A Verb Form I Don’t Often See

rogersgeorge on October 19th, 2016

A second person singular subjunctive passive present progressive linking verb! First cell of a recent Arctic Circle: you could be being monitored. Savor it! I’m not even sure what order I should put the descriptors in.

It reminds me of the juvenile joke of snickering when you hear someone using the present emphatic of “do.”

The present progressive tells your reader that something is continuing to happen, right now, as you’re telling it. The past progressive says it was continuing to happen in the past, but not any more, but then you miss out on the subjunctive (the “could be”) if you want the idea of the past with subjunctive and passive, you need the present perfect: “could have been being monitored.”

Aren’t you glad you’re a native speaker of English and don’t have to think about all that stuff? But I think it’s fun for me to be being read on such esoteric subjects.

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Overusing the Present Perfect

rogersgeorge on October 3rd, 2016

In German, you pretty much always use the present perfect for normal past tense statements; the simple past appears in writing, but they don’t use it much.

Not so in English! In fact, we use the present perfect too much! (ahem, in my opinion)

First, the rule of thumb: If you can use the simple past, use it. Don’t use the present perfect unless there’s a clear connection with the present.

Look at the third cell in this Crumb comic. The bird says, “I have just punctured…”


Now change it to “I just punctured…” It has more, um, punch, doesn’t it?

Here’s a sentence from a work environment:

I emailed him, but he hasn’t replied yet.

“I emailed”—simple past. Happened once in the past and it’s over. (In Greek that would be the aorist, but I digress). “He has not replied” is in the present perfect, because he could have replied any time up until now, so there’s a clear connection with the present.

Here’s another one:

It rained all day yesterday; it has rained all day today, too

Yesterday is done with—use the simple past. Today is still going on—use present perfect.

Remember, if you can, you should use the simple past, nich war?

Future Perfect

rogersgeorge on July 15th, 2016

You hardly ever see the future perfect tense any more. I ran into an example the other day in a book I’m reading (Big Science—Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that launched the Military-Industrial Complex by Michael Hiltzik.) Ernest Lawrence invented the cyclotron, a device that the bigger you make it, the better it works. But to make it bigger, you need rich patrons, which he was good at getting money from. The device turned out to be instrumental in building the atomic bomb, and the rest is history, you could say. The LHC in Geneva is its direct descendant. His practice of obtaining large amounts of money and large teams of participants has led to about all of our current high-tech culture, from the space program to video games. Here’s the sentence, written by Ernest in a letter to his parents:

If the work should pan out the way I hope, it will be by all odds the most important thing I will have done.

There, at the end, we have a future perfect. Verbs deal in some way with time, and that’s how we name them, past, present, future. Other languages deal with time somewhat differently, but that’s a topic for another day. The genius of the perfect tenses in English is that they convey the idea of something happening over a stretch of time, and then ending. For example,

I have lived in this house all my life.

That’s present perfect; I lived for a period of time (all my life) until now, the present.

How about the past perfect? Something happened for a stretch of time, and ended in the past.

I had lived in that house until I got married. Then I lived in a mansion.

And the future perfect? Something happens for a stretch of time that ends in the future.

If I live another five years and don’t move out, I will have lived in this house for fifty years.

Keep your ears open—maybe you’ll catch an occasional future perfect.

And just for grins, here’s a picture of the first and third or so cyclotron. That’s Ernest on the right. Photo via google.

Getting verbs right part 2

rogersgeorge on February 12th, 2012

First, a little linguistics lesson. If you want, you can skip to the last two paragraphs.

These folks haven't discovered the joys of linguistics yet

Hebrew doesn’t have tenses the way English does. Hebrew has aspect. Aspect has to do with whether what the verb describes is over with or not. The perfective aspect translates pretty easily into our simple past (He ran). After all, if an action is over with, it’s in the past, right? And the imperfective aspect goes pretty well with our  present progressive (He is running). (Greek has a past tense called the aorist that has this perfective aspect, equivalent to our simple past; and an imperfective past tense equivalent to our past progressive, “He was running.”) Here are a few examples:

Hebrew: katal—English: he killed. Hebrew: okal (pronounced okayl)—English: he is eating.  Hebrew doesn’t have a way to say “he eats.” (As far as I know, but we translate it that way a lot.)

We have aspect in English, too but we don’t usually call it that—partly, I suppose, because we have some verb forms that don’t quite fit. Some of our verb forms do, though. Our simple past fits into the perfective aspect, too. And the progressive tenses are all imperfective regardless of when they happen. I am running and I was running are both imperfective.

All that to introduce today’s lesson, how to use the past perfect and present perfect tenses, which show both aspects!

The last two paragraphs:

1. The past perfect says that something was done and then ended in the past.

He had entertained thoughts of being the winner until he saw the score.

The trick to using the past perfect is you need to make some indication of when the deed ended, not just when it happened. In this case, it’s the phrase “until he saw the score.” Here’s the rule: if you don’t state or clearly imply when the deed ended, use the simple past. For example, “Yesterday he entertained thoughts of winning.” You’re saying when he did it, but not when he stopped. Simple past. Let’s turn the rule around: If you use the past perfect, indicate when the deed ended.

2. The present perfect means that something began in the past and continues until now.

He has entertained thoughts of winning ever since he began training. Also: Ever since he began training, he has entertained thoughts of winning.

The trick with the present perfect is that you need to indicate when the deed started. In this case, it’s the phrase “ever since he started training.” If you don’t give an indication of when it started, consider rewriting your sentence.

I won’t get into the perfect progressive tenses, which emphasize the imperfective aspect even more. (“He has been entertaining” and “He had been entertaining,” if you’re curious.)

And we’ll save the future perfect for a future post.