Monday, January 6, 2014

A Brief History of Tense

The standard TEFL model - twelve tenses (or forms)

In EFL and ESL, we usually talk of twelve tenses or forms, each being a combination of a time and an aspect. Although few EFl / ESL writers would talk of a twelve tense system, that's what it really amounts to.
But writers on grammar haven't always seen it like that (and some don't today). As so many old grammar books are available on the web these days, whether at Project Gutenberg, Google Books or, I thought it might be interesting to have a look at how English tenses have been treated over the centuries, and have a look at some old grammar books at the same time. deserves a special mention. Their books are freely available in several formats; the online facsimile versions (which I link to in the text) are very easy to read through and find things in, but they also have other formats for downloading, for example for e-readers.

The standard EFL/ESL model - twelve active indicative tenses

Time >
will hide
Continuouswas hiding
were hiding
am hiding
is hiding
are hiding
will be hiding
Perfect simplehad hiddenhas hidden
have hidden
will have hidden
Perfect continuoushad been hidinghas been hiding
have been hiding
will have been hiding
Note that Continuous tenses or forms are also often known as Progressive. When looking at other systems, I shall use these terms, Present simple, Past continuous, Future perfect etc. as referents. I shall only be looking at Active Indicative (in other words - standard, normal) tenses, as these are the basic building blocks of the tense system.

In the beginning were three times

The first English grammar book is generally taken to be 'A Bref Grammar for English' by William Bullokar (Wikipedia), and published in 1586. Unfortunately I've been unable to find a copy of this on the Internet, so we'll start with Ben Jonson's 'The English Grammar', published in 1640. Johnson doesn't appear to use the word tense but talks of three times: past, present and future.
He then suggests that other times are expressed by what he calls a syntax, a form which he doesn't seem to consider to be a real tense:
For the English equivalents of Jonson's Latin examples, see the section titled 'Latin Rules, OK!' below. You can see Johnson's Grammar at [] and a facsimile of the original at [Google Books]
In those days, English had a different pronoun for Second person singular - thou, thee, thy, thine, and as we shall see in a minute, a different subject form for you - ye. These are no longer used (in Standard English), but most of us are familiar with them, especially from their use in the Bible and by Shakespeare.
At that time, there was a separate verb form for Second person singular present (thou dost) and two forms for Third person singular (he doeth / he does).
There's an example of this -th form in the first extract - hath. Jonson also points out that until the reign of Henry VIII plural forms ended in en: loven, sayen, complainen. So while today we have only two forms in Present simple, up until the fifteenth century there were four:
  • I go
  • Thou goest
  • He, she, it goeth (or goes)
  • We, you, they goen

Joseph Priestley - an early dissenter

Joseph Priestly was an eighteenth century polymath: dissenting clergyman and theologian, philosopher and scientist (he is often credited with the discovery of oxygen). In his The rudiments of English Grammar 1761 [ (London 1872)] he dissents from the three time view:
Note his use of the -eth form (instead of -s) for Third person singular. Taking this view, he anticipates some twentieth-century linguists, who also talk of a two-tense system, with what he calls the 'Preter' tense being more commonly known as the Preterite (= Past simple). Other verb forms he categorises as 'Compound forms', dividing them into three orders, depending on which verb form is used, and three compounds, depending on the number of auxiliaries used:
  • The First order: the base form after will/shall or modal
    I shall hear (= Future simple + other modal constructions)
  • The Second order: the -ing form after be
    I am hearing, I was hearing (= Present continous, Past continuous)
  • The Third order: the past participle after have
    I have heard, I had heard, I will have heard (= The three Perfect tenses)
  • The First double compound
    I shall be hearing (= Future continuous and other modal constructions)
  • The Second double compound
    I have been hearing, I had been hearing (= Present and Past perfect continuous)
  • The Triple compound
    I shall have been hearing (= Future perfect continuous)
So, with his two tenses, three orders and three compounds, Priestley covers all twelve forms of the twelve tense system. In his linking of will with other modals in one order he is also pre-dating the twentieth-century linguists.

Prescriptivism and descriptivism

There was another way that Priestley was similar to modern grammar writers - he was, like Ben Jonson before him, a descriptivist (describing grammar as it is used) - following what has been called the Doctrine of General Usage as opposed to the Doctrine of Rules or Correctness favoured by the prescriptivists (those who think grammars should tell you what is - in their view - correct) - see the paper from Novgorod in the links at the end.
The grammar taught in EFL course books and grammar books is largely descriptive, reflecting how most educated speakers use the language, pointing out the differences between informal and formal use, rather than insisting that formal use is the only correct use, as prescriptivist grammars tend to do.

Robert Lowth, the first prescriptive grammarian

Bishop Robert Lowth was the first true prescriptivist, telling readers what they should do, rather than describing what was done. His A Short Introduction to English Grammar with Critical Notes, first published in 1762, was the model followed by almost every grammar book until the twentieth century (and even one or two today). In it, Lowth follows the 'three times' approach [] [Google Books]
Lowth then goes on to talk about 'distinctions of time', for example whether 'passing' (also referred to as Imperfect) or 'finished' (Perfect). The simple forms he refers to as Indefinite or Undetermined time
So, apart from Perfect Continuous (which is often seen as a compound), Lowth covers all the forms of our twelve tense system, albeit with different terminology. We shall see that this idea of 'Imperfect', taken from Latin grammar, is very common in older grammars, and that use of the term 'Indefinite' for what we call Simple tenses comes up again in several grammars.

Three tenses, three (or four) forms

Some later writers, such as William Smith and Theophilus Hall, the authors of 'A School Manual of English Grammar with Copious Exercises' [], published in 1889, stayed with the three tense system, but allowing each 'main tense' three forms plus a fourth in the Active voice, here listed as:
  • Indefinite (= simple)
  • Incomplete (= continuous)
  • Complete (= perfect)
  • Perfect-incomplete (= perfect continuous)

Latin Rules, OK!

We saw how Ben Jonson compared his English verb forms to Latin ones, and referred to Imperfect and Perfect forms.
In Latin, there are six tenses:
  • Present - amo - I love, I am loving
  • Imperfect - amabam - I was loving, I used to love
  • Perfect - amavi - I have loved, I loved
  • Pluperfect - amaveram - I had loved
  • Future - amabo - I will love, I will be loving
  • Future perfect - amavero - I will have loved
A couple of points are worth noting here:
  • Latin does not have separate Continuous or Progressive tenses
  • The Imperfect isn't the equivalent of Past simple, but has a meaning more like that of Past continuous as well as 'used to'.
  • In Latin, the Perfect tense was used for completed actions in the past, covered by two tenses in English - Past simple and Present perfect.
Jonson also refers to amem, amarem, amaverim, amavissem. These are the Subjunctive forms of Present, Imperfect, Perfect and Pluperfect tenses, respectively.
LatinEnglish (EFL)FrenchSpanish
presentpresent simple
present continuous
imperfectpast continuous
'used to'
perfectpast simple
present perfect
passé simple
passé composé
pretérito indefinido
pretérito perfecto
pluperfectpast perfect
past perfect continuous
futurefuture simple
future continuous
futur simplefuturo
future perfectfuture perfect
future perfect continuous
futur antérieurfuturo perfecto
When I was at school, we used the same names as for the Latin tenses, so we learnt about Imperfect rather than Past continuous, Perfect rather than Present perfect, and Pluperfect rather than Past Perfect.

Six tenses - Samuel Johnson's Dictionary

Given the status of Latin, it is perhaps not surprising that many early grammarians went for a six-tense system: there is some variation in terminology, but the actual tenses don't vary. In this system, continuous forms are not counted as tenses, and are usually seen as variations of these six tenses.
In his famous dictionary, first published in 1766, Johnson has a section called A Grammar of the English Tongue [] [Google Books]. In this he lists six tenses:
  • Present tense - I have
  • Simple preterite - I had
  • Compound preterite - I have had
  • Preterpluperfect - I had had
  • Future - I shall (will) have
  • Second future - I shall (will) have had
This practice of using the term Second future for what we normally call Future perfect is quite common in grammar books of this period.
As for continous tenses, Johnson says:
We often express the present tense as "I am going", "I am grieving"' ... So the other tenses: "we were walking", "I have been walking", "I had been walking", "I will be walking"'.
He doesn't seem to give these a name, though, or consider them separate tenses; simply regarding them as variations of his six tenses.

Six tenses - Lindley Murray

Another grammarian to develop the three times into six tenses was Lindley Murray. Continuing the Lowthian idea of prescriptive grammar, Murray was the author of English grammar: adapted to the different classes of learners, first published in 1795 and which became probably the most influential grammar book of the first half of the nineteenth century, in both Britain and North America.
  • The Present tense
    'I rule','She is an amiable woman','He walks out every morning'
  • The Imperfect tense
    'I loved her','They were travelling'
  • The Perfect tense
    'I have finished my letter'
  • The Pluperfect tense
    'I had finished my letter before thet arrived'
  • The First Future tense
    'The sun will rise tomorrow', 'I shall see them again'
  • The Second Future tense
    'I shall have dined at one o'clock'
Murray departs a little from the Latin model by listing both Past continuous and Past simple as Imperfect. More generally, he makes two distinctions:
  • 1. between Indefinite use:
    'Virtue promotes happiness'
    and Definite use
    'My brother is writing'
  • 2. between imperfect, or unfinished actions
    'I am writing','I was writing','I shall be writing'
    and those that 'denote complete perfect action'
    'I wrote','I have written','I had written','I shall have written'
It's worth noting, perhaps, that Murray makes a point about the Perfect tense (our Present perfect) which is still very important in today's teaching:
The perfect tense not only refers to what is past, but also conveys an allusion to present time ... In general, the perfect tense may be applied wherever the action is connected with the present time
He also uses the term 'Simple tenses' for our Present Simple and Past Simple, where no auxiliaries are involved.

Six tenses - other grammarians

GP Quackenbos, in An English Grammar 1864 [] has the same six tenses with the same names as Lindley Murray.
Judson Perry Welsh, in A Practical English Grammar (Philadelphia 1889) [] also lists six tenses (with more modern names, but with no mention of continuous forms that I can see):
  • Present tense, Past tense, Present perfect tense, Past perfect tense, Future tense, Future perfect tense
GW Henderson - English Grammar by Parallelism and Comparison (1910) [] has the same six tenses as Welsh. But he specifically mentions separate Progressive forms and Emphatic forms.
In his The Grammar, History and Derivation of the English Language 1890 [], the Rev Canon Daniel divides the three times into two tenses, one Imperfect and one Perfect, giving him six tenses, each of which has two forms - Simple and Continuous.
In a more modern book, Teaching English grammar (New York 1957) [] by RC Pooley,the author also talks of six tenses, saying that 'Modern English has also added some variations within the tenses', saying we make considerable use of emphatic and progressive forms. This book is particularly interesting in that it compares Modern English forms with those of Old English.

Back to three - Noah Webster and William Cobbett

Noah Webster's A Grammatical Institute of the English Language (1790) is in the form of questions and answers:
That seems to just about all he has to say about Perfect and Continuous forms and he doesn't seem to use terms like Perfect and Imperfect at all. [] - [Google Books]
William Cobbett was one of the most colourful figures in early 19th century England. In many ways a radical, in others deeply conservative, he is best known for his book Rural Rides. He also spent some time in the US and his Grammar of the English Language was first published in New York in 1818. This consisted of a series of letters to his son, James Paul Cobbett.
Cobbett simply lists three times, ignoring what he calls 'compound times'. But in his notes to the Tenth Edition, editor Robert Walters lists all the possible forms of one verb, saying 'Do not be afraid; it will not confuse you, if only you will be patient'. This list includes eight tenses; the familiar six, plus two he calls 'Present tense conditional' and 'Perfect tense conditional' []. This list is also interesting as it illustrates 'The Potential Mood', a concept that a lot of older grammar books talk about, but which seems to have fallen by the wayside.

Three plus three

Some nineteenth century grammar books keep the six tense system, but subdivide them into two sets of three:
In English Grammar: The English Language in its Elements and Forms, first published in 1850, [ - New York 1876] William Chauncey Fowler lists:
  • 3 Primary tenses - Past, Present, Future
  • 3 Secondary tenses - Past perfect, Present perfect, Future perfect
Within each of these tenses he allows two forms - Simple and Progressive (Continuous). In the (Primary) Present and Past tenses, he also includes a third form: the emphatic form - 'I do love you!', 'I did do my homework!'.
Others take a similar approach, with a slight change of terminology. TW Harvey, in Harvey's English Grammar (Cincinatti 1870) [] talks of:
  • 3 Absolute tenses - Past, Present, Future
  • 3 Relative tenses - Past perfect, Present perfect, Future perfect
And in English Grammar and Analysis (London 1889), W Davidson and JC Alcock 1889 [] talk of:
  • 3 Principal tenses - Past, Present, Future
  • 3 Secondary tenses - Past perfect, Present perfect, Future perfect
in both of these books each tense also has a progressive form.

Six plus six

We are now getting closer to our familiar ELF twelve tense system. JD Rose, in Advanced English Grammar through Composition (London 1917) [] is the first I've noticed to talk of Simple tenses in his categorisations. He divides his twelve tenses into:
  • Six Momentary tenses
    Present, Past, Present perfect, Past perfect, Future, Future perfect
  • Six Continuous tenses
    Present, Imperfect, Present perfect, Past perfect, Future, Future perfect
Note the use of 'Imperfect' for Past continuous - this was very common in traditional grammar teaching (such as I had at school), and often included the 'used to' construction as well. Rose also has a couple of strange additional tenses which he calls Future in the Past (eg. 'I should write')and Future Perfect in the Past (eg. 'I should have written') - these are different from what we normally think of as Future in the Past today.

And then there were nine (plus three)

A couple of books talk about nine primary tenses:
A West - The Elements of English Grammar 1907 [] is particularly interesting as he gives the Imperfect and Perfect forms just about every possible name he could think of:
TimeImperfect, Incomplete,
Unfinished, Progressive, Continuous
Perfect, Complete, FinishedIndefinite
PresentI am writingI have writtenI write
PastI was writingI had writtenI wrote
FutureI shall be writingI shall have writtenI shall write
West then adds that there is an additional set of three Perfect continuous tenses. He is also interesting for rejecting the idea that the 'going to' form constituted a tense (some had called it the 'Intentional tense') as well as the notion that the emphatic forms (see above) were separate tenses.
In The English Language; its Grammar, History and Literature 1896 JMD Meiklejohn talks of three chief tenses, each with three subdivisions - Indefinite, Perfect and Imperfect [ (Boston 1896)]. He then mentions Perfect continous tenses, and ends up listing the full twelve tenses: []

At last twelve

In An English Grammar for the Use of High School, Academy and College Classes, W.M. Baskerville, J.W. Sewell say that while Old English only had two tenses:
English of the present day not only has a tense for each of the time divisions - past, present, future - but has other tenses to correspond with those of highly inflected language, such as Latin and Greek
And they end up listing twelve, using the term 'Definite' for what are usually called Continuous or Progressive tenses. []
JC Nesfield, in A Manual of English Grammar and Composition 1898 [] shows a twelve tense system consisting of three times, each with four tenses, much like the system that is usually used in EFL, with the exception of Simple tenses being called 'Indefinite'

A new type of grammar - the scientific grammar

The grammar books we've been looking at from Lowth on have been mainly prescriptive. At the end of the nineteenth century appeared a new kind of descriptive grammar, often aimed more at linguists. In the Preface to A New English Grammar Logical and Historical (Oxford 1900), Henry Sweet writes:
This work is intended to supply the want of a scientific English grammar, founded on an independent critical survey of the latest results of linguistic investigation ...
The next two extracts shows how radically this new approach differed from that of the prescriptivists:
As my exposition claims to be scientific, I confine myself to the statement and explanation of facts, without attempting to settle the relative correctness of divergent usages. If an 'ungrammatical' expression such as it is me is in general use among educated people, I accept it as such, simply adding that it is avoided in the literary language.
... whatever is in general use in language is for that reason grammatically correct.
That last quote would be anathema to prescriptivists: it represents a totally different philosophy as to what grammar is. Incidentally, there are still some prescriptivist websites that insist that 'it is me' is incorrect.
Sweet lists fourteen 'chief tenses', our familiar twelve, together with two others in the 'Preterite future'. Sweet follows the practice we've already seen of listing Simple tenses as 'Indefinite' and Continuous tenses as 'Definite'. []
As well as the concepts of Indefinite and Definite tenses, Sweet talks about Complete and Incomplete tenses, and Primary and Secondary tenses. Primary tenses are when an action is seen in a time frame from the present - Present simple, Past simple, Future simple etc. Secondary tenses involve actions seen from the time of another action, such as 'I had finished writing my letter by the time he came', 'I was writing a letter when he came in', where the first verb in each sentence represents a Secondary tense and the second verb a Primary tense, in both these examples Past simple. But these are perhaps types of tense rather than the main categories.
As I understand it, H Poutz in his enormous five volume Grammar of Late Modern English, (1926), written for 'Continental' readers, especially Dutch, goes along with Sweet's idea of Primary and Secondary tenses [ Vol 5]
Earlier, German historical linguist AE Maetzner, in An English Grammar: Methodical, Analytical, and Historical (1874), which compares Modern English with Old English, to a certain extent seems to have foreseen modern linguists by dividing tenses into two sets: past and present (without a separate future), but within these sets he includes simple and compound tenses. He lists eight tenses:
  • Present tenses: Present (love), Perfect (have loved), First future (will love), Second future (will have loved)
  • Past tenses: Preterite (loved), Plusquamperfectum (had loved), Imperfect of the future (should love), Plusquamperfect of the future (should have loved)
He also makes what must be a very early mention of First and Second conditionals, which he includes in Past tenses, being variations of what he calls the Imperfect of the future and Plusquampefectum of the future, substituting would for should.

And suddenly, there are only two (or perhaps four) - modern linguistics

As we saw earlier, Joseph Priestley put forward the idea that there are only two tenses"Present and Past; he also pointed out that the Present tense is sometimes used for the future, and linked will to other modal verbs.
Modern linguists tend to see two tenses, Past and Present, or as some say, Past and Nonpast. This is because they distinguish tense only by morphology or inflexion, in other words, different forms of the main verb itself (not the use of auxiliaries). One of the most influential grammars of the late twentieth century was The Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, by Randolph Quirk, Sydney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvik, first published by Longman in 1985, where they talk of two tenses: Past and Present.
In An Introduction to English Grammar, written by Greenbaum along with Gerald Nelson, and first published in 1991, [Google Books], they say:
Tense is a time category referring to the time of the situation; the tense is indicated by the form of the verb. There are two tense forms: past and present.
Aspect is a grammatical category referring to the way that the time of a situation is viewed by the speaker or writer; the aspect is indicated by a combinetion of auxiliary and verb form. Verbs have two aspects: the perfect aspect and the progressive aspect.
The reference grammar book currently fashionable amongst linguists is The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, by Rodney Huddleston, Geoffrey K. Pullum and others, published in 2002. In 'A SHORT OVERVIEW OF ENGLISH SYNTAX Based on The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language' Huddleston says 'We have seen that there are two inflectional tenses in English: preterite and present', and refers to Progressive and Perfect aspects (and also to Perfect 'constructions'). [Available here]
But in A Student's Introduction to English Grammar, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum refer to two Primary tenses: Present and Preterite, and to two Perfect tenses: also Present and Preterite (Past Perfect), saying that:
The perfect is a past tense that is marked by means of an auxiliary verb rather than by inflection, like the preterite. The auxiliary is have, which is followed by a past participle.
Talking of 'Perfective and imperfective interpretations' they give this table (I've simplified it a little)
Primary tensePreterite
Secondary tensePerfect
has gone
is going
can go
Does that perhaps mean we have four tenses now?. By Perfective, incidentally, they don't mean the grammatical Perfect, but, as I understand it, the semantic interpretation of an action being finished, and conversely Imprefective is used for incomplete actions.
So, as I understand it, any verb form can be categorised according to four criteria: whether it is Present or Preterite, Perfect or Non-perfect, Progressive or Non-progressive, Modal or Non-modal.
I've only touched on this area for two reasons. First, it is difficult to link to these books as they are in copyright, and secondly, because quite frankly I find them very difficult for a non-specialist (like me) to understand, talking of such things as 'the Continuative perfect' and 'the Futurate'.

Personal postscript

I was preparing a lesson from an advanced course book one day when I came across something like this: 'There are two tenses, Past and Present. There is no Future tense.' No explanation, nothing. Even though the Upper-intermediate version of the same series (Language Leader) talks of 'Narrative tenses' and the Pre-intermediate version, when talking about Present perfect , they asked: 'Which tense is each sentence in, past simple or present perfect?'. In other words, students had been taught the twelve tense system all the way up to advanced level, and they were suddenly told there were two, without any explanation whatsoever.
As far as I'm concerned, this is just EFL writers being trendy, like the fashion for calling Phrasal verbs Multiword verbs. It doesn't help the students one jot, unless they're going to go on to study linguistics at an English-speaking university. It is simply confusing to change the system in midstream like this, and they are more or less telling students that everything they had learnt so far was wrong.
The needs of linguistics and language teaching are very different: linguistics is mainly to do with analysis, not teaching. As the different ways of constructing verb forms in English rely heavily on the use of auxuliaries, and as English is largely a non-inflected language, it seems strange to me to distinguish tense by inflection rather than by the use of auxiliaries. In my opinion the twelve tense system is the easiest and clearest way of showing these forms, and their relationships to each other, to learners, whether they be foreign learners, or native-speaker school pupils, as I've tried to show [here].

A note on the grammar books quoted.

A few are famous in the cannon of grammar books or because of their authors:
A few I found in the recommended reading section of Gwynne's Grammar. I don't know whether that's a good or a bad sign: Gwynne is a modern prescriptivist, whose ideas are often directly opposed to those in the grammar taught in EFL. But these books are probably typical of their time:
As for the rest, I only have the assurance that thought they were worth preserving in digital form, or that they were listed in Wikipedia's History of English Grammars:

Related post



Unknown said...

Such an useful article. Here is the link to Bullokar`s "Bref Grammar" (1585):

Unknown said...

Warsaw Will said...

Thanks so much for that. Interesting that the language seems to be much older than the period he's writing in. As far as I can see, he lists five tenses: present, preterite (past simple), preterite perfect (present perfect), preterite pluperfect (past perfect) and future (will, shall).

I'll have to take a proper look at it.

Graham Burton said...

Great article and great research. Could I ask if this was all your own research (i.e. did you choose the tiles you looked at her) or did you find some other literature summarising all this? Thanks.

Warsaw Will said...

Hi Graham, the final section "Notes" more or less explains how I made my choice of grammar books. I haven't seen any other survey of the treatment of tense, and yes, I did all the donkey work. But nowadays, what with Google Books, Project Gutenberg and, this is not very difficult.

somdara said...

Thanks so much for that. Interesting that the language seems to be much older than the period he's writing in. As far as I can see.:)



nancy john said...

English is the hardest language to be fluent in, in the world. However, it is not the hardest language to learn on the basic level.

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Unknown said...

I would very interested to know when English speakers first started using the present continuous to talk about definite plans in the future. I suspect it may be a 20th century development as I can't find examples of it in 19th century literature.

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