Tuesday January 1, 2013
Tense means sense!
By ALISTAIR KING
There is a world of difference between ‘visited’ and ‘had visited’; one of which may involve visiting dead, rather than living people.
“HAVE done, has done, had done. ... What’s the difference? They all sound the same!” Have you ever said this?
Do the various past tenses all seem the same to you? If you have completed SPM, you are supposed to know the difference. However, having “done” something in the SPM syllabus does not necessarily imply that it has been thoroughly understood and internalised.
The previous SPM Communication Syllabus purportedly emphasised “communication” rather than grammatical accuracy, the mistaken assumption being that one could communicate without grammar – a very strange notion, indeed!
Yet if we wish to communicate well, we have to do so, by using grammar which gives accuracy and precision and dispels ambiguity. If we want to improve our ability to communicate, we must do this (partly, at least) by improving our grammar.
Fortunately, the current SPM Syllabus recognises grammar as “… part and parcel of the learning outcomes” thus recognising that accuracy of grammar usage is integral to language learning.
However, whether this is reflected in the learners’ performance is another question. Frequently, employers lament to me that fresh graduates cannot communicate in English with correct grammar, despite all the years of studying under the Syllabus.
The area where it is absolutely crucial to use precise grammar is in the past tenses. We have several past tenses in English, each one having its role in communication. Past Tenses are “covered” in the SPM Syllabus (Language Content 1.5 Verbs) Still, many people (including, I suspect, some of our readers) who have gone through SPM, ask the question with which this article begins.
Consider the following sentences:
1. Fortunately we have completed the site inspection when the rain began.
2. Fortunately, we completed the site inspection when the rain began.
3. Fortunately, we completed the site inspection when the rain had begun.
4. Fortunately, we had completed the site inspection when the rain has begun.
5. Fortunately, we had completed the site inspection when the rain began.
6. Fortunately, we have completed the site inspection when the rain had begun.
7. Fortunately, we had completed the site inspection when the rain had begun.
8. Fortunately, we have completed the site inspection when the rain has begun.
9. Fortunately, we completed the site inspection when the rain has begun.
Of these, can you recognise that only three are grammatically correct and only one makes sense?
If not, you might have problems at work when you write your reports (particularly if you are an auditor) or the minutes for meetings, etc.
This illustrates that communication fails without grammatical accuracy. Indeed, Tense means Sense!
Anyone who writes the minutes or reports on action taken, needs to communicate the sequencing of events, and here, accuracy of tenses is crucial.
In this article, we shall look at the usage of Simple Past and Past Perfect, keeping Present Perfect for a later article, in which, the meaning of the names of the tenses will be explained.
The following sentence appeared in a national daily a few years ago:
“The accused admitted that he frequently visited the victim in her home.”
This is, on the face of it, a grammatically correct sentence, but what does it mean? Notice that the two verbs - admitted and visited - are in the same tense, the Simple Past. This means that the accused was telling the court of his frequent and ongoing visits (presumably under police escort) to the corpse of the unfortunate person whom he was accused of murdering!
Note the difference in sense between the above and:
“The accused admitted that he HAD frequently visited the victim in her home.”
This version, using the Past Perfect, places the frequent visitations in a previous time, during the life of the victim. You might think that tense doesn’t really matter because the reader will surely work it out. But please, let us not be presumptuous about what our readers will or will not understand from our inaccurate grammar!
An auditor may write either of the following:
“The audit revealed that serious non-compliance occurred.”
“The audit revealed that serious non-compliance had occurred.”
The first indicates ONGOING non-compliance, concurrent with the audit, which requires immediate remedial action.
The second indicates PAST non-compliance, which may not require any follow-up action as the issue has probably self-rectified.
The use of the Simple Past and the Past Perfect indicates a sequencing of events, rather than simultaneous occurrence. In reporting negligence, the writer usually needs to use “had” when indicating the cause.
The following would be very strange:
“The explosion occurred because the operators forgot the correct procedure when activating the system.”
This means that, JUST AS the operators forgot, the explosion occurred! No, surely it was the forgetting which THEN led them to take the wrong action, which THEN caused the explosion. Thus:
“The explosion occurred because the operators HAD forgotten ...” Consider this bizarre one:
“The bridge collapsed because it rained heavily.”
That must have been such heavy rain that it pummelled the bridge into collapse! No, surely what is meant is that the rain was the indirect cause of the collapse (perhaps by weakening the soil around the bridge) as in:
“The bridge collapsed because it HAD rained heavily.”
But note this:
“He sustained an electric shock because he had touched the live wire.”
He must have been very thick-skinned as this indicates at, only some time AFTER the touching of the wire did the shock happen! That’s not the way electricity works, so here, there should be no “had” .
Appropriate tense usage is crucial to show sequencing, as well as direct or indirect cause-effect relationships.
Attention to grammar is not an option for the writer who wishes to express himself/herself with precision and clarity because, TENSE MEANS SENSE!
> Dr Alistair King is an Applied Linguist and Corporate Training Consultant with clients throughout the region, the Middle East and Southern Africa. He would value feedback to: firstname.lastname@example.org / www.aksb.com.my