missing tense

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

16.2 (Spring 2016)


Language, Rhetoric, & Grammar



The Case of the Missing Tense
John R. Harris

As grammatical explanations of the Rnglish language historically evolved, an oddly missing tense was allowed to fall between the scholarly cracks.

The following is excerpted and modified from a book manuscript titled, An Introductory Course in Latin/Greek Grammar and Vocabulary Designed to Unlock the Romance Languages and English.

From Chapter Two

The formation of the imperfect tense is even more regular than that of the future in Latin; and in Greek (if we may anticipate the next section), the imperfect is subject to none of the future’s dizzying consonantal mutations. Yet this is one of the more difficult tenses for students to grasp. The reason has to do, not with structural formation, but with meaning.

Let us start with the tense’s very name. You should rid yourself, immediately and permanently, of the notion that “perfect” has anything to do with excellence and “imperfect” anything to do with flaws in discussions of grammar. The Latin perfectum simply means “finished, completed”—and imperfectum, of course, negates this word: “not finished, incomplete.” We will study the perfect tense later. For now, embrace thoroughly the idea that imperfect verbal action has something incomplete about it. Such action might have been interrupted. Its agent might have desisted after a long try or several tries—“tried to” is actually a common phrase used in translating imperfect verbs. The action might indeed have been completed but have needed repetition on another occasion, and another; that is, it might be routine or habitual. The Latin form vocabam, “I was calling,” could be employed to translate all of the English verbal expressions below—not just their “call/calling” portion, but the entire main verb and pronoun:

I was calling her when you tapped my shoulder.
I was trying to call her when my drink choked me.
I used to call her name first of all when, as children, we would run onto the playground.
I would call her name whenever we would pass on the sidewalk.
I kept calling her, but she gave no sign of having heard me.

In each of these sentences, a drawing out of the action is clearly expressed. The calling is never finished; or, if finished, it must be begun all over again.

Now, in proper grammatical terms, this “drawing out” effect is ascribed to what is called the verb’s aspect, not its tense. Any tense may convey action in time that either drags on or is treated as quickly finished. The term for the latter is our already introduced Latin derivative, perfect. The exclamation, “I see him,” is perfect in aspect though present in tense because it emphasizes the instantaneous act of visual discovery (as if the speaker had been looking high and low for someone without spotting him until just now). We could transform this present-tense action into an imperfect—or, to use the more common term, a progressive—event by writing, “I am seeing him.” Now the speaker appears to emphasize that the watched person is being steadily tracked throughout a sequence of motions, as if he were being tailed. Same tense… different aspect.

The Romans were not unaware of aspect. In fact, they considered all three tenses in the so-called present system (present, imperfect, and future) to be eligible for an imperfect—or progressive—interpretation in aspect. The reasoning of the Roman mind seems to have been that present action obviously lends itself to an “ongoing” perspective since it happens at this moment (a moment swelling steadily like a bubble until something breaks it off), and that future action also unfolds progressively because it has yet to “grow out of” current events. Such assumptions might readily be challenged, of course: to say, “She will wake up at noon,” is rather different from saying, “She will be waking up at noon.” While the Romans were aware of aspect, then, we cannot claim that they awarded it as much importance as we do.

At any rate, the imperfect tense is more precisely that past tense which is progressive in aspect. In the same way, we’ll find later that the perfect tense is that past tense which is perfect in aspect. There as well, once again, the Romans extended the “over-and-done” quality to an entire system, or range of tenses, as well as to a single tense. The “perfect system” is considered to include the perfect tense itself, the pluperfect, and the future perfect. We will address all of those later.

One point of confusion, however, might as well be handled right now: the murkiness that we encounter in English over the tense/aspect distinction. If you were to say, “I saw her at the meeting,” you might mean that you spotted her once as people were taking their seats. You might also mean that you saw her repeatedly within the meeting’s time frame and can vouch that she stayed to the end. In Latin, videbam would plainly convey that you saw her and kept seeing her—not that you watched her steadily (for which we would use a verb like spectabam), but that you spotted her on more than one occasion. To convey that you had seen her just the once as people were entering the room, you would use the perfect form vidi (which will not concern us just yet).

So in this case, Latin would be less ambiguous than English. Our past tense can oversimplify events, lumping the two aspects together and leaving the listener to infer the proper aspect from context. “It rained for ten days,” “It rained on the car,” and, “It rained heavily in 1917,” all employ a simple past tense. Latin and its heirs would express the ten-day weather event with the equivalent of “it was raining.” The second and third cases would probably call for the perfect tense, the former because the car’s getting soaked is viewed as one coherent and complete occurrence, the latter because 1917—even though it was an entire year—now lies in the distant past and can be treated as one “frame” in history’s great film.

A second pitfall looms, then, to whose dangers you should also be alert: the imperfect/perfect option in choice of tense is not determined by the event’s objective length, but by how the speaker regards it. A war might go on for years, yet a speaker might say, “I fought in the war,” as simply as that, using the perfect tense to indicate the experience’s completion. On the other hand, an event that lasted a mere five minutes might be drawn out with the imperfect if the speaker’s narrative interrupts its completion or emphasizes that those minutes seemed to drag on. Consider the sentence, “After I struck my head, I sat on the floor for five minutes before I heard knocking at the door.” The verb “I sat” could be rendered sedebam in Latin (“I was sitting, I kept sitting”) if the narrator wished to emphasize the degree of pain and disorientation experienced. The knocking on the door would then be understood as having interrupted an ongoing spell that might have dragged along many minutes more (and the word “when” would probably be used in Latin instead of “before”). A case could be made simply for using the perfect, however: blow to the head, period of semi-consciousness, knock on the door—three events following in “a, b, c” fashion. This style of narration would be less dramatic, since it would treat the period of sitting as a single complete event. Yet the event would be the same in both instances: the difference would reside in how the narrator viewed that event (or wants us to view it).

The “ongoing” or “drawn out” effect is implied in all three tenses presented by this chapter: i.e., we are covering the present system.   You have noticed that vocant can mean either “they call” or “they are calling.” It might also be translated, “they keep calling” or “they habitually call” (though Latin would probably devote further words to clarifying such an intent). Likewise for the future: vocabis can mean either “you will call” or “you will be calling.” To reiterate an observation made above, Latin doesn’t take the same trouble to distinguish aspect in present and future events as it does in past ones. One form conveys both “I wait” and “I am waiting,” “she will rejoice” and “she will be rejoicing.”

Thus the three tenses in the “present system” are not so called merely because the imperfect and future employ the stem of the present tense in their spelling (though that happens to be true, too). They also share the quality of suggesting action that may not be fully formed, not completed once and for all. The imperfect differs from the present and future in that such incompletion is more palpable within its time. While the exact time involved in “she walks” or “she will walk” remains to be determined, “she was walking” deals with an act whose measure we know in relation to surrounding events. An imaginary stopwatch has already verified that her walking was very lengthy, or perhaps interrupted. In the previous two expressions, we cannot yet ascertain if her walking will reach its expected destination or not.

From Chapter Four

We left off our discussion of verbs by noting the critical distinction between action that is incomplete, ongoing, habitual, etc., and action that is over and done with. The Latin word perfectum literally means “thoroughly done, finished”: hence its use to designate completed verbal action.

This designation, though, is properly one of aspect rather than tense: that is, any tense may suffer its action to be stretched out like a rubber band or compressed like a spring. We can say “he drops” or “he is dropping”, “we will close” or “we will be closing.” Yet Latin treats all of the tenses in the Present System (present, imperfect, and future) as suited to emphasizing a protracted rather than a completed act. With the same somewhat flawed decisiveness, it treats all of the tenses in the Perfect System as suited to complete rather than ongoing action. So confused is the classical nomenclature that the first of the tenses in this system (listed below) is styled the “perfect tense”: that is, despite the word’s being a designation of aspect, it is improperly applied to the “time when done” rather than to the “length of the doing”.

Perfect Tense: usually called the “present perfect” in English (more momentarily). If, in the course of taking a test, you were asked by a teacher how far you had advanced, you might declare as you placed the last period on the last sentence, “I’ve finished.” You are right now in the state of being done: the act is part of the past as of this moment, or as of a very recent moment. Indeed, we shall see when the passive voice is considered later in this chapter that the Romans would literally say, “I am summoned” (using the word for “I am” and then the past participle for “summoned”), rather than, “I have been summoned.”

Pluperfect Tense: used to describe very distant past action, as its name—“more than perfect”—suggests. English fortunately has one and only one way of rendering such an idea: the helping verb “had” + a past participle. Past action must be shifted to the pluperfect when it is mentioned in the context of more recent past action. For instance, in the sentence, “I had seen him every day that year before the relapse forced him to stop receiving visitors,” the seeing is clearly ended by the relapse and must be treated as pluperfect, whether or not the writer wishes to emphasize that it was habitual. The verb “forced” (or “it forced” in Latin: subject, “relapse”) would be perfect, and its temporal influence would thrust the seeing into a more distant past. Alternatively, the sentence, “I was seeing him daily when my first child was born” does not plainly represent the seeing as interrupted by the child’s birth. The former would remain imperfect even though the latter is obviously perfect (few actions are more definitely completed than childbirth!), since “seeing him daily” may well have continued.

Future Perfect Tense: again arranged in English through helping verbs in one and only one way. We use the future auxiliary “shall/will” followed always by “have” and then the past participle. As with the pluperfect, the future perfect occurs when another action is expressed or implied which serves as a reference point. The future perfect event has not yet occurred—but at a certain point not yet reached, it will have occurred: it will be done and finished. The human colonization of the Moon may be well in the future. When men and women are scurrying about the lunar landscape, however, we will have solved the challenge of existing for weeks at a time in low-gravity environments.

Note that this tense is indeed perfect in a way that the future cannot be. The future, by definition, is unfinished: the future perfect, by definition, portrays an act which is completely past when regarded from a certain temporal vantage point.

Nevertheless, all of these tenses are capable of being progressive in aspect (as opposed to perfect). A century from now, perhaps human beings will have been raising children on the Moon for a generation (and raising children takes a lot longer than giving them birth). Likewise, perhaps our visitor in the pluperfect example had been recording the sick man’s life story before the unfortunate relapse. In both cases, a progressive aspect is introduced in English by shifting from a simple past participle to “been + present participle.” The Romans almost never adopted any such strategy as writing fuerant scribentes—“they had been writing.” Instead, they allowed the Perfect System’s progressive aspect to fade away until it all but disappeared. The historian Cornelius Nepos offers a few phrases like Corinthii saepe adiuti fuerant—“The Corinthians had often been helped” (“Timoleon,” 20.2.2); but this appears to have been viewed as old-fashioned and clumsy in style.

Other problems exist with the “perfect tense” specifically (as indicated at the end of Chapter Two) that have as much to do with English as with Latin. “I have seen,” “I did see,” and “I saw” are all acceptable ways of translating the Latin perfect-tense verb, vidi. Yet do these three forms really mean the same thing in English? “I have seen” probably comes closest to the perfect sense: it puts the action recently but firmly in the past. English grammarians, as noted, call this the “present perfect” because—so they say—it is present in tense but perfect in aspect. Not true. “I see” is the present tense with a perfect aspect: “I am seeing” is the present tense with a progressive (or imperfect) aspect. We Anglophones cannot call “I have seen” the past perfect, however, because we have bestowed that honor upon the Latin pluperfect; and, to be fair, “I had seen” does seem to differ from “I have seen” only in having been nudged one stage farther into the past.

But that leaves us with a problem. We now have a past tense called the present perfect which is certainly perfect in aspect but certainly not present in tense; and we can’t simply call this tense the past, because then what would we do with forms like “I saw”? (“I did see” may be ignored as a peculiar case: the verb “do” is used as a kind of “phony helping verb” in English to create emphasis or to facilitate questions and negatives.) The grammarians tell us that the “I saw” form is the plain, vanilla past tense of our language. So that seat is taken; and remember that the true present perfect is “I see” (as opposed to “I am seeing”).

The classical precedent, far from being any help here, is probably responsible for rendering the conceptual water so muddy, to begin with. For the Romans, no distinction existed between “I have seen” and “I saw”. This is surely why we moderns use very clumsy terminology to designate the former. Forgive the emphasis… but to say it one more time, “I have seen” is not present in tense and perfect in aspect: it describes a past act. What appears needed is a new tense name—something like the “immediate past”. If Latin scuffs up the distinction between “I have seen” and “I saw,” English doesn’t exactly sweep away all the dust… but our extensive use of helping verbs at least makes the task of clarification a little less formidable.

The modern romance languages may do a better clean-up job than English; at least they don’t advance the outrageous claim that “I have seen” is present in tense. Yet by preserving the word “perfect” to designate this tense, they continue the grand old tradition of blurring the line between tense and aspect. What has been needed for all these years is simply a new name, and a sensible one. “Immediate past” doesn’t sound like a very exotic solution to a mystery as ancient as the Sphinx’s riddle… but it fits every piece in its proper place, and for that we should be grateful.


Perfect (completed, viewed as “done” even if much time spent in doing) Progressive (unfinished, repeated, ongoing, habitual, etc.; all forms use some form of auxiliary “be” + present participle)
present I call I am calling
immediate past* I have called I have been calling
preterite I called I was calling
distant past** I had called I had been calling
future I will call I will be calling
future past*** I will have called I will have been calling

*Called the perfect tense in Latin and the romance languages; Latin has no preterite, however, and thus allows this tense to “bleed” into the preterite’s perfect aspect.

**Called the pluperfect tense in Latin and the romance languages.

***Called the future perfect tense in Latin and the romance languages.

John Harris is founder and president of The Center for Literate Values.  His most recent book is Climbing Backward Out of Caves: A Case for Religious Faith Based on Common Sense.