The Myth of the Verb Tense


This article is about English; specifically how to better teach it to adults needing to learn it as a second language. I only care about colloquial, spoken English – not the textbook variety. Correct English is what most native speakers speak, and fluency means mistakes are fine provided they are the ones that native English speakers make.

The biggest problem with teaching English is its inconsistency. However, much of it may be due to the wrong rules used to explain the language. This – with respect to verbs – is the theme of The English Verb by Michael Lewis.

What follows is my paraphrase and (at times) development of the themes in that book.

In a Nutshell

Most speech is a combination of objective fact and the speaker’s perspective. This perspective is what verb tenses (and auxiliaries) are for. That’s right, verb tenses express perspective, NOT time. It just so happens that time is one of the perspectives one can take.

Time is Subjective

Take these sentences:

   I visited him in the hospital.

   I will have visited him by the time he gets out of the hospital.

The second seems odd until we look at perspective. The speaker is speaking from the perspective of a future point, whereas the action would have happened. That’s right, even when time is involved, it is SUBJECTIVE time. So when looking at time, think what is the point from which the speaker is projecting. It is not necessarily now.

The Past Tense Distances the Speaker

Now look at these:

   He can not come

   He could not come

   Can you pass the salt?

   Could you pass the salt?

From the first two sentences, could looks like the past of can, but the last two sentences use both in the present. This apparent inconsistency is resolved with perspective. In both cases, “could” distances the speaker. In the first case it’s a temporal distance. In the second case, it’s a familiarity distance (“could” is more formal than “can”).

Here’s another example using possible answers to the question: Can John come to the party?:

   He says he can come

   He said he can come

These differences make no sense unless perspective is used. The second sentence distances the speaker from what John said (perhaps the speaker is doubtful of John). This becomes even more obvious with:

   He says he can come

   He said he could come

   The use of could now makes his coming even more remote.

The Use of Continuous for Emphasis and Non-Causality

The continuous is often wrongly taught as a present form. But to see its real use, take the following:

   He left when I came in.

   He left when I was coming in.

Notice how the continuous in the second example happened in the past. Its use is to frame the person’s leaving. The two sentences mean different things. The first implies that he left because I came in. The latter implies that he was leaving anyway. The continuous emphasizes the ongoing nature of an action, regardless of when it occurred and this emphasis serves a variety of purposes.

The Use of Auxiliaries and the Role of Do

Take the following patterns of sentence → negation → question:

   He can go home → He can not go home → Can he go home?

   He will go home → He will not go home → Will he go home?

   He went home → He did not go home → Did he go home?

Why does the last one use do? Because question formation and negation are done by manipulating the auxiliary (words like will, can, may, etc…) However, when a verb has no auxiliary, do is the implicit auxiliary, so we use it and follow the rules.

Do is often left out because it doesn’t modify the meaning of the verb. Whereas other auxiliaries modify (by indicating possibility, doubt, intent, etc…) do simply says the verb was done, which is what the verb communicates, so why bother including it? Well, like many other optional things, it can be included for emphasis:

   I mowed the lawn

   I did mow the lawn

The first expresses an act, but the second is a protest, as it emphasizes the action was done. Maybe someone doubted that I really mowed the lawn? I can easily see it as an exchange:

   JOHN: Did you mow the lawn?

   ME: I mowed the lawn.

   JOHN: The lawn looks awfully ragged; I don’t think you mowed the lawn.

   ME: I did mow the lawn!

Other uses of do that benefit from this view:

   Do the dishes

   Do the laundry

   Do your job

Here, do is a verbal equivalent to a pronoun. This makes sense with do as an implicit auxiliary; in this case, the required verb is clear from context and so the situation is reversed and do can simply serve the role of that verb.


Perhaps the problem with much of English language teaching is that it neglects the role of English as a powerful medium for expressing subjectivity. When English speech is treated as objective reports, it generally falls apart. But we can only teach English if we understand its true purpose. We cannot ignore the perspective of the speaker.

This also means that our focus on examples may be mis-guided.  Rather than try to cast aside subtle differences in wording as exceptions, these differences may show us what the real rule is.

The real challenge is how to explain these concepts when there is a language barrier. One way is to use speech in context (like in the lawn mowing example). Role play and conversational exercises may be invaluable.


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