A tense story
Bear with me for a moment. I’m going to tell you a short story once I get the grammar out of the way, I promise.
Did you know there are twelve verb tenses in English?
I didn’t. Not until I started Teaching English as a Foreign Language.
If you’d asked me before that how many tenses there are, I would have said three — Past, Present and Future.
But I’ve discovered that we subdivide each of these three categories into four aspects; Simple, Continuous, Perfect and Perfect Continuous. (Continuous can also be called Progressive but I’ll stick with Continuous here.)
I know, that’s a lot of tenses! Just stay with me for a minute more.
They’re best explained by example. I’ll use cake because…well, why not?
I ate cake yesterday. (Simple)
I was eating cake when you arrived. (Continuous)
I had eaten all the cake when you arrived. (Perfect)
I had been eating cake for an hour when you arrived. (Perfect Continuous)
I eat cake every day. (Simple)
I am eating cake right now. (Continuous)
I have eaten all the cake. (Perfect)
I have been eating cake for an hour. (Perfect Continuous)
I will eat cake tomorrow. (Simple)
I will be eating cake when you arrive. (Continuous)
I will have eaten all the cake by the time you arrive. (Perfect)
I will have been eating cake for an hour when you arrive. (Perfect Continuous)
So, I hope that’s cleared that up? I could go into explanations of what each one indicates and when we use it, but I’d lose the handful of you that are left. You’ll have to buy an hour’s tuition from me to get the juicy details.
I share this nerdily fascinating information with you for one main reason:
I adore this remorseless guzzling of cake.
It starts out innocently enough. Okay, mentioning that I’d eaten all the cake by the time you arrived and that I’d been intent on it for an hour (just to be safe?) is a little mean. But the past is the past, and maybe I didn’t know you were coming for tea?
I grow a little more defensive when we move to the present. ‘I eat cake every day — get over yourself. I wasn’t stuffing my face to spite you, it’s just how I roll, okay?’
Then, emboldened, I grow gleeful. ‘I’m eating cake right now,’ I say, stuffing it into my cheeks like a hamster. All pretence is gone. You watch, incredulous. I’m increasingly manic.
As I wipe away the last crumb from my lips, I twist the knife — ‘I have eaten all the cake, yah boo sucks!…AND…I’m such a hog, I’ve been doing it for an hour!’
Where I get downright evil is in the Future. ‘I will eat it tomorrow, and I will be eating it even as you ring my doorbell,’ I tell you. I will greet you, groaning and holding my stomach, but smirking. ‘All gone!’ And there’s no doubt this is premeditated; I know you’re coming for tea at 4pm but I’ll start troughing at 3pm just to spite you.
Cakegate reminds me of the Three Little Pigs, when the third little pig outsmarted the wolf by getting up to pick apples an hour before him. Or when he set off and had a wonderful time at the fair long before the wolf knocked for him.
Did you know there were so many times to eat cake? And had you ever imagined that our very grammar is rigged to make us greedy and manipulative? I had no idea.
But I do love it when my students ask me to explain tenses to them.