Past tense in English verbs

In a previous post, I began a series about English verbs as described in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. This is the second installment of that series, in which I’ll discuss how the English language uses the past tense. That will lay some groundwork for an overview of the auxiliary verbs, which is what I plan for the third installment.

There may be errors herein, but I will correct any that I become aware of as soon as possible.

When we talk about the past tense, we usually mean the verb form exemplified by words such as looked, cooked, walked, talked, thought, taught, wrote, rode, flew and drew. In The Cambridge Grammar this form is called the preterite, and it is used in a variety of ways.

Obviously it is mainly used to refer to things that happened in the past (e.g. “I wrote the letter“), but that is not the whole story. For a start, there is what The Cambridge Grammar calls the futurate, as seen in sentences like: “The bloggers’ convention began tomorrow, but it’s been postponed.” In that example, the word “began” can be thought of as shorthand for “was scheduled to begin“.

Two of the most interesting uses of the past tense are called modal remoteness and backshift.

Modal remoteness is where we emphasise that an eventuality is hypothetical. The word modal refers to mood, a term linguists use to distinguish whether a sentence describes something as certain, probable, hypothetical, desirable, etc. Compare the following two sentences:

  • If I write a letter tomorrow, I will be out of paper until Monday.
  • If I wrote a letter tomorrow, I would be out of paper until Monday.

The first version (with present tense “write“) implies that writing the letter tomorrow is something I’m seriously considering, whereas the second version (with past tense “wrote“) suggests I’m less likely to do so. In other words, it is more hypothetical, a more remote possibility. Note also that we replace the auxiliary verb will with would. This fact leads to a conclusion which may surprise you, that would is actually the preterite of will. Similarly, could is the preterite of can, as we can see by comparing:

  • If you want me to write a letter, I can do that.
  • If you wanted me to write a letter, I could do that.

Modal remoteness also explains why we use the preterite in sentences like “I wish I knew what to write about“. In this case, it is obligated by the verb “wish“, which by definition refers to something hypothetical.

Sometimes if an outer clause uses the past tense or refers to events in the past, we use the past tense in an inner clause as well, even though the inner clause doesn’t actually refer to the past at all. This is called backshift. Consider these examples:

  • You assured me the old letters were in the cupboard.
  • I wish I knew where the old letters were kept.
  • I remember you saying that the old letters were in the cupboard.

All three examples could refer specifically to the past depending on the context (and are ambiguous in that respect) but we are concerned with the interpretation in which they refer equally to the present. In the first example, the outer clause uses the preterite “assured“, so the inner clause “the old letters are in the cupboard” is backshifted to match it (hence “were” instead of “are“). In the second example, the inner clause is backshifted to match another preterite (in this case, “knew“), but it differs from the first example in that the outer preterite expresses modal remoteness, not past time. In the third example, inner clause is backshifted because the outer clause refers to an event in the past, even though it does not actually use a past tense.

Backshift is often used as a literary device for describing a character’s thoughts, as in “She wondered whether she would ever find the letter“. In this sort of example, the context adjusted for can be an entirely seperate sentence rather than an outer clause. For example, “She wondered what would happen now. Wouldshe ever find the letter?“.

In the first installment of this series, I said there are good reasons to think of the so-called perfect as a different type of past tense. Let me now explain what I meant.

In English, the perfect is indicated with the auxiliary verb “have” (in conjunction with a past participle), as in “I have written a letter“. One way to explain the difference between that and the simple preterite is that “I wrote a letter” is a statement about the past, whereas “I have written a letter” is really a statement about the present, even though what it says about the present is that it comes after the time when I wrote the letter. This is easier to see in a sentence like, “I will have written the letter by tomorrow“, which is clearly a statement about tomorrow, not about the time when I write the letter.

To put it another way, the preterite usually describes an event that is in the past now, whereas the perfect describes an event that is in the past relative to some other indicated time, and when we use it we are really talking about that indicated time rather than the time of the event described. English grammar is (as always) more complicated than this simple summary, but it will do for now.

Linguists often regard the perfect as an aspect rather than a tense. Aspect is a third type of distinction that languages can make, in addition to tense and mood. It involves such things as whether a sentence describes a specific event, an ongoing situation, or something that happens repeatedly. In a discussion of languages in general, there are good reasons to say that the perfect is an aspect and not a tense, but The Cambridge Grammar is about English specifically, and so it categorises things in the way that makes most sense for English.

In English, the preterite and the perfect have a great deal in common. One remarkable similarity is that the perfect, just like the preterite, can express modal remoteness and backshift. This is most often done when the event is already in the past. For example, the following two sentences both describe events in the past, but the second uses the perfect to express modal remoteness.

  • If you asked me to write a letter, I didn’t hear you.
  • If you had asked me to write a letter, I would have done so.

As for backshift, we noted earlier that sentences like “I wish I knew where the old letters were kept ” and so on are ambiguous: the preterite “were” can indicate either backshift or past time. If we want to indicate both simultaneously, we could write, “I wish I knew where the old letters had been kept“. This makes it clear that we’re talking about where the letters were kept in the past, but it involves backshift too. This is achieved by using the perfect in addition to the preterite.

Because they have so much in common, The Cambridge Grammar describes the preterite as a primary past tense and the perfect as a secondary past tense.

[Update: I never did get around to writing the promised third installment.]

6 Responses to “Past tense in English verbs”

  1. John Cowan Says:

    We often override backshift when the truth of the clause containing the backshiftable verb is seen as permanent: “I found out yesterday that Inner Mongolia is part of China” as opposed to “I found out yesterday that Tuva was not part of Russia in 1940.”

    In particular, “His son had just discovered that two plus two was four” seems very anomalous.

  2. Julie paradox Says:

    I like the comment that “I have written a letter” is really talking about now.

  3. The Ridger Says:

    I like calling it an aspect, but I respect people who don’t.

    The reason that “In particular, “His son had just discovered that two plus two was four” seems very anomalous.” is that we have no *context* for why we’re placing the discovery in the past. With context (“His son had just discovered that two plus two was four when the new currency was introduced.”) it falls into place.

    This is a common error from Slavic-speakers, who have a very different thing called “perfective” and who often confuse them. For instance, “Washington had been President” instead of “was”.

  4. Flesh-eating Dragon Says:

    The perfect was an aspect in most of the linguistics texts I read prior to The Cambridge Grammar, so it took me some time to adapt to the idea of it as a tense. I’ll only call it a tense in an English-specific context.

    I really like the illustration of how backshift often works better when more context is added.

    I do plan to resume this series. Honestly.

  5. Scott Says:

    i. Page 1002. Suppose [they were in London last week]. ordinary preterite
    ii. Suppose [they were in London]. modal or ordinary preterite??
    iii. Page 1003. I wish [she was / were here] Modal preterite (present time)
    iv. Page 87. If he were surprised, he didn’t show it. Ordinary preterite

    I am struggling to understand the rule set around when to interpret a preterite as a modal preterite. The only thing that seems to differentiate [i] from [ii-iii] is that its subordinate clause contains the adjunct last week. Comparing [iii] to [iv] only seems to further complicate things. Any insights you could share would be appreciated.

  6. Flesh-eating Dragon Says:

    Scott: Sorry, I was away for a few days when you posted that comment. :-)

    It seems to me you’re missing the point by looking for a “rule” to distinguish between one and the other. Unless you are trying to program your own artificial intelligence, it’s enough to imagine someone saying the sentences and to ask yourself introspectively how you would interpret them.

    Sentences (i) and (ii) illustrate that the “were” in “Suppose they were in London” could be either modal or ordinary depending on context, and sentence (iii) illustrates that the “was/were” in “I wish she was/were here” is almost certainly modal. If “was” is used then it could be an ordinary preterite in a context like “I wish she was here yesterday” (not because of some special grammatical property of the adjuct but because of its meaning), but if you imagine someone saying “I wish she was/were here” then you will almost certainly take it to mean “I wish she were here NOW“.

    If you imagine someone saying sentence (iv), you will probably take it to mean, “I concede the possibility that he may have been surprised, but it would surprise me if that’s the case, because he didn’t show it“. This obviously refers to an event in the past, and although it has also contains a hint of modality (I would be surprised if he were surprised) it does concede the possibility, unlike the sentence “If he had been surprised, he would have shown it” which the text goes on to compare it with.

    Does your own intuitive judgement as a speaker differ at any point from this analysis?

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