Seminar 2, Week 4

Seminar 2: The English Tense Code

It has been commonplace for grammarians of English to advance non-temporal accounts of tense in English.  It has seemed to many that no unified account of the available evidence can be given which treats tense as always and only encoding temporal intelligence.  For them tense is sometimes time, but it has a variety of other functions.  And so it has been thought that no unified account is possible.

Whereupon the story of Dudman’s that we retell comes as a big surprise:  the first unified account of English tense in 400 years.  Our slogan is succinct:

Tense is Time

And so is its cash value:

Aboriginal forms, whether of verbs or modals, always encode presentness with respect to the point of speech. Transported forms, whether of verbs or modals, always encode pastness with respect to the point of speech.

And sometimes there is also the option of encoding past-pastness via the device of phase-modification

And that’s it.  The complete unified theory in a nutshell.

There are, of course, many details to expound case-by-case, and although it is invariably true that tense encodes only temporal intelligence, precisely which piece of temporal intelligence varies enormously across grammatical category.  The headlines are here.

Seminar 2 focussed on two presenting problems with primary messages:

(1)  There is a whole sub-class of primary messages, encoded in primary-pattern sentences, where the real business of the message is in a sense future-located, but tense is present, past or past-past.  An example might be

The dentist is busy all day tomorrow,

where what is predicated (being busy all day) is located in the future, and yet our theory dictates that the tense is present, since according to us aboriginal forms always encode presentness.  How, then, are such cases to be accommodated? 

(2)  English, like most languages, uses ‘going to’ verbs to achieve future reference, as in

Grannie is going to crash.

The envisaged crash is in the future, and yet, according to us, tense is present, because of the aboriginal form.  How, then, are the ‘going to’ forms to be accommodated?

Full details are presented in two Dudman papers, Tense and Time in English Verb Clusters of the Primary Pattern (1983), especially §3 and §6, and Towards a Theory of Predication for English (1985), especially §9.  Both PDFs are searchable, and if you search for ‘futurate’ in the latter paper, you will find all the germane points.

And if you are feeling lazy, you can find our report of the Seminar proceedings here.  You will remember that at the end there was a brief discussion of Secondary Messages, where we laid out the headlines for the three different sub-classes, and exhibited some of the subtleties available in Proper Messages via the selection between aboriginal and transported forms.  There was debate on the matter, now continued in a series of posts:

Most Australians
Most Australians … gamble
Most Australians … volunteer.