The Write Stuff

Tense times

2004-07-14 13:44

IS it possible to use the following clauses when referring to the future?

"We went to Durban again."

"We all took responsibility for keeping our own pavements clean."

And is it ever in order to use the word "tomorrow" together with "didn't"?

The answer to both questions is "Yes". But aren't all the above verbs in the past tense and therefore inappropriate for reference to the future? The answer to this question is "No".

Contrary to what most of us were probably taught (if we were taught grammar at all), verb forms like "gets", "says" and "goes" are not "present tense verbs", and "got", "said" and "went" are not "past tense verbs".

All these verb forms are, in fact, largely neutral with respect to time and may be used in sentences with differing time implications.

The two clauses above, with their apparently "past tense" verbs, are perfectly grammatical in some sentences with future-related implications, as the following examples show:

"Isn't it time we went to Durban again?"

"If we all took responsibility for keeping our own pavements clean in the next few weeks, we could transform our city."

The difference between "present tense verbs" and "past tense verbs" is not as clear-cut as it is made out to be; finer distinctions need to be made.

Unfortunately the minimal amount of time allocated to formal grammar instruction in English classes at school means that teaching these finer distinctions is probably regarded as an unnecessary luxury.

Pity, because where a correct understanding of verb forms starts fading, or is lost altogether, questionable utterances such as the following result:

"I wish I don't have to go to school tomorrow."

"If only he can see me now."

  • Nicky Grieshaber, formerly a university lecturer, is now a translator, text editor, study skills trainer and general entrepreneur.

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