Telling Time: the Wisdom of Temporal Grammar
Updated: Jan 2, 2021
Here at the turning of one year into another, we naturally find ourselves reflecting on the passage of time. Whether you’re reading “year in review” articles or hammering out some resolutions for the coming year, you are grappling, philosophically, with the world as it was, is, or may be. But these temporal ruminations aren’t just for New Year’s Day; they are built right into the language and therefore, some would say, into our thoughts.
Every language deals with time differently. Although Mandarin, for instance, does not incorporate time into its grammar, English does. Or, if you prefer: English did, does, and will grammaticalize time. English does not, however, have the hesternal tense of, say, Fyam, which refers to events that happened yesterday. (I’m not going to lie, that makes me jealous.) Whether you see time as vertical or horizontal, linear or directional depends on which language you speak.
Since you are reading this, it’s a safe bet that English is among the languages you speak. But unless you study English grammar for kicks (is this not how normal people unwind?) or a grade, you probably haven’t given much thought to the time constructs of English. But it’s New Year’s Day, so let’s do it!
You probably already know the basics of verb tense. English allows for three tenses: past, present, and future.
She wrote yesterday.
She writes at this very moment.
She will write tomorrow.
I can completely remove the lexical time markers (i.e., the words that refer directly to time), and you can still tell whether the writing is occurring now, in the past, or in the future.
She will write.
Time, as seen through this grammatical lens, is defined by the person using the language. Whenever I am, that is present. All before me is past, all ahead of me is future. As I move through time, the present moves with me; past and future expand and contract to accommodate me. Or you. Or whoever is speaking, reading, or thinking these words.
Some people argue that, because the "future tense" relies on an auxiliary of some kind (will write, is going to write, might write, etc.) rather than a change in the spelling or pronunciation of the main verb, English doesn’t actually have a future tense. Okay. Sure, it would be cool if English were more like Spanish in this way, and we could make declarations about what will happen in the future with a verb alone—¡Escribiré!—but it’s not. However, since English creates futurity by means of grammar, not the literal meaning of any word in the sentence, that’s close enough for me. Hopefully, it’s close enough for you, too, because we’re moving on.
This is where things start getting nerdy—and juicy. The languages we speak may shape the way we think, but the way people think has also shaped (and continues to shape) our languages. We invent and modify language, its words and grammar, to reflect our perceptions of reality. Apparently, it matters to people whether an event happens habitually, whether it began in the past and stretches out into the present, whether it will happen in a moment and be over, or whether it is a state of being that transcends time. Many languages (English among them) map out this temporal topography by means of a grammatical aspect.
Although there are many different aspects possible in English, we will just look at the two most common: the perfect and the progressive.
The perfect aspect is inherently finite. The word “perfect” comes from a Latin word meaning “completed.” Having been completed, the event (or the effect of the event) persists.
The perfect aspect is recognizable by the use of the auxiliary verb “to have” and, generally, either the irregular -en or the simple -ed conjugation of the main verb:
She had written a novel.
She has written a novel.
She will have written a novel.
They had frosted the cake.
They have frosted the cake.
They will have frosted the cake.
Notice the difference between the simple past—“She wrote a novel.”—and the past perfect—“She had written a novel.” In the perfect, the sense of completeness is primary. She wrote those somber words “The End,” and now the novel, as a finished thing, persists past the point of its completion.
In the future perfect, the completion of the event is a matter of speculation. As a result, we often feel compelled to include the expected endpoint: “She will have written a novel by July.” Or, “They will have eaten the whole cake in one sitting.”
The progressive aspect, sometimes called the continuous aspect, refers to an event that extends over time. Whether or not it has an end is immaterial. You can recognize this aspect by its use of the auxiliary verb “to be” and the -ing conjugation of the main verb:
She was writing a novel about cake.
She is writing a novel about cake.
She will be writing a novel about cake.
The event is less a discrete act than a manner of being. It is the condition in which we (or something not us) existed, or still exists, or will exist. Sometimes, we add parameters:
She will be writing a novel about cake while in New York.
They were eating cake for breakfast.
Thus, the writing and the eating are temporary states. But even if constrained to a very brief period, the progressive aspect recognizes the event as having continuity within time; it honors its existence:
From the time that he left the garage roof until he hit the bushes below, he was flying.
But the thing about the human mind is that it is rarely satisfied with what actually happened within the parameters of time. We like to think that our intentions and desires matter, so our language gives voice to them. The beauty of grammatical moods is their intimacy. They are a product of the speaker’s internal state of mind. They put the human will into play with reality, make room for human curiosity, provide tools for the human imagination.
There are several ways to enumerate the moods of English. We’ll stick with the standard three, one of which is the indicative mood, which we use almost all the time. This mood more or less just tells it like it is. All the examples so far have been in the indicative mood.
The subjunctive mood is one of those scary-sounding terms that people use when shaming other people for not knowing grammar. (That’s mean and pointless, by the way. Don’t do that.) I prefer to contemplate the subjunctive with less hostility in my heart.
The subjunctive mood is designed for a reality that isn’t. Either it’s hypothetical, uncertain, or actually counterfactual. The conditional form of the subjunctive (featuring the plural past tense “were” for some reason) asks us to consider the result of such speculation:
If I were to write a novel about a cake, do you think people would read it?
If I were a cake, would you write a novel about me?
Were I to meet you, I would ask for an autograph.
Taking the conditional into the actual past involves reaching for the perfect tense as part of its construction:
If I had written a novel about cake, would it have gotten more attention?
Had I been at that party, I would have laughed at your joke.
In its mandative form, the subjunctive mood uses an unmarked verb (i.e., the infinitive without the “to”).
I demand that you write a novel about my life as a cake.
It’s imperative that all parties be present for the ceremony.
The subjunctive mood has the capacity to lift the event out of time. Although some uses of the subjunctive hint at the future (the cake novel might get written someday), and the subjunctive mandates seem to call for immediate action, other uses of the subjunctive create an alternative reality that could just as easily be happening now as at some other time, if only boring old reality would cooperate:
If she were our mother, we could have cake for breakfast every day.
We are breaking the rules of reality by dreaming, demanding, suggesting something that does not yet exist, and the grammar twists under the strain of impossibility. Since the progress of time has not adequately accommodated our imaginations, we do it ourselves. I love that about us.
The imperative mood violates the cardinal rule of English grammar: a complete sentence must have a subject and a verb. (What can I say? I have a thing for iconoclasts.) But because the imperative is not a description but an injunction, stating a subject would be superfluous. There is no question who is supposed to complete this action; the speaker is looking straight into the subject’s eyes and saying:
That means you. Yes, you. Do it. The will of the speaker is in full force, as they try to speak the event into being. Notice that it only works in the present tense. This grammatical feature necessitates both speaker and audience to be present and engaged. It is relational, dramatic. We made it because we needed it—to scold each other, bless each other, make wishes, plead, and pray.
As you are reflecting on the year that is now over (and all its myriad horrors and silver linings, its joys and disappointments), and as you look forward to the year ahead, consider what words you will use to talk about them. What are the things that happened, will happen, are still happening, were transient states of being, are still transcendent dreams? And if the language isn’t there, yet, to say all that you mean, maybe you can make some that will speak your ideas more clearly.