Sunday, March 25, 2012

Feeling tense?

English is easier than some languages, but harder than others, in respect to tenses. In English, we don't make too many changes to our words to show that we're changing tense. e.g. I walk, I walked, I will walk, I was walking. We have some irregular verbs (I write/I wrote), but some languages make many more changes. Perhaps you speak one of those languages? Conversely, other languages don't change their verbs at all, and all the work is done elsewhere in the sentence, by another word that indicates whether you're talking about the present, past or future.

One thing I'm often asked by students writing essays in English, then, is what tense they should use. The answer depends very much on the discipline for which you're writing, but in general you can use the present tense when you're talking about ideas (e.g. Smith claims that . . .) or general truths (e.g. Water boils at 100 degrees centigrade) and the past tense if you're talking about past actions (e.g. The researchers surveyed 300 people). The funny thing about academic writing in many disciplines is that you can use the present tense even when something was written a long time ago (e.g. Shakespeare says . . .; Brown (1962) notes . . . ). If you're talking about an experiment you propose to do, though, you should use the simple future tense: 'This experiment will investigate . . . It will use . . . ' When in doubt, check with your department for any particular conventions you should follow.

One tense that seems to be vanishing in Australia is the past perfect, used in what is often called the 'third conditional'. e.g. 'If I had known you were coming, I'd have baked a cake.' I often hear people now saying, 'If I knew you were coming, I'd have baked a cake.' (Actually, no, they don't bake cakes for me, but they could do!) I know what they mean, but I like the past perfect here. What do you normally use? I've put a poll up so you can give me your votes on this.

Whatever your views, there's no doubt that language changes, is always changing and will continue to change!


The Canadian Grammar Girl said...

Ah, you’re back!
I have been checking the blog faithfully since I first found it in January, 2012. Upon finding it, I read each blog as if someone was speaking my heart language. I told my friends and family about my find and no one shared my excitement. (I do have a niece in England who has blogged about her love for grammar.)

I am 48 years old, mother to four teenage kids and returning to school. I wrote a formal essay. Who knew you cannot use contractions in formal writing?

The instructor criticised my use of verb tenses. She quoted the rules concerning verb tenses then wrote, “Or just put it all in past tense”. Is this the way to avoid mixing present and past tense? My intent was to keep the paper in present tense, but obviously I failed to do so.

Sara said...

This is interesting. I'm Australian and I too would say 'If I knew you were coming, I'd have baked a cake.' said...

it always understand the words depends how it used in the sentence

Ishrat said...

This is the first time I'm writing in this blog. I've returned to school after ten years service-life. I'm writing a paper now, a literature review in fact, where I'm a bit confused about the use of tense. We use 'future' tense in case it is something to experiment or investigate, but which tense should I use in case of review, such as, 'this paper reviews...' or 'this paper will review...'

Andrea Duff said...

Thank you to you all for your great responses. We are glad you like our blog, Canadian Grammar Girl. We happen to like it, too!

Maril's point, I think, addresses the context of writing.

Ishrat's question really interests me and is one which is often asked by students.

My rule of thumb is that the present tense is the one used most often in a literature review. I always say to my students, even if an author has passed away, the literature still 'lives'. This is suggested by Julia in her post.

For example, it would be fine to say: In his seminal work 'The interpretation of dreams' (1900) Freud suggests...

If you are reporting on one of Freud's experiments, you would use 'Freud found'.

You would also use past tense if you were tracking a chronology of ideas. For example: In 1900 Freud proposed... but in 1923 his focus changed to...

In response to your question about how you introduce your paper, Julia and I vote for the use of future tense: 'this paper will review'.

However, we also think the present tense is acceptable: 'This paper reviews'.

Chrissy Tan said...

It is friday evening now and my mum said if I knew you were coming home for dinner I`d have cooked more.