There is nothing you can do about it

essay
alan-townend
language-in-use

#1

We can’t get away from it, we can’t avoid it and we encounter it the moment we’re born. It just goes on and on and on. It’s relentless and unstoppable. What is it? Why, it’s time of course. Even if you go on holiday, it still dogs (follows close behind) you. Remember that the plane, the ferry, the boat, the coach all have to be caught at a certain time and you obviously don’t want to miss them. And when you’re staying at your hotel, don’t forget the meal times. The kitchen staff aren’t going to sit around all day waiting for you to decide when you want to eat. At work it’s the same. You have to get up in the morning early enough for work at the right time.

Of course the word leads a busy life in idiom too in different expressions. We talk about having free time when we can do what we like and if you see you have at least two hours before your train leaves, we say we’ve got bags of time and you’ll be in time to catch it even if it arrives on time (punctually). If you think that something should be done immediately, you say that it’s high time that the government stopped increasing taxes. If you want to tell someone to do more work, you tell them it’s about time they stopped sleeping and got on with their job.

Mind you, if you’re not feeling very well, you could always take time off (stop working) for a few days. Sayings also exist. Take this: Time and tide wait for no one. That means time doesn’t wait for anyone and nor do the waves of the sea. Perhaps it’s time to get literary and find something from Shakespeare, Here’s what he says in one of his poems:

Time’s glory is to calm contending kings,
To unmask falsehood and bring truth to light.

This means that one of the best things about time is that it gives kings (rulers) the chance to settle arguments, it exposes something that’s untrue and also reveals the truth.

I know what you’re going to say – I didn’t think Shakespeare was still alive. Well, of course he’s not. He died in 1616. So why did I say (past simple), what he says (present simple)?

That brings us into another aspect of time, which we call ‘tense’. The present simple pops up all over the place and we can use it when we’re talking about something that may well have been written a long time ago because you can still read it today. One of the favourite functions you find in all good grammar books is its use for something you do again and again. You get up, you eat breakfast, you go to work, you play tennis, you take the dog for a walk and so it goes (present simple) on and on just like a habit.

The use that foxes (confuses) everyone is when you’re talking about the future and you still use this tense. But beware! Be careful! This is only when something has been arranged for a future event or happening as in: The president arrives at 10. am tomorrow morning or even less grand: The train arrives at 10.am tomorrow morning. Some people get worried when the present simple makes an appearance unexpectedly in a story and is called the ‘narrative’ present as in: We went to the restaurant last night and this strange man comes (present simple) up to me and asks me if he can borrow some money. ‘Comes up to me’ suggests this is something you can immediately see before you.

And the sharp eyed will have noticed (that’s future perfect by the way and we’ll leave that for another day) that I slipped in (inserted) the past simple (went). Now the past simple is nowhere near as colourful. It just says when something took place and that’s it. You know exactly where you are with the past simple. You know that the moment someone opens their mouth and starts a sentence like: I saw, I knew, I understood, I heard, that there’s going to be either an indication of a past time or an adverb indicating this time in the past.

No worries there then. So that’s the two main’simples’ dealt with and packed up. But of course English likes to be different and any self respecting simple tense has to have a partner that goes under the name of ‘continuous’ or ‘progressive.’ Personally I prefer the former because ‘progressive’ sounds a bit political to me. You know sometimes when you’re watching (see I am using it already – I can’t stop) television and you have to leave the room, you can always ‘pause’ the picture so that it sits there on the screen and doesn’t move an inch.

This non-moving picture is a bit like the simple tenses I described above. Well, then you come back, press a button again and everything starts moving. The continuous form is a bit like that. I am talking (present continuous) to you is something I am doing (present continuous) now. It also has another life that suggests the future as in: I am working late tomorrow. You can say that as long as you include an adverb of time that tells you that it’s future. So we are now left with the past continuous. This is the background or interrupted tense.

It leads a disturbed life. Again when you hear someone starting to say: ‘When I was walking home last night’, you can be pretty sure that the speaker is just about to say what happened next. Forget ‘I was walking’, that’s just the background and it’s going to get interrupted with – ‘I saw three elephants strolling down the road’. You see, the past continuous was just there to set the scene and all you’re really interested in is these three elephants.

I’ll grab (get hold of) an expression I mentioned both in the title and in the text and conclude with: It’s about time I stopped.

Alan Townend


#2

Dear Alan

What an enlightening, philosophical and though-provoking piece on Time and Tense! Your treatment of these grammatical aspects can never ever be as interesting!

For the time being, like most others, I’m not inclined to take your concluding sentence literally; no compromise, Alan. It’s time you made time with similar articles from time to time in your own time lest it should indeed be a difficult time for members including me who spend substantial time on this site!

Lawrence


#3

Dear Alan Sir, Good Morning Sir, Where have you been so far? Happy to read your Essay “There is nothing you can do about it”. How nicely you are teaching Grammar, (Present, Past, Future Tenses, continuous and adverb)
Comes up to me’ suggests this is something you can immediately see before you. (In Restaurant dialogue) inspired me Sir, Alan. When I read the essay, I could not believe myself that Sir Shakesphere has come back from heaven to teach us. Very nice Essay.

Thank you

S.Shanthi