressive aspects)

The first thing we notice about all of these examples is that they feel somewhat unresolved. It feels like we need more information before the listener or other participant can say ‘ok’. Compare this with the present tense examples earlier, where one can read them and say ‘Ok, understood,’ without feeling a strong need for more clarification beyond their ‘nowness’.

Remoteness demands the question: ‘If it is not now, then when or where?’ Only when we know this can we find full resolution and meaningful comprehension. The where and when of things becomes a fundamental part of what we need to express. This must be either verbalised or already known between the speakers.

Consider these examples and see how the idea of a common root in Remoteness and then a particular aspect of it sits with you.

Simple

  • ‘I played tennis yesterday.’ (Completed action in the past)
  • ‘I didn’t like tennis until I met you.’ (Two past events linked by cause and effect)
  • ‘I remember your grandfather liked tennis.’ (If my grandfather is no longer alive, I know he cannot like tennis ‘now’)
  • ‘Harry Potter was a magician.’ (It’s a story, so it’s not in real-time and is remote from now)
  • ‘If I won the lottery.’ (As an imagined scenario, it’s remote from the reality of ‘now’)
  • ‘Could you open the window please?’ (The use of the past form of can distances the request, rendering it more polite)

Progressive aspect/continuous tense

  • ‘I was talking to john when the phone rang.’ (The creation of a temporary ongoing activity in the past which is interrupted by something else happening)
  • ‘It was raining, and people were running for cover when the lightning struck.’ (The creation of temporary ongoing activities in the past which are in simultaneous progress when something happens).

Perfective aspect

  • ‘I had known her for ten years before I asked her out.’ (A remote version of ‘now’ and an event or period connected to it)
  • ‘I had been driving all night so when I arrived, I was very tired.’ (A description of a remote version of ‘now’, referencing a feeling caused by a prior activity)
  • ‘If I had won the lottery, I would have bought a car.’ (A remote version of ‘now’ in which an imagined cause and its effect is described)

In the Past Perfect we have shifted the idea of the present perfect into a ‘not now’ arena but with very much the same feel of cause and effect.

I hope these examples and analyses are useful – they are my own examples, and I am sure there will be cases in which you could argue alternative connections to the ‘nowness’ or ‘remoteness’ referenced. But the key principle remains.

If you have found the article useful, I sincerely hope you manage to get hold of a copy of The English Verb. Sadly, it went out of print some years ago, but I believe it’s still possible to find second-hand copies online.

I have attached a couple of resources that you are free to download and use. Both are geared towards more advanced students:

The first is a set of cards with a time expression on each. Make some copies, cut them up and hand out to sets to groups of 3-5 students. Ask them to divide the expressions into ‘now’ and ‘not now’ – use the activity both to revise time expressions and as a prompt to discuss:

  • How long is ‘now?’
  • Do we always experience time in the same way?
  • Does our understanding of any of the expressions change depending on the context?
  • Is time subjective or objective, or both?

Choose 3 or 4 expressions and write a sentence for each. Each sentence should be in a different tense.

The second resource is a set of cards presenting various situations. Discuss, for each context, its connection and relevance to the present.

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