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Concourse 2

Tense and genre

time

A good deal of attention has been lavished on analysing, for example, narrative tenses and attempting to categorise them in terms of their structures and grammatical characteristics.  This guide takes a rather different view: it looks at tense forms in terms of their functions rather than their structures.  If you need to find a guide to analysing the forms of tenses themselves, consult the general index of tenses.
This guide focuses on two general text types in which the use of tense forms plays a crucial communicative role: recounts and narratives and descriptive or explanatory texts.

Before we begin, however, we need to get two concepts clear:

  1. The distinction between finite and non-finite forms
  2. The distinction between relative and absolute tense forms
progressive and continuous

Finite and non-finite forms

Having waited by the harbour for a while,
the men decided to go to the pub.
 

In the sentence above there are two tense forms:

  1. having waited:
    This is a non-finite form because it carries no marker for tense or person.  The reader / hearer needs to infer when and about whom the phrase refers.  In this case, the we can easily infer that the waiting preceded the decision to go to the pub and that both events occurred in the past and we can conclude that it was the men who waited.  We conclude that, however, from the rest of the sentence, not from the verb phrase itself.  We can also have, for example:
        Having waited so long, I'm happy to stay a little longer
    in which we can infer that the waiting is related to something happening now and is still going on in the present.  We can also infer that the speaker / writer has done the waiting.
        Having arrived at the airport, you will see the sign for our offices on the left of the main entrance
    in which the events are set in order, in the future and refer to the reader / hearer.
        Having seen the film, he had already decided not to go with his friends so he stayed at home
    in which the seeing of the film precedes an event in the past and that event precedes the decision and that in turn precedes the staying at home.
    Other non-finite forms include:
    The bare infinitive in, e.g.:
        They should see the film
    The to-infinitive in, e.g.:
        I want to see the film
  2. the men decided:
    This is a finite tense form because it is marked for time with the -ed suffix telling us that it is in the past.  In English, past tenses are not marked for person in most verbs but they are in many languages which inflect to show both person and tense.  In German, for example:
        I stole = ich stahl
        you stole = du stahlst
        we stole = wir stahlen

    and these are all examples of a finite verb being marked both for time and for person.
    Other marked finite forms in English are, for example:
        He goes to work by car
    which is marked for tense (present) and person (third-person singular -es ending).
        I had succeeded
    which is marked for time in two ways (the form of have and the -ed ending).
        I'm going tomorrow
    which is marked as a future form and in the first person because of the -ing ending and the form of be.

For more on the distinction between finite and non-finite forms, see the guide linked in the list of related guides at the end.

progressive and continuous

Absolute and relative tenses

They had waited by the harbour for a while,
and decided to go to the pub.
 

In the example above, there are two distinct types of tense forms, both finite:

  1. they had waited
    This is a relative tense form because we can only understand the time at which this event takes place by reference to the co-text.  From that we can infer that the waiting preceded the decision to go to the pub.  It is the past before the past.
    Other relative tense forms include:
        She has arrived and is apologising for her lateness
    in which we can infer that the arrival preceded the apology.
        I was walking to the pub when I met John
    in which we can infer that the walking preceded the meeting (and, quite possibly continued after it).
        I was going to go to the pub when the telephone rang
    in which we can infer that the future intention was thwarted in some way and was not fulfilled.  It is the future in the past.
  2. decided to go to the pub
    Here we have an absolute tense form and do not need a context to know that the event is set in the past and is previous to the here and now.
    Other absolute tense forms include:
        She is waiting in her office
    in which we know that the action is set in the present.
        I will speak to her tomorrow
    in which we know that the action is set in the future.

For more on the distinctions between and forms of absolute and relative tenses, see the guide to tense forms linked in the list of related guides at the end.

Now we have these two fundamental concepts clear, we can get on to looking at what tense forms are likely to occur in a range of genres.
Texts, whether written or spoken, belong to the same genre when they share a common social purpose.  Different social purposes will lead to the construction of texts with a range of identifying features.  Here we are only concerned with tense forms but the types of verb (i.e., what they do), the kinds of circumstances (i.e., how they are modified) and so on will all be affected by the social purpose the text is designed to fulfil.
For more, see the guide to verbal processes and the guide to circumstances, both linked in the list of related guides at the end.


story

Narratives and recounts

A narrative is distinguished from a simple recount because it is structured to be entertaining and/or instructive whereas a recount simply sets out a series of events.  The distinction between the two text types can be set out like this:

Recount   Narrative
Orientation who, where when etc. Orientation who, where, when etc.
Chronological statement of events  what happened Complication events that produce a crisis or problem 
Summary what the outcome was Resolution how the problem was resolved
Coda  personal reaction Coda personal evaluation

Although the overall structures and the ways in which the information is delivered (i.e., staged) differ, the tense forms that we use in both text types are reasonably similar so, while we still need to bear the differences firmly in mind, we can make some generalisations which apply to both genres.  Here's how:

The absolute past: nailing things down
nailed

Almost by definition, recounts and narratives are set in the past and usually the speaker / writer will take pains to orientate the reader quite precisely to the time(s) of the event and its location(s) with something like:

This happened to me last year when I was on holiday in Japan.  It was June and the weather was really fine.

or

In 1815, Napoleon escaped from imprisonment on the island of Elba and returned to the French mainland.

The text may go on in this vein using solely simple past, absolute tense forms but that leads to a rather unsophisticated, not to say dull, text such as:

This happened to me last year when I was on holiday in Japan.  It was June and the weather was really fine.  I was in a hotel in Tokyo and went on an excursion to the countryside.  I took a train to Kyoto and stayed in a traditional hotel in that city.

or

In 1815, Napoleon escaped from imprisonment on the island of Elba and returned to the French mainland.  He met the Fifth Regiment near Grenoble and they joined him on a march to Paris.  He arrived in Paris in March and took over power from the king.

So, the central characteristic of both recounts and narratives is that the main structural events of the story which lend it its coherence are realised through a series of simple, absolute past tense forms.  However, to make texts more interesting, we need a number of other structures.

Relative tense forms: linking ideas
relative

Relative tense forms are generally tangential to the main events of the story and are used in three main ways:

  1. To introduce some perspective in terms of the events preceding the main story without which the reader / hearer cannot set it in context.  Past perfect tense forms perform this function most commonly.  For example:

I had been staying at a hotel in Tokyo when I decided to take an excursion to Kyoto, a city I had always wanted to visit.

or

Napoleon had abdicated the throne on 4th April 1814 and had been imprisoned by the British on the island of Elba.  There, he plotted his escape.

  1. To provide descriptive background, again tangential to the main events, but in order to give some colour and context.  Continuous or progressive tense forms commonly perform this function.  For example:

Tokyo was beginning to get warm and humid and I was getting tired of the busy, modern city so I went on an excursion to Kyoto.

or

Napoleon was ruling the island of Elba and was instituting a new legal code as well as developing the island's industry when he escaped to the mainland of Europe.

  1. To anticipate later events in the story which bear upon the events being written of / spoken about.  Future in the past forms are commonly used to realise this function.  Additionally, forms with the modal auxiliary verb would are frequently deployed for the same effect.  For example:

I was going to leave Japan in three weeks and would not have a chance to travel here again so I wanted to see more of the country before I left

or

Napoleon was never going to be satisfied with a life of obscurity on the island of Elba and would always represent a threat to the monarchy in France.

Present (non-past) tense forms
now

Present tenses (especially simple, absolute ones) are often used instead of past tenses either to set the scene or to make the events more vivid and exciting.  For example:

This story of mine takes place in Japan, where I am staying at a hotel in Tokyo.

or

Europe in 1815 is exhausted by 23 years of almost unbroken warfare and Napoleon is finally in exile on the island of Elba.

Present tenses can also be used to make even the events of a narrative (especially) or a recount more gripping and exciting.  For example:

So, I arrive in the rain in Kyoto and it's very late, of course.  It's difficult to find my hotel in the middle of the night.  Suddenly a taxi appears and I flag it down.  What a relief!

or

Napoleon sees his chance and daringly escapes to Europe.  Ney rushes to meet him and they embrace when they meet outside Grenoble.

Non-finite forms
infinite

Non-finite verb forms perform similar functions:

  1. To set the events in terms of the recent past, -ing forms, both present and perfect are often deployed.  For example:

Having become a little bored with the congestion and modernity of Tokyo, I took and excursion to Kyoto.  Arriving there, I was delighted by the peaceful atmosphere.

or

Despairing of his life on Elba, Napoleon escaped to the mainland.  Having done so, he immediately marched north.

  1. To express consequences and reasons as well as to catenate verbs linking actions and events in a series, to-infinitives and gerunds are often deployed.  For example:

I became bored waiting around in Tokyo so I decided to get out of the city to see something of the rest of Japan.  Hoping to get a taste of traditional Japan I settled on going to Kyoto first.

or

Napoleon became dissatisfied with ruling a small island in the Mediterranean Sea and resolved on escaping to mainland France to recover his empire.  Meeting up there with his old comrade Ney, he marched on Paris, gathering support as he went.


questions

Descriptions

Two forms of descriptive texts concern us here: Reports and Explanations.  They are similar in terms of tense use so we can treat them together but, for the record they can be distinguished like this:

Reports Explanations
General statement and categorisation what this is about
what it is
Identifying statement what is being explained
Description in parcels characteristics Chronological description how it happens

Essentially, only two tense forms concern us in this area.

The present for presenting
present

Present simple tenses are most frequently used because both types of descriptive text are generally presented as being constant, i.e., absolute, truth.  Two types of verbs are used in this way.

  1. Relational verbs which relate one thing to another are most commonly found in descriptions rather than explanations.  For example:

An alligator is a crocodilian in the genus Alligator of the family Alligatoridae. The two living species are the American alligator (A. mississippiensis) and the Chinese alligator (A. sinensis). Additionally, several extinct species of alligator are known from fossil remains.
...
Alligators have muscular, flat tails that propel them while swimming.
Wikipedia

In this extract, we are told how one thing is related to another (through the use of the verb be) and the tense is simple present because the facts apply generally, not specifically tied to time.
The second part tells us the relationships between parts of the animals and what constituents they have (through the use of the verb have).

  1. Behavioural process verbs which tell us what things do or what is done are common to both descriptions and explanations.  For example:

[Alligators] may kill larger prey by grabbing it and dragging it into the water to drown. Alligators consume food that cannot be eaten in one bite ... by biting and then spinning or convulsing wildly until bite-sized chunks are torn off.
...
When young, alligators eat fish, insects, snails, crustaceans, and worms. As they mature, progressively larger prey is taken, including larger fish such as gar, turtles, and various mammals, particularly coypu and muskrat, as well as birds, deer, and other reptiles.
...
In summer, the female builds a nest of vegetation where the decomposition of the vegetation provides the heat needed to incubate the eggs.
Ibid

or, using more material rather than behavioural processes because the subjects are generally inanimate so do not 'behave' in any real sense:

There are several steps in the brewing process, which may include malting, mashing, lautering, boiling, fermenting, conditioning, filtering, and packaging.
Malting is the process where barley grain is made ready for brewing. Malting is broken down into three steps in order to help to release the starches in the barley. First, during steeping, the grain is added to a vat with water and allowed to soak for approximately 40 hours. During germination, the grain is spread out on the floor of the germination room for around 5 days. The final part of malting is kilning when the malt goes through a very high temperature drying in a kiln; with gradual temperature increase over several hours.
Ibid

However, the verb forms for explanations usually involve frequent (and sometimes sole) use of passive forms because it is the material process on which the focus is put rather than the activities (i.e., behaviours) which is most central to what is being described.

Relative tenses
emc

Relative tenses, almost invariably present perfect forms are used in two ways:

  1. To set the subject of the description in context and describe peripheral facts (asides, in a sense).  For example:

Alligators have also been observed to rise up and balance on their hind legs and semi-step forward as part of a forward or upward lunge.
...
Alligators, much like birds, have been shown to exhibit ...
Ibid

or

Beer may have been known in Neolithic Europe as far back as 5,000 years ago, and was mainly brewed on a domestic scale.
...
a few brewers have produced gluten-free beer
Ibid

  1. To show sequences in an explanation.  For example:

When a beer has been brewed using a cool fermentation of around 10 °C ... then stored for several weeks (or months) at temperatures close to freezing point, it is termed a "lager".
Ibid

Past forms
past

Some descriptions, naturally, are of events, locations, things or people in the past and some processes are explained although they are no longer in use.  In these cases, the verb forms are used in the same way but the past forms are selected for obvious reasons so we may have, for example:

By the 16th century, cannon were made in a great variety of lengths and bore diameters, but the general rule was that the longer the barrel, the longer the range.
Ibid

or

While dinosaurs were ancestrally bipedal, many extinct groups included quadrupedal species, and some were able to shift between these stances.
Ibid


Summaries

narrative and recount summary

reports and explanations summary



Related guides
tenses this is the general index with links to analysing the structures of individual tenses in English
verbal processes a guide to what verbs do
circumstances a related guide explaining how verbs are modified in this kind of analysis
finite and non-finite forms a guide to the difference
catenative verbs for a guide to how verbs are linked in chains of meaning
tense forms for a guide which explains relative and absolute tenses in more detail
genre for an overview of the most frequently encountered text types and a link to some teaching ideas


References:
Butt, D et al, 2001, Using Functional Grammar: an explorer's guide, Sydney NSW: NCELTR
Lock, G, 1996, Functional English Grammar, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press