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In Practical English Usage, the author Michael Swan says:

There is not a direct relationship between verb forms and time. For example, a past verb like went is not only used to talk about past events (e.g. We went to Morocco last January), but also about unreal or uncertain present or future events (e.g. It would be better if we went home now). And present verbs can be used to talk about the future (e.g. I’m seeing Daniel tomorrow). Also, progressive and perfect forms express ideas that are not simply concerned with time – for example continuation, completion, present importance.

What does he actually mean by "There is not a direct relationship between verb forms and time."?

We use verb forms to talk about time (e.g. We went to Morocco last January) and one and the same verb form can be used to talk about different times (e.g. past time "We went to Morocco last January" vs. present or future time "It would be better if we went home now").

So does he mean by "There is not a direct relationship between verb forms and time.":

1.) that verb forms have nothing to do with time, or in other words, there is not a connection/correlation between verb forms and time?

2.) one and the same verb form can be used to refer to different times?

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    One situation where this occurs is when the meaning of a verb has to do with modality rather than past time, as in "Ed would be upset if you knew". Here, the preterite "knew" suggests that you may not know (not that you knew). In such constructions, "knew" is called a 'modal preterite. – BillJ Jan 5 '18 at 18:42
  • Isn't the rest of that paragraph an explanation of what he means? – Barmar Jan 5 '18 at 22:44
  • @BillJ Yes, that's an implication of the use of the preterite there, but it's not part of its meaning. H&P's construal of 'modal remoteness' is very wonky. – Araucaria Jan 23 '18 at 0:18
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The situation is exactly as Swann says. If one knows the verb form in an utterance, one cannot reliably predict the time the utterance refers to; and, contrariwise, if one knows the time referred to, one cannot reliably predict the verb form that will be used.

English does have two tenses, but past and present hardly comprise the whole of time reference, though they do constitute all that English tense has to say about it. In other words, tense doesn't always mean time; quite often it's part of a construction and doesn't have any meaning. And there are many more, and more effective, ways than tense to refer to time.

This doesn't mean there's no relation, just that the relation is not direct and not simple, and both tense and time must be considered separately.

  • Could you please further explain "but past and present hardly comprise the whole of time reference, though they do constitute all that English tense has to say about it.". I don't understand this part. Moreover, could you provide an example for "quite often it's part of a construction and doesn't have any meaning. And there are many more, and more effective, ways than tense to refer to time." – user217372 Jan 5 '18 at 18:24
  • One example for "quite often it's part of a construction and doesn't have any meaning" and another example for "And there are many more, and more effective, ways than tense to refer to time" would be very kind of you. – user217372 Jan 5 '18 at 18:44
  • There is more to time than past or present. There is the future, for instance. And we can refer to time easily simply by mentioning it: Tomorrow we leave, even though it's present tense, not future. As for constructions, consider the generic use of present tense: Bill walks to work is present tense, but does not mean present time. Instead, it refers to a proposition that is generally true, though not necessarily at the present time. The tense is irrelevant, and does nothing more than signal the construction. – John Lawler Jan 5 '18 at 21:13
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Exactly what you say in your last sentence: despite the fact that we name our verb forms with prhases that represent time (such as present and past) their use doesn't necessarily indicate the corresponding time.

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English is very flexible. Your choice of verb form can be used to convey the tone of an exchange.

For example, you can repeat the same verb form in multiple time senses to emphasize the idea of doing the same thing at different times, here with a sense of urgency:

  • Joe: "So you go there a lot?"

  • Moe: "Listen, my friend. I go yesterday. I go today. I go tomorrow. It's all the same to me, okay? We'll go right now if you've got the money."

However, you can also use distinct verb forms to emphasize the same idea, but with a sense of awareness and conscious deliberation:

  • Joe: "It's a matter of principle for you, then?"

  • Moe: "I have gone there every day for the past five years. I went yesterday. I am going this afternoon. I shall go tomorrow and every day thereafter. It's sacred to her memory. Principle doesn't even begin to describe it."

Swan is correct in saying that "There is not a direct relationship between verb forms and time." However, lack of a direct relationship does not imply that there is no relationship. The relationship exists, and you can use it to your advantage.

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