The grammatical category we call tense derives its name ultimately from the Latin word tempus. Anyone who knows that tempus fugit means “time flies” can guess that tense must be how time is expressed in grammar. Time is indeed a mysterious phenomenon, and how tense expresses time can be rather mysterious in its own right. For example, if I have a question to ask you right now, it seems less polite to say, “I want to ask you a question” than “I wanted to ask you a question.” For politeness, I tend to place my request into the past tense even though, in fact, I am making my request at the present. Looking into this and other tricky issues, the instructor deals with (or will deal with?) the way tense works in the English language.
Douglas Wulf is an associate professor of linguistics in the English Department of George Mason University. In addition to his interest in the history of the English language, he researches the study of meaning (semantics/pragmatics) and applied linguistics as it pertains to preparing individuals to become teachers of English as a second language.
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