Tuesday March 12, 2013
Using the right tense
RIGHT FOR BUSINESS
By ALISTAIR KING
Several readers mentioned that they have never been able to tell the difference between one tense and the other and that all tenses sound right.
These were some of the responses to my articles on the use of tenses (Tense means sense, Jan 1 and Using tenses correctly, Feb 12 – both can be read at thestar.com.my/english).
Indeed, all tenses do sound right. Frequently, a mistake of tense is not immediately identifiable as it usually looks like a correct sentence. If you use your computer’s GrammarCheck (and please don’t, incidentally; it can land you in trouble), no mistake will be highlighted.
Certainly, these comments highlight the discrepancy between what the school syllabus claims to teach and what students, having completed SPM, actually understand about the structure and usage of the language.
In Tense means sense, we noted how crucial it is to differentiate between the Simple Past and the Past Perfect tenses when reporting past events:
In the minutes:
The Chairman pointed out that he did not receive the circular.
The Chairman pointed out that he had not received the circular.
In an incident report:
The explosion occurred because the operators forgot the correct procedure when activating the system.
The explosion occurred because the operators had forgotten the correct procedure when activating the system.
In an audit report:
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.
Appropriate tense usage is crucial to show sequencing, direct or indirect cause-effect relationships.
We noted on Jan 1 that, for certain groups of writers – including auditors, minutes-takers, journalists and incident report writers – the way in which the Simple Past and the Past Perfect tenses relate to each other is of great importance.
Attention to grammar is not an option for the writer who wishes to express himself/herself with precision and clarity. Indeed, TENSE MEANS SENSE!
Check my earlier article to see in what way sentences containing “had” substantially differ from the others.
Now, which of these sentences is grammatically incorrect?
1. The investigation indicated that Guidelines were breached.
2. The investigation indicated that Guidelines have been breached.
3. The investigation indicated that Guidelines had been breached.
1 and 3 are grammatically correct, but have different meanings. 2 is grammatically incorrect. The combination of the Simple Past and the Present Perfect makes no sense, yet I read this recently in a report! Interestingly, as I type this, no wiggly green line (in GrammarCheck) appears under this mistake!
Now, what about the Present Perfect tense? Note the difference between the following pairs:
We have completed the project.
We completed the project on 22nd March.
The piling work on the new site has commenced.
The piling work on the new site commenced on 11th June.
I have visited Tokyo.
I visited Tokyo in March, 1993.
She has resigned.
She resigned two weeks ago.
The changes have been implemented.
The changes were implemented at the beginning of last month.
From these examples, it can be seen that the introductory sentence, the one which makes a general statement is in the Present Perfect, while the sentence containing the Simple Past features specific time-detail.
The following sentence is grammatically incorrect:
* I have visited Tokyo in 1993.
And, the following sentence is incomplete:
* I visited Tokyo.
Dr Alistair King is an Applied Linguist and Corporate Training Consultant with clients throughout the region, the Middle East and South Africa. He would value feedback. Send to: email@example.com or http://www.aksb.com.my