Which came first: time or tenses?

In the beginning, there was nothing.

There were no stars, no planets, no humans nor animals, no seas nor birds, no turtles nor grasshoppers.

Nor was there light

nor was there dark

Nor was there a before nor an after.

There was only nothingness.

But in a slice, of a slice of a slice - something we will never understand, all of that nothingness amassed itself and it was so unbearable, for the very nano of a nanosecond, that an inconsequential particle of a particle awoke.  

There was no going back to sleep.   For where there had always been nothing there was now a single something.  A single point of awareness... a single thought created out of a sleep which then swum through the seas of a vast and infinite 


it searched, blindly, through the terror of the nothingness for somethingness,


which would allow it

to know that it actually existed.

But there was only disappointment awaiting it.

It was the single,

it was the only

it could not be.

How could it go

back into the void?

How could it go forwards
into that which was not any longer only void?

Our Something was suddenly


would it always be locked in this

infernal now

there must be something there

it thought

for the very first time

as it stretched its new muscles of intelligence.


must be a way to

validate existence...

But yet, it pondered, if there was no before,

if there was no after

and only this

infinite nowness

it could not


for to exist must

suggest that there was time

a time

She did not exist.

For something, surely can not be created

from nothing...

Oh! To ask someone else

she said glancing at her navel.

Our Something was dismayed

to exist it

is most surely

an undoable curse.

But then, suddenly that nano nano of a

nano particle

turned upon herself

as she had had the very brightest of bright ideas...


understood -

in order to find out, to know if she truly existed

she would need to become more than one. She would need her opposite.  The light to her darkness.

proof [onus probandi]So in that moment, in a flashing, flaming friction
Our Something rubbed against all that she was

and all that she
was not.

And as ... she split, a multiplitude of universes were born... and from then on...  moment upon moment...
millenia upon millenia...

something in her
reflected back
on the nothingness
it conversed with the somethingness

and it was content for... all that struggle was good.  It showed her
what it most surely means
to be.

Okay, so there is a point... sort of...

Why do we teach grammar to adults in sequence, in steps?

I asked this a couple of weeks back in the ELTchat and a recent post on Berni's blog reminded me yet again of this age-old question...

Present Simple


Present continuous


Adverbs of frequency


Past simple regular verbs

and then

well, you know the drill...

Those fond of grammar do (and hey I revel in a little grammar too - just the sequence bugs me)

Why do we impose this bubble of now?

Why do we get a slightly panicky feeling when our adult English beginners try to express, dare to try to say something which might be happening to them, temporarily, at a far point in the future...

Who said the chicken has to come before the egg.  Or was it the egg before the chicken - I forget now.

Why do we think that if we teach grammar in step-by-step stages, they will get it?   If who they are is the sum of their pasts, the blend of all actions and experiences, the good, the bad, the ugly...  and if their opportunities rests upon their futures, how come we don't just teach them the words they need? 

Do we speak more in the present?  I suppose we probably do..or do we?  

Who made this system up?  

Who put this grammatical system we use today in place?  When? Why?  What was his intention, his agenda? Is grammar taught like this in all languages?   What do the linguists say about our brains and how we process time?  

Does this step-by-step structural system consolidate in our brains and has this been measured on those electrical thingiemajiggies.... do we have any empirical evidence that this system is supported by the way our brain processes meaning... and no, by the way I don't know the answers -I'm so really not being socratic this time - I just don't know, 

I simply just can't wrap my head around why we do this...

And then there's the whole imposition of time upon cultures...

Did you know that your perceptions of time are cultural?   As I mentioned in a comment a while back on Vicki's blog, there are those of us for whom 400 years ago was yesterday and there are those who see yesterday stretching back thousands and thousands of years and there are others of us for whom the past is an illusion in front of you and the future is behind you (South Seas or something)... and yet there are plenty of others who can only see tomorrow as being something they have influence over: to know they exist.


Musings, ramblings...

thoughts, y'all?

Potentially interesting
Read a book review of The History of English Language Teaching by Alex Case

15 Responses to “Which came first: time or tenses?”

  • Sue Lyon-Jones says:
    November 17, 2010

    Yep; am with you on this one, Karenne.

    Even beginners need to be able to use past and future forms in simple sentences, and my view is that we ought to be giving learners the language they need to get by in their daily life, ASAP.

  • Greg Q says:
    November 17, 2010

    Yes, it would be great if we could simply use the basic form of verbs (infinitive minus "to") and append time indicators (like yesterday, tomorrow, then, next, before, etc). Life would be simpler, though possibly less elegant. We already modify verbs using adverbs, etc, so why not do the same for time?
    Of course, making such a change might be problematic given my lack of authority on such matters.

  • Mike Harrison says:
    November 17, 2010

    "Who put this grammatical system we use today in place? When? Why? What was his intention, his agenda?"
    So you think it was a man?? Hmmm...

  • Unknown says:
    November 17, 2010

    Great post :-)

    Things are getting even more complicated as soon as there is obvious interference with the learners' tense use in their mother tongue...
    Reading your post, I do appreciate to be able to teach intermediate / advanced learners. It is a blessing to have the chance to teach / revise tenses as a whole - not in a sequence. Not sure though whether kids understand more this way ;-)

  • Adam says:
    November 17, 2010

    Teacher Greg, take a look at Chinese. That language seems to get by with one tense with time adverbials marking when stuff happens.

    November 17, 2010

    Hi ya,

    Thanks so much all for not thinking me nuts :)

    Sue - ditto!

    You caught it, see how I went and made God a girl too... LOL

    Greg & Adam,
    Malay does this too - actually learned basic and very survival level while backpacking for about 4 months through Indonesian isles. Thought it was a very "neat" language - althugh I was told by Malays that it gets harder past a certain point.

    I hear you on that! I usually teach intermediate and advanced learners but currently doing intensives with beginners (yup here in Germany!) - we're having a bunch of fun even while following a book and I've thrown baby out with bath water and when they attempt to express a future or past or past perfect continuous I give it them anyway. Whaddever you know. And actually the itch of another post just sprang to mind on German Learners - watch out for this one!

    And thanks so much for your comment by the way, I love hearing new voices!


  • Mike Harrison says:
    November 17, 2010

    I'll be a bit more helpful in commenting this time - I think I'd put anyone wondering and wandering about grammar onto Mr Thornbury's vid, Seven ways of looking at grammar, here on YouTube:

    and also say that I guess any order in the classroom should be descriptive rather than prescriptive. But, then lots of us teach in contexts where something learners have to do to pass X exam is make the present simple ok, for Y exam the past simple. Go figure.

    As for who invented the order - don't know, but some people are making a heck of a lot of money from it, eh?

    PS - didn't realise that first Something was supposed to be God ;o)

  • rliberni says:
    November 17, 2010

    Wow that was quick!! Lovely piece! I absolutely agree with Sue base it on what they need! Much of modern language teaching has its roots in Latin and we all know where that ended up!! (Having said that I tried Past Perfect with an Intermediate today and we had our moments!!! It worked in the end!)

    November 17, 2010

    Gods and gurus...

    Mike, it's a silly play on words and meanings - I dunno I guess I always wanted to be different kind of writer and was always hunting down subplots so when I drafted this a while back I thought it could be an interesting way to explore.

    Ta for the Thornbury link, that's a brilliant one!

    Hi ya Berni,
    I reckon it was the Latin influence... the English had to learn Latin through grammar - right? I wonder if this "system" stretches back 500 years... longer? Hmm... wish wikipedia knew!

  • blog-efl says:
    November 17, 2010

    "OK, now let me see...I haven't looked at this book since I did that module on course design for my Master's," he says as he blows the dust off A.P.R.Howatt's 'A History of English Language Teaching' (1984, OUP).

    "Hmmm...page5...early language teaching materials relied mainly on texts, and the dialogue form...Joseph Priestly's 'Rudiments of English Grammar' (1761) broke texts into digestible chunks so that they could be better learnt by heart..."

    "The first textbooks designed to solely teach English as a foreign language appeared in the late sixteenth century after the arrival of large numbers of French Huguenot refugees..."

    "then there's a section about the popularity of phrasebooks and polyglot dictionaries....hmmm...skip to the index....look up grammar...now, there's an interesting reference here to Harold E.Palmer and his 1938 book 'The New Method Grammar' - an attempt to teach grammar to young learners through an analogy with railway networks...no, that's not what we're looking for..."

    "OK...this looks like what we're looking for...1954 sees the publication of A.S.Hornby's 'Guide to Patterns and Usage in English'...and it seems that 'few course books after 1954 have been written without at least half-an-eye on the Hornby pattern lists' - Hornby's called this 'the Situational Approach' and this meant that each new pattern should be introduced to the class in advance of the work with the text...and what was introduced first was by what he thought learners needed to achieve a reading knowledge of the language..."

    "OK, I'll stop there...is that any good to you?"

  • Sam Shepherd says:
    November 18, 2010

    There is evidence to suggest that certain structures appear to be acquired earlier than others (e.g. verb+ing occurs quite early - hence all those "I going" sentences). 3rd person present simple is generally a late arrival and there's not a lot we can do about that. Past simple irregular forms follow very similar patterns for both 2nd lang learners as well as for children.

    But then you have first language transfer, and generalisations from that which can confuse matters, and also influence it.

    On top of which there are issues such as cognitive load (why teach present continuous for something occuring at the moment of speaking first, when actually we tend to use it more for fixed future plans), and perhaps mopst important of all the usefulness to the learners.

    Our task, then, is to look through all these ideas and make an infoprmed decision about curriculuim design based on these. But certainly that's what coursebook writers have done and still do...

  • Greg Q says:
    November 18, 2010

    Well, at the risk of being laughed out of the profession, I posted on my site "Verb tenses - harder than they need to be?" with examples of all 12 active tenses using only the basic form of the verb.
    The link is http://www.teachergreg.com/1/post/2010/11/verb-tenses-harder-than-they-need-to-be.html.
    It shows that we can understand each other without all the playing around with verbs we currently do. Further, it asks whether we should be more accepting of learners' utterances when they ARE understandable even if not grammatically correct.
    I'd like to see what others think.
    Cheers, Greg.

  • Unknown says:
    November 18, 2010

    Adam's point about Chinese 'grammar' is useful. In fact, Chinese uses several particles to modify the time reference, but most important, the time adverbial always comes first, before the base form of the verb, and the particle, if necessary. You could get a lot of basic communication very early on in English with a similar system, especially with lots of time adverbials, as Teacher Greg suggests. Combine this with the fact that in Chinese, the distinction between parts of speech isn't terribly helpful, which is also true in English where the noun form is the same as the verb form, etc. then you begin to have a much more similpified system, which I'd even hesitate to call grammar 'as we know it.'

  • Walton says:
    November 19, 2010

    In general, I agree with you. Especially working in a country where all foreign languages are taught grammar first, vocab second, speaking and writing and actual communication only to test grammar and vocab.

    I would point out that there is some logic at work though. I would never teach a student past perfect first for example. It's so rarely used and pretty difficult to understand unless you know the past simple first. I would probably not teach students present continuous as a future tense first, and then as a present tense because logically it's easier to understand that we use present continuous for future when there is some action in the present that relates to the future. I might teach them the structure, "I'm going to..." for future before I taught them present continuous though. They can just memorize that chunk. I can think of other examples of grammar I would not teach first. I wouldn't teach present or past continuous until I'd taught them to conjugate "to be" But I do teach "to be" very early on because it's such a vital verb for communication in English.

    So my point is just to point out the obvious that you are right that we don't need to teach present simple, then continuous, then past. Or teach adverbs of frequency with present simple and time phrases and since or already with perfect tenses. But we do have to have some logic to our teaching based on the students' needs and on what they need to know.

  • Vicki Hollett says:
    November 23, 2010

    Oh great post, Karenne, and some great comments here too.
    Many thanks for the video reference Mike, which I hadn’t seen and greatly enjoyed. I’ve often wondered where the ordering came from as I’ve struggled with it (and against it), and thank you for digging out that reference Graham – why yes, Hornby! (1954) It prompted me to run a search for an old Robert O’Neill book called ‘English in Situations’, which took me to Peter Viney’s site: http://peterviney.wordpress.com/about/elt-articles/influential-elt-books/
    Here’s Peter’s description of the book (but he has more interesting things to say about it on his site):
    “O’Neill’s English in Situations lasted around 35 years, but seems to be out of print now. It had no illustrations. It was in three sections and presented problem areas of grammar in neat contrastive pairs at different levels. It was an ideal stand-by because whenever a question came up in class you could find a short, clever contextualization with a careful set of questions that led students to the contrast. English in Situations set a whole approach and its strong influences can be seen in the selection and ordering of structures in a wide range of current intermediate textbooks.”
    (Many thanks for the blog link, Karenne!)


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