No Future Tense in English

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“When a truth is presented as the only truth, it is nothing more than a deception”. If applied to English teaching, this could be, perhaps, rephrased as: when a tense is presented to be used only for the time its name represents, it is nothing more than a deception. Generally, it is taught that the tenses are only to express actions of the time they “represent”, allowing the student to gain the misconception that tenses are entirely connected with time, even though their uses are by no means limited to their names as such, i.e. “present tense” for “present time” only. This is “a truth presented as the only truth” and thus erroneous in its very nature.

The fallacy of time-tense relationship lies in the fact that English language has only two tenses yet there are three “parts” of the timeline: past, present and future time. When a learner is faced with the grammatical use of the tenses, the common teaching configuration will be, for example, that “Present tense” is associated with events happening in the present: the now of the timeline, or the general idea of an action. Nonetheless, it is commonly omitted by the teacher, who by virtue of being a native English speaker does not voluntarily think about the full-spectrum application, that the tenses are not bound to the timeline and that the word “tense” is merely a term used by the grammarians to label the form of the verb (Lewis, 1986: 50)

In an attempt to explain why this is so gravely disregarded, it might be logical to have a quick look into the psychology: “The human brain is an inveterate pattern-seeker. Once found, patterns are classified, related to other patterns and used to predict yet further patterns and correlations and it is in fact an aggressive process driven by search for predictability” (Blevins, 2009: 1) Such predictability is what the teachers are after; it simplifies the process of explanation based on the rigidness of the books and teaching methodology concerning the herein discussed matter. This is what does not allow the learner to see that the relationship between the time of action and the form of the verb cannot be cast in stone. Superficially, it may seem ludicrous, yet if the tense is regarded as what it is, nothing more than a loose term to refer to the forms of the verb, than the principles of such teaching are to be put under great scrutiny.

To illustrate this, let’s look at a few examples:

•The bus leaves every afternoon at 2pm – the statement of general action, not simply present time, it happens regularly. This is a “typical” point of use of present tense taught. •The tour starts tomorrow in the morning – the reference is made in present tense however, it expresses future time, an action that is yet to happen •He would not mind if you asked him – even though past tense is used, it certainly does not mean past time, if anything, it represents present or future time, depending on the situational context. •Has this surgeon ever performed such an operation before? – Here the enquiry is created for past time without past tense.

It has been established that Neo-Latin languages such as Spanish and Italian, for example, have a similar spectrum of time-tense application, that is, the tenses can be used widely though the timeline (Stillman. 2010:46%). Difficulty comes, though, when learners of English, regardless of native language, are taught to blindly follow patterns. An easy activity of having students write, in the language of their own, sentences that would have “unrelated” time-tense structure, i.e. present tense for future time, would commence a thought-process leading them to trying to translate it into English.

The teacher’s role here, regardless of the level, is to guide the students, encourage them to be bold, to try to explore the possibilities of English verb forms. The mentor has the perfect opportunity to increase conceivably the chances of students grasping the concept of the leniency of the herein discussed issue. As complicated as it sounds, the time-tense association is something that has to be felt by the speaker, and that comes with experience and exposure.

Tenses are “the curse” of people learning English; they can be complicated even for native speakers, who use them intuitively, not always correctly and quite often without an underlying understanding of grammar involved. A downright fact that simple present has a surprising number of applications, and it can be used to refer to the past or future as well as the present can drive a student insane if they are thrown into the deep end of this seemingly-bottomless pool of English grammar. Once the learner’s perception of this concept is adjusted, with the help of a wise teacher, to the possibilities it has, a breakthrough in understanding English tenses is not far away.

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