Lecture Notes: An Overview of Verb Tenses
Oftentimes, students of the English language are taught the forms, meanings and usage of verb tenses but not the reasons why verb tenses are so important. Why does English have so many tenses and how do they affect the overall meaning of the discourse? Why do English instructors and other native speakers demand correct verb tenses? So before we focus on the specific forms or meanings, we should look at the reasons for such a heavy emphasis on the correctness of verbs.
A. First of all, verbs are action words. Verbs explain what happened (or is happening, or will happen, etc.). Read the following sentences:
1. The students opened their books.
2. The bus will stop at the corner.
3. Sandra has traveled to South America and Asia.
In the first sentence, "opened" is the verb. It tells what the students did. In the second sentence, the verb "will stop" tells us what the bus will do. In the third sentence, the verb "has traveled" tells us what Sally has done.
As in the verbs above, we can actually see the action of the verbs with our eyes (e.g. we can see the students opening their books.). We can see the motion. However, there are many verbs which are not active at all, but are considered "stative". These verbs describe conditions or situations that exist. These verbs explain the state of the subject. Consider the following verbs:
4. Jeffrey likes playing with Gameboy.
5. Laura believes in God.
6. My father has his own business.
In sentence 4, the verb "likes" describes the emotional state of Jeffrey: How does Jeffrey feel about playing with Gameboy? In the fifth sentence, the verb "believes" describes the mental state of the subject, Laura. We can't see Laura believing in God because it is the condition of her mind and heart. In sentence 6, the verb "has" describes the father's work situation.
So in summary, verbs describe what is happening or what the condition or situation is. For English native speakers, it is most important to know the precise action or the condition of the subject. For example, if the subject is "my mother", people would want to know, "What about your mother? What happened with her? What does she do? What is her situation or condition?" So you can say, "My mother works as a computer programmer" or "My mother purchased a new car" or "My mother thinks that I should go to college."
B. English native speakers not only need to know the precise action of the subject, but also the exact time and manner of the action. It is important to say not only what happened but also when it happened and whether the action was completed or not. This is due to the fact that the Western way of thinking is linear; in other words, all events must be on a time line:
All actions and states, i.e. verbs, must fall somewhere on this time line. In some languages, it is only necessary to add a time word at the end of a sentence to indicate the time of the occurrence, e.g. "I eat pizza yesterday." But in English, one must change the form of the verb in order to express time. For example:
7. I eat pizza. (present habit)
8. I am eating pizza. (right now and I am not finished)
9. I ate pizza. (past action; finished)
10. I will eat pizza. (future action)
11. I have eaten pizza. (sometime before the present time; finished)
C. So far, we have talked about verbs in individual sentences. But what is more important is using correct verb tenses in a full discourse, such as conversation or a paragraph. Remember that English native speakers must be able to place all actions or states on a time line. But if verbs jump from one time to another with wrong tenses, native speakers will become very confused and will not be able to follow the ideas. Read the following paragraph:
1 The members of my family have done some interesting things in the last few years. 2 I start playing the piano. 3 I got the piano from my parents when they move to Florida a few years ago. 4 I bought some piano instruction books, and 5 I teach myself how to play. 6 My wife loves to travel, and 7 her job requires her to do that from time to time. 8 In the past few years she has traveled to Tokyo, London and Bangkok. 9 My daughter has been working in a children's theater group. 10 My younger daughter has begun taking art lessons and 11 is becoming quite a good artist. It is exciting to see everyone involved in such interesting activities.
Notice the time orientation determined by the first sentence. The paragraph begins with what the members of the family have done in the last few years, which implies activities done some time between the past and the present time. So the reader will expect to place all family activities in the rest of the sentences to fall somewhere between past and present. But because the verb in the second sentence "start" is in the present tense, the reader will be confused and ask "Why are we in the present? I thought we were going to talk about past activities." The third sentence is also confusing because the time indicated by the verb "move"(present) does not match with the time indicated by the first verb "got"(past) and the time expression "a few years ago"(past). The reader will not be able to place the action "move" on the time line because of the confusion. Sentence 4 is fine because the verb indicates that it happened in the past (in accordance with the time set by the first sentence), but sentence 5 suddenly jumps to the present. He bought the books in the past, so he must have started teaching himself in the past. If he is still teaching himself to play the piano, then it should read "I have been teaching myself how to play."
Sentences 6 and 7 should be in the present tense because these statements are true today, not just in the past. If the sentences said "My wife loved to travel, and her job required her to do that from time to time," then the reader would assume that the wife no longer loves to travel and that she does not travel anymore.
The important thing to remember is that once you establish the time frame (past, present, future), you must move back and forth linearly and logically; you must not make sudden jumps from one time to another. Always ask yourself how the verb is related in time to the verb(s) in the previous sentences. Always ask yourself, "Does the reader know where I am?" and make the answer clear to the reader with the verb tenses.