[b-hebrew] tense

Dave Washburn davidlwashburn at gmail.com
Sat Dec 8 22:33:31 EST 2012

On Sat, Dec 8, 2012 at 7:16 PM, Michael Abernathy
<mabernathy at conwaycorp.net> wrote:
> I'm probably getting in on this a bit late but I wanted to check a
> college grammar before commenting.  We generally think of the present
> tense in English as describing things happening in the present time, but
> the Harbrage College Handbook describes several other uses:
> Habitual action: "Maureen uses common sense."
> Universal or timeless truth: "Blind innocence sees no evil."
> Historical present: "In 1939 Hitler attacks Poland."
> Literary present: "Conrad writes about what he sees in the human heart."
> Present form used with an adverb to denote the future: "Winter begins
> next week."
> Progressive form denoting past, present and probably future: "I am
> learning from my mistakes."
> Karl commented on the "normal grammaticalization of tense in English."
> I'm beginning to think it isn't as normal as we have been taught.
> A simple present can be used to denote present action but with many
> verbs that would be the exception.
> For example, "I see what you mean by that remark," denotes present action.
> But I can't imagine anyone thinking, "I shop at Macy's," means the
> speaker is presently shopping.
> In fact, it would be often considered poor grammar to use the simple
> present to refer to present action.
> If I heard someone say, "I eat supper,"  and he wasn't a caveman I would
> understand that he was describing his usual actions.
> The same would be true if he said, "I jog," "I play golf," "I work at
> Berkley," etc.
> I suspect that we are oversimplifying how the ancients use Hebrew when
> we focus on aspect or tense.

I submit that most of the examples above have more to do with the
semantics and pragmatics of the clauses and sentences involved, than
with the syntactic function of the tenses. We know that "I shop at
Macy's" doesn't necessarily mean I am in that store at this moment,
because we know that shopping is a habitual activity and that Macy's
is a place where some people tend to shop habitually, and thus we
understand it as "I often make a practice of shopping at Macy's"
rather than "I am shopping at Macy's at this very moment." In other
words, the context, both textual and cultural, that defines that
particular combination of words, is what determines "meaning" and the
syntax of the English present tense has little or nothing to do with

This is why I try to maintain a strict separation between syntax and semantics.

Dave Washburn

Check out my Internet show: http://www.irvingszoo.com

Now available: a novel about King Josiah!

More information about the b-hebrew mailing list