Saturday, August 28, 2010

How English makes do to evoke the sense of the past imperfect

Unlike the so-called Romance languages, the English language doesn’t have a well-developed past imperfect tense. In fact, English doesn’t inflect its verbs at all for the imperfect tense in much the same way that it doesn’t for its future tense. All it has done to denote the imperfect—meaning the sense of continuous, incomplete, or coincident past actions—is to combine the past progressive form of its verbs with the past tense forms of the verb “be.” And to compensate for its inability to inflect verbs for the past imperfect, English also came up with three special ways of evoking it.

I discussed the mechanisms of the English past imperfect in an essay that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in 2004, “Dealing better with the past imperfect.” I have posted that essay in this week’s edition of the Forum to help members and guests become more conversant with the of use this less-familiar tense form of English. If you aren’t confident now in using the past imperfect, you will surely be after studying the grammar prescriptions offered in this essay.

Dealing better with the past imperfect

Many of the languages closely related to English have a well-developed imperfect tense, that tense which shows a past action or condition as incomplete, continuous, or coincident with another action. This is true with Spanish, Italian, and French; they all elaborately inflect or morph their verbs for the imperfect. Those who have tried memorizing the many Spanish inflections for its preterito imperfectos, for instance, know how complicated this could get.

In contrast, English does not inflect its verbs for the imperfect, in much the same way that it doesn’t for its future tense. The farthest English has gone to formally capture the essence of the imperfect—the past imperfect in particular—is the past progressive. The English past progressive, of course, either shows an action in progress at a specific time in the past, or one in progress in the past when another action happened or interrupted it.

To better understand how English evokes the imperfect tense, it will be instructive for us to formally distinguish first between the “imperfect” and “perfect” in traditional grammar. Recall that verbs, apart from indicating the time element, also conveys other information about the verb’s action. This information, which is called aspect, shows whether the action is continuous, complete or incomplete, in progress, or habitual. Some languages, like those mentioned earlier, have several of these aspects and reflect them through the inflections of their verbs. In contrast, English has only two aspects: the perfect, which refers to a past action that was completed or “perfected,” as in “She danced with me,” and the imperfect, which refers to a past action that was still in progress or was incomplete, as in “She was dancing with me.”

We can see that the imperfect aspect of English verbs is grammatically formed in the same as their past progressive, which as we know simply combines the past tense of the verb “be” with the main verb’s—
ing or present participle form. For the verb “dance,” for instance, the imperfect singular aspect is “was dancing” and the imperfect plural aspect is “were dancing.” Also called the continuous participle, this basic form of the English imperfect is meant to describe an action or event that was in progress in the past. To form the past imperfect, however, we must make it clear that the unfolding action or event was unfinished or interrupted, not “perfected,” as in these sentences: “We were touring Paris when the recall order came.” “She ran the business while her husband was gallivanting in Europe.”

Another way of saying this is that in English, a simple past progressive statement like, say, “We were touring
Paris” is not enough to establish the past imperfect aspect. It always needs a time frame established by another past action or condition. Thus, the statement “We were touring Paris” is meaningful only in the context of being an answer to a previously asked question like, say, “What were you doing when the recall order came?” That question, in tandem with the past progressive “We were touring Paris,” establishes the statement’s imperfect aspect.

The past progressive is, thankfully for users of English, not the only way English can evoke the past imperfect. To compensate for its inability to inflect verbs for the various shades of this aspect, the language came up with three other ways of capturing the sense of continuous, incomplete, or coincident past actions. They are as follows:

Used” + the verb’s infinitive form. This form elegantly expresses repeated, regular, or habitual actions or situations in the past: “We used to dance all night every summer.” “Dreams of Vermont winters used to obsess me in my youth.” “The couple used to host lavish parties until the Asian economic crisis crippled their export business.”

Would” + the verb’s basic form (the verb stem). “We would dance all night every summer.” “Every night the astronomer would wait for the stars to manifest themselves in the sky.” One caveat here: the past imperfect usage of “would” is not the same as its conditional usage, as in “If the weather were clear, we would dance all night at the terrace.”
The verb’s simple past tense + an adverb of frequency. We were always dancing partners in our younger days.” “She often sang each time I played the piano.” “We rarely complained whenever she made impossible demands.”

To sum up, the English past imperfect always conveys the idea of someone doing something or something happening when something else happened. Its job is always to emphasize the continuation or interruption of a past action, in contrast to the past perfect, which always makes sure of putting a finis to that past action.

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, March 5, 2004, © 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved. This essay later appeared as Chapter 53 of the author’s book Give Your English the Winning Edge, © 2009 by Jose A. Carillo. All rights reserved.

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