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The Tense Continuum
LatinTutorial does a great job explaining the tenses in his video A Theory of Tenses. Without undermining his work, I’d like to propose a different way of thinking about tenses, the way I use. If you’re getting confused, turn back immediately. I may be a terrible explainer.
Let’s first imagine a continuum. We’ll consider the left direction retrospective (looking back to the past) and the right direction prospective (looking toward the future). We also have three time periods: past, present, and future.
The present tense is the simplest to understand. The event being described is happening at the same time as the conversation. “He is jumping.” We’ll represent the perspective of the conversation as a person, and we’ll represent the event being described as the red marker.
When the described event happened in the past, we use the perfect tense (“Taylor cooked a meal,” or “Jack has climbed.”)…
…unless the event happened over a period of time, i.e. it was continual. Then we use the imperfect tense (“Taylor was cooking a meal.”). We also use the imperfect tense to express concepts like “used to…” (“We used to visit Rome often.”)
If the described event will happen after the conversation, we’re looking prospectively. We would use the future tense (“Ian will give Ben a cookie.”).
So far, the continuum admittedly hasn’t been too helpful. I really only keep it in mind for the two final tenses—pluperfect and future perfect. These are the tenses in which our perspective (yes, the little guy just standing there) changes. Our perspective changes due to context.
Imagine you’re telling a story about the time you went to the store. You start off with “I went to the store.” The “went” immediately establishes that this story takes place in the past, so our perspective is in the past. When you then say “The store had already run out of fruit,” you’re describing an event that had already happened before your designated past (or, to hopefully avoid confusion, the described event is more retrospective than your designated past). This is the pluperfect tense, happening before your past.
Finally, we reach the future perfect tense. We use the future perfect tense when context has been established that puts our perspective in the future. The future perfect expresses an action that happens before the designated future, or is more retrospective than our designated future. An example from the UK’s National Archives is the sentence “I won’t get home until 8pm now, by which time the film will have happened.” The first bit, the “I won’t get home until 8pm now…”, establishes our perspective. We are talking about the time when the speaker comes home, 8pm. The second bit, “by which time the film will have happened,” is our future perfect event. Relative to our perspective, 8pm, the film is over.
Hopefully this helps someone. It works for me. Also, if you have any commentary or ideas of ways I can improve upon this idea, please share! Gratias!
Annotationes: verb tense latin grammar latin latin language lingua latina tagamemnon
via O, Eheu!.