Saturday, November 5, 2011

Don’t tense up on tenses

Foreign students of English often feel that that the most frightening aspect of it is the sheer number of tenses.  Especially for people whose native language is structurally simple, i.e. three forms – past, present, future,  dealing with such a complex grammar structure is rather daunting.  In fact, despite English’s basic structure of 9 tenses (+ a few odds and ends), the construction of tenses tends to be rather simple and straightforward.
First, the raison d’etre of having many tenses is that writers and speakers can say exactly what they mean without adding words to clarify.  For example, I was winning the game does not mean the same as I won the game or I have won the game. So, while adding formal complexity, the learning process enriches the language and is a finite process. Compare that with Russian whose formal structure is simple, but the process of understanding the difference between perfective and imperfect active in any given situation never ends for a foreign learner.
As for building the verb, it is vital to remember that all languages add markers to the verb, generally the root, to signal its time and, often, person.  For example, the present tense is parle, parles, parle, parlons, parlez, parlent; говорю, говоришь, говорит, говорим, говорите, говорят; and אומר, אורמת, אומרים, אומרות in French, Russian, and Hebrew respectively.
English works in a similarly manner, using helping verbs instead of endings for the most part.  The progressive tenses mark time and person using the verb to be and the ing form of the word.  Therefore, present progressive uses am, are, and is; past progressive uses was or were; and future progressive uses will be.  Similarly, the perfect tenses uses the verb to have with the past participle, ie. have and has in the present, had in the past, and will have in the future.  As they say in Hebrew, dafka [dafka]or to be contrary, the simple is the least simple: in the negative and interrogative forms of the present and past, the helping verb is do, i.e. do and does in the present and did in the past, before the root.  The future marker is will.  In the positive form in the present tense, there are neither helping verbs or endings except for after s/he it, in which case an s is added while in the past, aside from the many and common exceptions, an ed added to the work marks the past.
The point is that students can concentrate on the actual meaning of the verb if they relax and learn how to recognize the form, which is not a stressful activity.

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