logo ELT Concourse teacher training
Concourse 2

Talking about always

Water boils at 100°C

The title of this guide is slightly misleading.  In fact, the tense forms analysed below do not refer to time at all.  They refer to events which speakers sees as timeless insofar as they are not concerned to communicate anything to do with time at all.  A better title might have been Talking about whenever but even that misleadingly suggests some link to a time.  Consider, for example:

  1. I like Handel's music
  2. Water boils at 100 degrees Celsius
  3. John lives in Paris
  4. I see what you mean

In none of these cases is the verb marked for time in the same way that, for example, we add -ed or make other changes to denote a past tense.  In the past simple, in English, the verb is not marked for person (as they all take the same form) but it is marked for time.
The present simple is different: it is marked for person (only the third person singular, in fact) but, crucially, it is not marked for time.
Even when a time marker is used with present simple forms, there is still fundamentally no time marking because the speaker is concerned with the state or event, not when it happens.  So for example, we could also have:

  1. I usually like Handel's music
  2. Water always boils at 100 degrees Celsius at a pressure of 1 bar
  3. John currently lives in Paris
  4. I see, now, what you mean

Again, in all these examples, the speaker is viewing the event or state as a fact regardless of when it occurs.  There is no sense of relating the event or state to any other time or event.  It is simply a statement of a timeless fact.  That is why the simple present in English is called an absolute tense.

A clear example of the timeless nature of the simple present tense in English is seen when we consider abilities which people possess.  For example:
    Joshua plays the accordion
in which there is no sense of time at all.  The speaker is merely stating a fact about Joshua.

Semantics also plays a role in this issue.  Compare. for example:
    I tell you that is the wrong part
in which the speaker is declaring a timeless fact.  However, tell is polysemous, having two closely connected meanings so:
    She is telling us what happened this morning
in which the verb means recount or relate and is used in a different sense.
Other verbs show their polysemous nature, too:
    A: Is that her brother?
    B: I think so

where the verb means believe and cannot be limited by time so we do not hear:
    *I am thinking so
    *I think so this week
but we do hear:
    I'm thinking about it
where the verb means contemplate or ponder not believe.
Other mental and verbal process verbs operate similarly and include believe, suggest, say, propose, aver, opine, avow, state, claim, declare, swear, profess and so on.  They are used timelessly in statements of fact and have no reference to a time frame or duration.

The forms of choice are quite straightforward and parallelled in many languages.  Some, such as the use of will and if are not parallelled, however.


The teaching issue


There is an obvious teaching issue here because, if it is true that the forms above are unmarked for time, telling learners that the name of the tense is the simple present will lead them to believe that it is a tense used to talk about the present.  That is, unfortunately, not true and the misunderstanding leads to a good deal of error.
Lewis (1968:68) goes so far as to suggest that terms such as the simple present need to be replaced by the basic form but, while the suggestion is well founded and logical, it seems doomed not to be implemented because many teachers, course books and grammars for students are wedded to the use of the term and unlikely to change any time soon.

The misnaming of the form does, however, lead to a good deal of poor teaching and no little teacher-induced error.  One website, which shall remain nameless to spare the writer's blushes, avers, for example, that:
    The bird flies
is a present reference because "it is happening now".
It is doing no such thing, of course, and, in any case, it is difficult to imagine when anyone would say such a thing.



It rains a lot here
It is always raining here

For example:

The meaning I want to convey Form of choice Aspect
I want to say that an event occurs in past present and future Water boils at 100°C
whenever you heat it
Water will boil at 100°C
always: not referring to the future (the sense is almost that water chooses to boil)
I want to say that an event always continues The sea is getting rough when the gales arrive
The sea gets rough when the gales arrive



Jellyfish have painful stings

States are only expressed in the simple aspect.

The meaning I want to convey Form of choice Aspect
I want to say that a physical state is permanent The Milky Way measures 100,000 light years across
and that is unlikely to change soon
I want to say that a mental state is permanent She appears illiterate
not at any particular time

The verbal processes which occur when describing permanent states are generally relational and are of two sorts:

  1. Attributive
    This function characterises or assigns membership of a class to a thing or person.  For example:
        Elephants are mammals
        Velvet feels soft
        Iron appears in the third row of the periodic table, next to cobalt
        Tigers look dangerous
  2. Relational
    This function describes things in relation to other things.  For example:
        My house stands next to the supermarket.
        The head office remains in London.
        He is the second son.

The sorts of verbs used for attributive purposes are generally known as copular verbs (new tab).



She smokes a lot

Habits are only expressed in the simple aspect.

The meaning I want to convey Form of choice Aspect
I want to say that a state is habitual He lies in bed all day on Sunday
that is a state not an event as such
I want to say that an event is habitual She laughs loudly
not at any particular time
I want to say that a response is habitual When threatened, snakes strike
but only then


The so-called zero conditional

If you mix white and red, you get pink

is not a conditional because the word if can be replaced with something like when or whenever.
In effect, the form is akin to the habitual response described above.
It is not helpful to tell learners that it is a conditional because:

  1. It isn't.
  2. In other languages, special verb forms (often a subjunctive) are used for real conditionals and won't be used for this habitual response idea.
  3. Other languages will reserve the conjunction if for real conditionals only and prefer a conjunction translatable as when for this idea.
  4. It encourages conceptual misunderstanding and the understanding of subordination vs. coordination, in particular.
        If you work hard, you succeed
    is not quite the same as:
        When you work hard you succeed
        Work hard and you succeed.
  5. The form frequently appears in the past and is, similarly, not conditional because the clauses do not have a relationship of contingency but one of time.  For example:
        If my father was a little drunk, his accent got stronger and stronger
        If I offended her, I always apologised
    It is unhelpful to consider this as a form of conditional because learners may confuse it with true conditional sentences such as:
        If I offended her, I would apologise
    (but I don't think I did).

the tenses index

Lewis, M, 1968, The English Verb: An exploration of Structure and Meaning, Hove: Language Teaching Publications