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My daughter, who is in the 4th grade, was asked to answer questions about the following sentence:

What time can you meet us at the school on Tuesday?

She was asked questions about the usage of can and meet in the sentence. Specifically, she was asked whether the words were action, linking or helping verbs, and then she was asked whether those words were past, present or future tense.

Apparently, they are teaching a future “tense”.

My questions:

  1. Are can and meet past, present, or future tense in this sentence?
  2. Should this sentence begin with the preposition at or is it correct as written?
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Of course they're teaching a future tense. They were taught it, and their teachers were taught it. What do you expect? If she's figured out Santa Claus already, just call it "Santa Clause Grammar" and wink. –  John Lawler Dec 17 '12 at 4:14
    
Off-topic remark: SE works best when questions are limited to one question, especially if the several questions are unrelated, as is the case here. (Otherwise you can get a good answer that focuses on question one, an equally good answer that focuses on question two, a spectacular answer that completely ignores one question, and a subpar answer that addresses both — and you have no idea which of the four to mark as accepted. Also, one day the question of "what time" vs. "at what time" will come up again, and it will have to be closed as a duplicate of "Question about the future tense".) –  RegDwigнt Dec 17 '12 at 21:20
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1 Answer

The answer to your second question is that the sentence is just fine as it stands. “When will you be here?” and “What time will you be here?” are perfectly equivalent in all registers. The extra at sounds overly verbose and cumbersome. I would not call it “wrong”, but neither would — well, or should — anyone mark wrong a sentence without it.


The answer to your first question depends on who is doing the questioning and who is doing the answering. I am pretty sure at the fourth-grade level, they are not attempting to teach inflectional morphology. Rather, they just want to know whether the student can tell the difference between a sentence that refers to past events, to present events, or to future events. This is the only distinction that matters for a fourth grader (and arguably, for 99.9998% of the rest of the populace as well). What terminology they use is really not important.

They are asking at what time the parents will be able to meet with them on Tuesday. In that, it is asking about a time in the future, as the use of Tuesday clearly gives away. Therefore, I am sure that is the answer they want to hear. They are not asking about events in the past. They are not asking about events in the present. That leaves only one possibility, and that is in the future.

So that is the answer, and the fourth graders can go home now.


That is because the only super-ultra-fussy-correct answer is one that will do your daughter no good whatsoever, for it will in all likelihood be adjudged the wrong answer by her teacher:

  • The word can is a present tense modal auxiliary (one whose past tense form is could) which is here used to express time in the future, something that has not yet come to pass.

  • The word meet is a bare infinitive, and as such has no tense at all. that’s because only finite verb forms can have tenses, not non-finite ones. Although meet looks just the same as the unmarked present tense, this use of meet should not be thought of as being in the present tense. It is not. It is not in any tense at all. It is a bare infinitive.

Because the modal can is already in use for “to be able to”, we cannot then apply the more typical future-indicating modal of will atop what it is already there, since double modals are forbidden in Standard English (and will can sounds wrong in any version I am familiar with). So it has to stand for the future even though it is a present tense form. This is no longer true with “will be able to”, which is why I rephrased it that way.

Of course, one can also express the future via the present tense alone, as in “When are you able to meet with us on Tuesday?” But if I asked a fourth-grader whether that entire question was asking about the past, about the present time, or about a future time, I would mark it wrong if they gave me any answer other than future. Because in fact, it would be wrong to give any other answer to that question.

These are fourth graders, please remember!

English is perfectly capable of expressing actions in the past, the present, and the future. That is all that is being asked here. For the viewpoint of a professional linguist on this and related matters, please see this answer.

Here is the OED’s definition of the word tense:

Gram. Any one of the different forms or modifications (or word-groups) in the conjugation of a verb which indicate the different times (past, present, or future) at which the action or state denoted by it is viewed as happening or existing, and also (by extension) the different nature of such action or state, as continuing (imperfect) or completed (perfect); also abstr. that quality of a verb which depends on the expression of such differences.

Notice what they say about “or word-groups”. A tense can be expressed by word groups. So when I say I will be able to meet you on Tuesday, I am using the word group “will be” to express time in the future. That therefore is a use of future tense by the “or word-groups” definition given above in the OED.

Now, morphologically speaking, there actually is something else going on here, but that is not going to be the sort of answer to feed a fourth-grader. You will just confuse her and annoy her teacher, and possibly the other way around as well, if you make that attempt.

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+ about 5. My first response on reading this was "Oh, dear". And despite your very reasonable advice, this problem still frightens me. It's not clear whether this child is being taught traditional grammar or something more contemporary; but in either case it is very clear from the way the questions are couched that the teacher doesn't understand it. –  StoneyB Dec 17 '12 at 3:39
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@StoneyB I could probably live with it if the teacher were asking whether can is present or past, since it would be could in the past. But asking for the “tense” of an infinitive bothers me a great deal, since it has none. As always with these things, the student is going to be graded on how close she can come to matching the teacher’s expected answers, not whether she is actually right or wrong or somewhere in between. My main point, though, is that “can you meet Tuesday” is fully equivalent to “will you be able to meet Tuesday”, and both those are clearly asking about a future event. –  tchrist Dec 17 '12 at 3:49
    
Unhappily, this question introduced me to the notion of present and past infintives;it looks wholly spurious to me but is apparently a time-honoured term in the grammar of Latin and the Romance languages. I wholly agree with you about the main point: I don't believe you can restrict tense to verbal inflections, and the answer you link to (which was to my own question on this point) confirmed that belief. But I have no confidence that the teacher in this case would have any understanding of what we're talking about. –  StoneyB Dec 17 '12 at 4:10
    
@StoneyB Well, that particular question (or rather, one particular answer) blows a lot of smoke on things, and I believe you are correct that the notion of tensed infinitives has no place in English. It did have some sense in Latin, but it no longer has any sense in French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Catalan, Asturian, or Galician — just off the top of my head. –  tchrist Dec 17 '12 at 4:16
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