Tense situation

24 Nov

Uh-oh. This correspondent will today choose to write his article in the future tense:*

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No, wait, the present (“describes”):

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No, wait, the past (“came”):

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No, wait, the future (“will try”):

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No, wait, the pres … ah. Now the reason for the strange mix of tenses is becoming apparent: this appears to be a news story (or “write-off”) based on a column by the shadow chancellor elsewhere in the same paper:

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And the full complexity of the situation becomes clear in the next paragraph. This isn’t just an article about a contemporaneous article, but also about a relevant speech due to be given later in the week …

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… which comes (will come?) after the most significant event of the party’s year – the general election defeat in April:

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So there are three distinct events – six months ago, today, this coming Friday – but, whichever way you slice it, the timeline is blurred: the tenses have bled into each other and the reader is not being accurately located in the sequence of events. Intervention is required.

It had previously been this blog’s position that there is never any need to write a print news story in the simple present tense. If you assume that the point in time from which a newspaper is written is early in the morning of the date on the masthead, then the future tense will do for any events happening later that day (which is to say, almost all of them). Anything that started the previous night should be written about in the past tense, or the present continuous if it is still going on.

But that overlooks the special case of a newsworthy statement being made by a public figure elsewhere in the same issue of that day’s paper. In this case, the news event is exactly contemporaneous with the publication of the paper – indeed, it is the publication of the paper.  That means that, for all its slightly self-conscious, declamatory tone, the simple present tense is the only one that really fits the situation.

And if you allow yourself to use it, the past-present-future of the story becomes easier to separate. Matters relating to McDonnell’s column: present tense throughout (“John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, today promises…”). Matters relating to his speech on Friday: future tense throughout (“the McDonnell speech will come as …”). Matters relating to the general election, of course, remain in the past tense; the imperfect “his promise came” in the third par, because it relates to the column, moves to the present.

News reports about your own newspaper’s content are curious items. They’re hardly unknown on the front page – if, say, you’ve got a political heavyweight declaring his defection to another party in print – but the less significant ones further back in the run are sometimes only a few pages away from the comment section in which their source material appears. But if you’re going to run them, they need to be in a present-tense time bubble of their own: so today Ten Minutes Past Deadline decides that it is changing its mind.


*Further discussions on whether “future tense” is even a meaningful term in English are welcome, although this blog remains of the opinion that “will” offers more than mere modality, and marks a kind of non-continuous, non-habitual future state that approximates very closely to a separate tense.

2 Responses to “Tense situation”

  1. Picky November 28, 2015 at 1:54 pm #

    As to future tense, my little ignorant hypothesis is this:

    We have become much less keen on assigning discrete modal meanings to auxiliaries. We have seen the convergence of “may” and “can”, and of “may” and “might”, and of “shall” and “will”. Now that “shall” has almost disappeared from use except in the interrogative, we must infer the modality of prediction v. volition through emphasis or context or paralinguistic features. That has given “will” a lot more work to do, but it has also freed it to become a more general marker of futurity. Indeed, unless the sentence has an time adverbial, “will” is frequently essential as a tense marker.

    In the sentences (1) “I am asleep”, (2) “I will be asleep” and (3) “I shall be asleep” the difference between (2) and (3) is clearly modal. But now that (3) has become for many speakers impossible, the difference between (1) and (2) is just a matter of tense, and “will” acts simply as a tense marker, with no modal impact.

    I think we are reaching the stage where the sentence “there is no future tense in English” is as believable as Fowler’s “the mere Englishman [. . .] is convinced that his shall and will endows his speech with a delicate precision that could not be attained without it”.

    • edlatham November 28, 2015 at 6:00 pm #

      Hear hear. It’s undoubtedly clear that the finer shades of modality are blending into each other.

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