Skip to main content

Tense

TENSE

Tense is a grammatical category by means of which some natural languages express the temporal location of the event described by the sentence in which the grammatical tense occurs. (This definition assumes a distinction between grammatical and lexical categories. For the technically inclined, lexical categories are part of the lexicon of a language and are open classes [classes that allow new vocabulary through compounding, derivation, coining, and borrowing]. They become inflected, and do not contract, affix, or cliticize. Examples of lexical categories are nouns, adjectives, adverbs, verbs. Grammatical categories are part of the grammatical system of a language and are closed classes [classes that do not allow additions]. They may contract, affix, or cliticize. Examples include inflectional and derivational morphemes and function words, such as prepositions, determiners, conjunctions, and pronouns.) An instance of a tensed language is English. In the English unembedded sentence "Bill called," the grammatical tense "-ed" conveys the information that Bill's call happened before the time of speech. Similarly, in the English sentence "Bill will call," the grammatical tense "will" contributes the information that Bill's call occurs after the time of speech. When a language does not have grammatical tenses, as in the case of Chinese, the temporal information may be conveyed by lexical categories, such as adverbs.

The mapping between the grammatical tenses of a natural language and the expression of temporal location is very complex, and one of the goals of linguistic semantics is to investigate the relation between grammatical tenses and the expression of time. To achieve this goal, scholars in both linguistics and philosophy have proposed different theories of tense.

One type of theory, beginning with the work of the logician Arthur Prior, analyzes tenses as temporal operators. Prior (1957, 1967) treated the past and future tenses as sentential operators meaning "it was the case that" and "it will be the case that," respectively. The sentence "Bill called" is translated into P (^p ) and is true in a world w at a time t if and only if "Bill calls" is true in w at a time t t (^p is the intension of p, and "" means "earlier than"). In his intensional system, Montague (1974) adopted Prior's tense logic by introducing tense operators for the past and future tenses, with the time parameter of the intensional expression embedded in the tense operator.

A different approach to the analysis of tense is that proposed by Reichenbach (1947). According to Reichenbach, tense is not a temporal operator but a complex structure built from a small set of primitives: the event time (E ), the speech time (S ), the reference time (R ), and two relations that can hold between these times, simultaneity (symbolized with a comma) and anteriority (symbolized with an underscore). One of these relations holds between S and R, and one relation holds between R and E. The relation between S and E is not represented but is inferred from the first two. With this small set of primitives, Reichenbach was able to define the set of possible English tenses. For example, the simple past, future, and present tenses have the structures [E, R _S ], [S _R, E ], [S, R, E ], respectively. The contribution of R becomes crucial in the analysis of complex tenses, such as the future and past perfect (which Reichenbach called "anterior future" and "anterior past"), where R overlaps neither E nor S. For example, the past perfect in "At 3:00 p.m., John had (already) called" has the structure [E _R _S ], where the calling time E precedes the reference time R (3:00 p.m.), which in turn is before S.

The case of the future perfect is a little more complex. Take the sentence "By 3:00 p.m., John will have called." Our intuition is that, while 3:00 p.m. must follow the speech time, the time of John's calling must be before 3:00 p.m. but does not have to follow the speech time. The availability of the reference time R allows Reichenbach to account for this intuition easily: R must be future relative to S, and E must be past relative to R, but the relation between S and E is left unspecified, leaving open the following three possibilities: [S _E _R ] or [S, E _R ] or [E _S _R ].

A third family of theories views tenses as temporal predicates expressing relations between times (or events). Zagona (1995), Stowell (1996), and Higginbotham (2002) are the main proponents of this view. According to these authors, tenses express temporal relations, such as anteriority, posteriority, and simultaneity, between two events (or times). However, unlike Reichenbach's theory, events (or times) are not introduced by the tenses but by verbs and adjectives instead. This view is also different from the operator analysis of tense since tenses are not operators shifting evaluation parameters

The operator theory of tense has been very influential and has inspired semantic analyses where tense is an existential quantifier binding the time argument in the predicate. Versions of the quantificational theory of tense have been proposed by David Dowty (1979), Arnim von Stechow (1995), Toshi Ogihara (1996), and Dorit Abusch (1997), among others (see Kuhn and Portner 2002 for an overview on tense logics for natural languages). Barbara Partee (1973, 1984) has observed that existential-quantifier theories are problematic when we consider some occurrences of tense in natural language. Her famous example is

(1) I didn't turn off the stove

uttered as the speaker is driving down the freeway. According to the existential analysis of tense, the sentence can be interpreted either as "There is no past time at which I turned off the stove" or as "There is a past time at which I did not turn off the stove," depending on the scope of negation with respect to the temporal quantifier. However, neither interpretation correctly captures the meaning of the sentence in the context we are considering. Clearly, the speaker did not mean to negate the existence of any time at which she turned off the stove, nor did she mean to assert the existence of some time at which she did not turn off the stove. She merely meant to assert that she did not turn off the stove at a contextually salient past time.

To solve this problem, Partee proposed a referential analysis of tense, in which tenses are linguistic devises by which we refer to times salient in the previous discourse. This analysis treats English tenses analogously to how Hans Kamp (1981) and Irene Heim (1988) treated pronouns and nominal anaphora. Variants of this idea have also been proposed by Enç (1986), Heim (1994), and Kratzer (1998). However, there are occurrences of tenses that are not about particular times, as in the sentence

(2) Einstein visited Princeton

where a quantificational analysis of tense seems more apt. Both quantificational and referential theories of tense need to account for the occurrences of tense in (1) and (2). One possibility is to analyze the past tense as a restricted quantifier, just like ordinary nominal quantifiers. In this analysis, (1) would assert that there is no time within a contextually salient past interval at which the individual turned off the stove. The indeterminate reading of (2) would arise when the restriction of the quantifier is Einstein's entire life span.

The discussion so far has been about the meanings of the English tenses, and we have been silently assuming that there is a one-to-one correspondence between grammatical tenses and these meanings. While this is generally true in simple clauses, there are exceptions. For example, (3) illustrates a use of the grammatical present tense with the so-called futurate meaning.

(3) The 4:00 o'clock train leaves in five minutes.

Example (4) from Enç 1996 illustrates a mismatch between the future tense morpheme will and the semantics of the future, since Pat's sleeping is understood to be overlapping the speech time. Similarly, example (5) illustrates a mismatch between the past tense morpheme on was and the semantics of the past, since the past tense is allowed to occur with the future adverb tomorrow.

(4) Pat will be sleeping now.

(5) Pat was leaving tomorrow.

The idea of a one-to-one correspondence between tense morphology and tense meanings turns out to be even more problematic when we consider subordinate clauses and the phenomenon of sequence of tense. Consider the following sentence, where the matrix verb and the embedded verb both occur in the past tense.

(6) Bill thought that Sue was pregnant.

There are two possible readings of (6). According to the first reading, the content of Bill's thought was that Sue was pregnant at some time before the time at which Bill was having the thought. This is the so-called shifted reading. According to the second reading, the content of Bill's thought is that Sue was pregnant at the time when Bill was having the thought. This is the so-called simultaneous reading. The possible simultaneous reading, where the embedded past morpheme is not interpreted as a past tense, seems problematic for a theory in which the morpheme "-ed" is always interpreted as a semantic past. The simultaneity relation, generally expressed in English by the absence of either past or future morphemes, is expressed in sequence of tense with the past morpheme. Furthermore, notice that when we actually embed a grammatical present tense under a grammatical past tense, as in (7), we obtain not a simultaneous reading but yet a third reading, the so-called double-access reading. As pointed out by Enç (1987), in (7) Bill's thought is that Sue's pregnancy extends over a period of time including both the time at which Bill had the thought and the time at which (7) was uttered.

(7) Bill thought that Sue is pregnant.

Let us go back to (6). Operator theories of tense try to reconcile the occurrence of an embedded past-tense morpheme with the simultaneous reading by proposing accounts where, at the level of semantic interpretation, the embedded past tense is deleted (Ogihara 1989, 1995; von Stechow 1995) or is semantically bound by the matrix past tense (Abusch 1997) and its temporal features are deleted (von Stechow 2003).

Within the referential theories of tense, Enç (1987) proposed that the simultaneous reading of (6) is obtained when the embedded past tense is coindexed with the matrix past tense, and thus bound by it. Therefore, in her account, the embedded past tense refers to the past time referred to by the matrix past tense. Abusch (1988) points out that already in Kamp and Rohrer (1984) we can find some evidence against the claim that the morphological past tense in an embedded clause is interpreted as a semantic past tense. Abusch provides (8) as an example illustrating the fact that, the most embedded past tense, that associated with "were," cannot refer to any past time since, in the intended reading, the event of having their last meal together is understood as overlapping John's saying event.

(8) John decided a week ago that in ten days at breakfast he would say to his mother that they were having their last meal together.

Among referential theories of tense, a slightly different approach has been taken by Kratzer (1998). Kratzer's proposal, while inheriting several elements from Abusch's (1997) analysis of sequence of tense, is based on Irene Heim's observation that in some occurrences, pronouns have features that are not interpreted. For example, the second occurrence of "I" in Heim's example (9) is interpreted not as an indexical but as a bound variable in the so-called strict reading.

(9) Only I got a question that I understood.

According to Kratzer, the simultaneous reading of (6) arises when the embedded past tense is interpreted as a bound variable, just as the second occurrence of the first-person pronoun in (9) is interpreted as a bound variable, rather than as an indexical. The features on both the embedded "I" in (9) and the embedded past tense in (6) are not "interpretable" (in the sense of Chomsky 1995), that is, they do not contribute to the LF (logical form) representations of these sentences. They are zero pronouns, or zero tenses, whose morphological and phonological features probably derive from agreement with their antecedents and do not carry any semantic information. Kratzer's parallel between zero pronouns and sequence-of-tense tenses expands Partee's original insight about an analogy between pronouns and tenses. The parallel between pronouns and tenses is also at the center of recent work by Schlenker (2003) and von Stechow (2003).

The discussion of sequence-of-tense phenomena above has been concerned with sequences of tenses where th e matrix tense is a past. Hornstein (1990) claims that the availability of the simultaneous reading in sequence of tense is not restricted to the past tense but applies to all tenses. Enç (1996) challenges this claim on the basis of examples like (10), where, according to her judgment, only the shifted interpretation is possible:

(10) Mary will say that she will be tired.

Furthermore, Enç points out that the double-access reading is not forced by embedding the present tense under the futurea fact that thus sets the future tense apart from the past tense. In (11) the only reading is that Mary is upset at the time of John's assertion.

(11) John will say that Mary is upset.

On the basis of these asymmetries between the future and the past and on the basis of the observation that future-oriented modals behave like "will" with respect to sequence of tense, as in (12), Enç suggests that the future morpheme "will" is not a tense but a modal.

(12) John must claim that he is sick.

This last point raises the question of the relation between tense and two other grammatical categories: aspect and mood. Tense, aspect, and mood are intimately related, since they all contribute some information about the event that a given sentence is about: Tense, as mentioned, conveys information about the time of the event; aspect conveys information about the beginning, duration, completion, or repetition of the event; finally, mood conveys information about whether the sentence is about a possible or actual event. It is common to assume, however, that these categories are distinct, even though their boundaries are not always clear. (An example is the debate over the semantics of the present perfect in English and other languages. For a general overview of the topic, see Alexiadou, Rathert, and von Stechow 2003 and the references cited there.) Further comparative studies across Indo-European and non-Indo-European languages will, it is hoped, shed light on these intricate issues.

See also Artificial and Natural Languages; Chomsky, Noam; Intensional Transitive Verbs; Language; Montague, Richard; Prior, Arthur Norman; Quantifiers in Natural Language; Reichenbach, Hans; Semantics.

Bibliography

Abusch, Dorit. "Sequence of Tense and Temporal De Re." Linguistics and Philosophy 20 (1997): 150.

Abusch, Dorit. "Sequence of Tense, Intensionality, and Scope." In Proceedings of the Seventh West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistics, edited by Hagit Borer, 114. Stanford, CA: CSLI, 1988.

Alexiadou, Artemis, Monika Rathert, and Arnim von Stechow, eds. Perfect Explorations. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2003.

Chomsky, Noam. The Minimalist Program. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995.

Dowty, David. Word Meaning and Montague Grammar: The Semantics of Verbs and Times in Generative Grammar and Montague PTQ. Dordrecht, Netherlands: D. Reidel, 1979.

Enç, Mürvet. "Anchoring Conditions for Tense." Linguistic Inquiry 18 (1987): 633657.

Enç, Mürvet. "Tense and Modality." In The Handbook of Contemporary Semantic Theory, edited by Shalom Lappin, 345358. Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell, 1996.

Enç, Mürvet. "Towards a Referential Analysis of Temporal Expressions." Linguistics and Philosophy 9 (1986): 405426.

Heim, Irene. "Comments on Abusch's Theory of Tense." In Ellipsis, Tense, and Questions, edited by Hans Kamp, 143170. Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam, 1994.

Heim, Irene. "The Semantics of Definite and Indefinite Noun Phrases." PhD diss. University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1982. Published by Garland, New York, 1988.

Higginbotham, James. "Why is Sequence of Tense Obligatory." In Logical Form and Language, edited by G. Preyer and G. Peter. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Hornstein, Norbert. As Time Goes By: Tense and Universal Grammar. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990.

Kamp, Hans. "A Theory of Truth and Semantic Representation." In Formal Methods in the Study of Language, Part I, edited by J. Groenendijk, T. Janssen, and M. Stokhof, 277322. Amsterdam: Mathematisch Centrum, 1981.

Kamp, Hans, and Christian Rohrer. "Indirect Discourse." Manuscript. University of Texas, Austin, and University of Stuttgart, 1984.

Kratzer, Angelika. "More Structural Analogies between Pronouns and Tenses." In Proceeding of Semantics and Linguistic Theory, VIII, edited by Devon Strolovitch and Aaron Lawson. Ithaca, NY: CLC Publications, 1998.

Kuhn, S., and P. Portner. "Tense and Time." In The Handbook of Philosophical Logic. 2nd ed., edited by D. Gabbay and F. Guenthner, 6: 277346. Dordrecht, Netherlands: D. Reidel, 2002.

Montague, Richard. Formal Philosophy: Selected Papers of Richard Montague, edited by Richmond H. Thomason. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974.

Ogihara, Toshiyuki. "Double-Access Sentences and References to States." Natural Language Semantics 3 (1995): 177210.

Ogihara, Toshiyuki. "Temporal Reference in English and Japanese." PhD diss. University of Texas at Austin, 1989.

Ogihara, Toshiyuki. Tense, Attitudes, and Scope. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1996.

Partee, Barbara. "Nominal and Temporal Anaphora." Linguistics and Philosophy 7 (1984): 243286.

Partee, Barbara. "Some Structural Analogies between Tenses and Pronouns in English." Journal of Philosophy 18 (1973): 601609.

Prior, Arthur N. Past, Present, and Future. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Prior, Arthur N. Time and Modality. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1957.

Reichenbach, Hans. Elements of Symbolic Logic. New York: Macmillan, 1947.

Schlenker, Philippe. "A Plea for Monsters." Linguistics and Philosophy 26 (2003): 29120.

Stowell, Tim. "The Phrase Structure of Tense." In Phrase Structure and the Lexicon, edited by Johan Rooryck and Laurie Zaring, 277291. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer, 1996.

Von Stechow, Arnim. "Feature Deletion under Semantic Binding: Tense, Person, and Mood under Verbal Quantifiers." In Proceedings of the North East Linguistic Society 33, edited by Makoto Kadowaki and Shigeto Kawahara. Amherst: GLSA, University of Massachusetts, 2003.

Von Stechow, Arnim. "On the Proper Treatment of Tense." In Proceeding of Semantics and Linguistic Theory, V, edited by Mandy Simons and Teresa Galloway. Ithaca, NY: CLC Publications, 1995.

Zagona, Karen. "Temporal Argument Structure: Configurational Elements of Construal." In Temporal Reference, Aspect, and Actionality. Vol. 1: Semantic and Syntactic Perspectives, edited by Pier Marco Bertinetto, Valentina Bianchi, James Higginbotham, and Mario Squartini. Turin, Italy: Rosenberg e Sellier, 1995.

Michela Ippolito (2005)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Tense." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Aug. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Tense." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/tense

"Tense." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . Retrieved August 16, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/tense

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.