Tenses in English

By Xah Lee. Date:

What is “tense”? Historically, “tense” is the attribute of verbs in English and related languages that expresses the time of the action. In English, three tenses are traditionally recognized, conventionally called the past, the present, and the future. There are also a variety of compound tenses used in English. However, there is no simple relationship between the form of an English tense and the time actually expressed:

I go to London tomorrow. I will go to London tomorrow. I am going to London tomorrow.

all mean the same thing, even though the first sentence uses the present tense; the second, the future tense; and the third, a compound tense usually called “present progressive”. Likewise, a newspaper headline says “JONES DIES”, although it is obvious that the time referred to must be in the past. Tense is a mandatory category of English: every sentence must be marked for tense, even if in a way contrary to logic, because every main verb has a tense marker built into to it.

the above is excerpted from the Lojban Language Reference Grammar by John Cowan et al. (available online at Lojban Reference Grammar: Chapter 10)

The purpose of this excerpt is for the generic English professional writers and enthuses (copyeditors, grammarians, spelling bees etc) to get a whiff of the utter moronicity of natural languages, in particular English. Once these people have some minimal understanding of linguistics, logic, or communication theories, they will naturally become less bottled up in their inbred specialization.

My thesis is that for much of the writing professions: proof reading, copyediting, grammarians, spelling bee, style guide, the entire enterprise of activities, publications, establishment etc, are collectively wasting huge amount of human animal's time.

This thought has been gradually formulated since about 1997, and i have started to write them down in small pieces in the past couple of years. In this way, i hope to refine and eventually have a coherent treatise.

The collective behavior of the writing establishment i so criticize is due not to their unintelligence, but rather a incidental systemic ignorance of linguistics and logic.


So let me get this straight — the people who study and devote their lives to the language are ignorant of linguistics, and the corrections they make to error-riddled texts like yours are unnecessary?

more or less yes. By the way, my writing is not “error-riddled” — if you want to discuss the issue seriously. My writing is grammarian-affronting, if you will.

Mathematicians who deal with math all their lives know little to nothing about the history, design, logical foundation or psychological impact, of math notation system(s). Similarly, musicians in general are ignorant about musical notations as a subject. In this illustration, you can understand that writers, grammarians, know nothing about logic, linguistics, or theories of communication, related to English the language.

one has to get clear on the scope and generalization here: by saying that writers know nothing about theories of communication as a subject, i meant that vast majority of professional writers, perhaps some 99%, knew nothing of it, like laymen. And by theory of communication, i mean issues related to the English language. For example, survey of grammars, mathematics of grammar, theory of semantics in human communication, “philosophy of languages”, logic, analysis of expressiveness in languages, Cognitive and psychological aspects of reading, studies of communication as info propagation, or statistical survey and methods, the pragmatics of language use, and so on.

I do not mean to throw random esoterica about language. Rather, topics intimately related to English language, its grammar, its effects, but from many scientific aspects as a whole, which i'll term as Theories of Written Communication. Communication is a keystone here. Writing is a form of communication, if nothing else. And all these aspects are tied on the issues of use and expression of written communication, for both artistic as well practical goals. As a example for illustration, we might ask: if English is to become more regular (in spelling, pronunciation, grammar…), would it be as artistic a medium for English writers? This may not be a scientifically precise question, but progress can be made with fruitful revelation, and it does not have a easy answer. Whatever its answer, it has practical significances. For example, much of style or grammar controversies in the writing community can be settled decisively, or the entire issue waned.

What the average writers have concerned with themselves, are exclusively English grammar and the play of words. That is their state of sorriness and pettiness. And from this narrowness, stem the writing establishments such as spelling-bee parades, “copyediting”, style guilds, grammarians and their institutions… much of this to the harm of human animal's purported goal in written communication. (i.e. much of concerns of grammar do more harm in the effectiveness and efficiency of communication than do help, directly but also indirectly by for example diverting attention to the study of logic, linguistics, semantics aspect of language, or pragmatics in communication.)

In a way this situation seems understandable, as people who are not good with sciences and logic or serious thinking have collectively flocked into writing, and people who are good at logic and critical thinking do not concern themselves with writing per se. Therefore, begets one collection of grammarians and style-theorists one generation more pronouncedly gaga than another in their inbred “art” of prescription formulation and stylistic charges.