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Newsletter August 07 - 2008FREE email English course
Dear Friend,
'Time and tide wait for no man.' Do you know who said this? I didn't until I looked it up on Google. Apparently it was a character by the name of St Marher who flourished in the early part of the 13th century. Well, he didn't actually use those words because if I had used the earlier form of English in which he wrote it, no one would have understood it. The worthy saint certainly knew his stuff — he understood how to express himself. He knows how to tell us about life. Knows?

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Does that mean he's still alive some 800 years later? Well, no but I'll come back to that in a minute. I expect you are getting a little confused but it should become clearer soon. I sometimes get carried away with some of my language descriptions as I'm always trying to explain why we say this or say that. But hang on — always? I thought that was an adverb of frequency and you should use 'try' and not 'trying' in that case. Yes, that's right but there are exceptions but we must learn to walk first before we can run. Let's go back to my friend, the saint. What exactly did he mean? I would say that he was telling us (or tells us) that you can't stop the progress of time any more than you can the movement of the tides of the sea. The implication is that you should therefore get a move on before it's too late. And bearing that in mind that's exactly what I must now do.

In the first paragraph I've referred to my use of 'knew' and 'knows' and I promised an explanation. Both words are in different tenses or times — the first in the past and the second in the present. Now we've established that our saint is no longer with us — at least not on this earth. Common sense tells us that we should use the past when we talk about what he did. Well I did and then I do, if you follow me. In the past tense I simply acknowledge that he wrote in the 13th century but then I also indicate that what he wrote is still with us today. And like wise I say 'I did' because it was in the first paragraph and I also say 'I do' because it is written and you can now read it. Of course the only difference is that what I write in my letter to you won't probably be around in 800 years! This form of present tense is called the historic present. Now as you know all the tenses in English travel around rather like police officers patrolling the streets or pounding the beat as we say, in pairs.

In the case of the tense officers they are simple and continuous. Sometimes.we can use the word 'progressive' in place of 'continuous'. I look upon the word 'continuous' as the general description and 'progressive' as the function but both are commonly used. In most cases the 'simple' present form refers to a repeated action and that's why when I wrote: I'm always trying above, I might have caused a few eyebrows to be raised because there appears to be a clash between a repeated (always) and an actual action. But do not panic. I didn't lose my grammar sense! When we say something like that, we are suggesting that the action is repeated again and again and again. Of course in the normal course of events this progressive/continuous form of the present has a strong sense of the now, of actuality and so I am writing to you and I am looking out of the window at the garden and watching the rain come down and the roses are failing to bloom because their heads are full of water and I am getting annoyed because there is nothing I can do. But enough of my problems and back to the tenses, which are patiently waiting to be explained.

Another troublesome pair are the past simple and the present perfect simple. The former is the all time favourite for use in narrative and the latter has a slightly confused personality — a bit schizoid you might say because it can't really make up its mind what it's talking about. Let me elucidate. Imagine you are sitting at your desk and you are writing a letter to someone. As you come to the end of the letter (I hope all sharp eyed readers have spotted an example of the historic present that I've sneaked in here), you start (and another!) to look for the photograph that you said in your letter you would include. Oh dear? Where is it?

Now if you talk to yourself (I do all the time), you could ask yourself: Where did it go? Or: Where has it gone? Both perfectly reasonable questions to pose because the photograph isn't there. Which one will you choose? The first one suggests it went missing some time ago — I just can't remember when and the second that it has just happened and is in a way more annoying because you just can't find it and it should be right there to hand on your desk. The past in its progressive state of mind is of course like the present going on only this time it's in the past. I like to think of it as the interrupted tense — I was just on the point of ringing you when the cat was sick all over the carpet. Don't like cats at the best of times and I must apologise for the image of the vomiting cat but I hope you get my point about the interruption. I mean you couldn't calmly pick up the phone after that, now could you? It is natural to assume that the present perfect has its continuous partner too. And that is a specimen to behold. I admire this tense so much! Of all the tenses it is my favourite.

It is so versatile, all embracing and intelligent. It looks in three directions at the same time. It is a real thoroughbred. If it were (that's subjunctive by the way but I'll have to save that for another day, a rainy day perhaps) a hotel, it would be awarded 5 stars, if it were a car, it would be considered very green because it travels all over the place using so little fuel and if it were human, it would be short listed for a Nobel prize. I have given it a special name, not a particularly impressive name but a name that describes it well. I call it the 'umbrella' tense. I've chosen the name of 'umbrella'. Why? Because it starts in the past, talks about the present and then points a finger to the future. What more could you ask for? You know it well, I am sure. When you start to speak English, no doubt someone will ask you this question: How long have you been learning English? The information you provide in your answer will say when you started, indicate that you are learning it now and assume that you will continue learning it.

One step further backwards in time brings us to the past perfect. This is traditionally used when we have at least two times in the past and it is the earlier of the two that acquires the 'had' in contrast to the 'has/have' of the present perfect. There now, that's an advantage of the past perfect — you only have one auxiliary, 'had'... But here I must issue a health warning. You don't really want to get too involved with this tense, especially when you're doing narrative. Unless you're using conjunctions like 'before' and 'after' when you have to show the different times in the past, it's much better to stick to old reliable past simple... There are other tenses that I could talk about but mindful of the distinguished saint I mentioned at the beginning, time is pressing. I suppose really I should have talked about the future formations in English (there isn't really a kosher tense as such) but then the future is after all big enough to look after itself. I'll have to talk about that another time — appropriately in the future perhaps? Friend, if you want to share your thoughts on this newsletter, please post them here.

Best regards,
Alan Townend

Hush hushEnglish goes to America
How good are you at managing your time?All about poets
Figuratively speakingTake your time
Looking aheadMore haste, less speed
I didn't mean to do that, honestlyA bit of a laugh
Come fly with me 
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