Teacher Teacher #3: I Don’t Understand Tenses!

November 12, 2015
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Disclaimer: The author has no connection whatsoever with Lord Voldemort, any instant noodle brand, David Beckham, Chris Evans, and Yusuf Taiyoob.

As promised last time, we’ll be looking at something which might have made us tense for a long time: tenses!

What are tenses?

The mere mention of the word “tenses” can send shivers down one’s spine. Even those who speak good English would turn pale when you ask them to describe what tense is being used in a sentence. But there’s one question that often gets asked in any tense discussion of tenses (pun intended): why? Why do we use this tense and not the other tense? And why does English have so many subcategories for each time?

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We won’t really discuss the time context for tenses in this column. The past, present and future tenses are not that difficult for us to grasp. After all, Bahasa Malaysia does have them, with words like sudah, telah, sedang, tengah, and akan. And in Malay, it’s so easy: Just add a tense word to a sentence, and voila, you’ve changed the time context of an entire sentence! It’s almost as easy as adding hot water to instant noodles!

E.g. Dia makan (no tense)
- Dia sudah makan (past tense)
- Dia sedang makan (present tense)
- Dia akan makan (future tense)

Rather, it’s the variation of each tense which seem really daunting.

Simple tense? Continuous tense? Perfect tense?

So many subcategories!

To make matters more confusing, it becomes challenging to explain and understand when you attempt to translate the English tenses into Malay. Ever tried translating “He ate nasi lemak?” and “He had eaten nasi lemak?”? You’d be scratching your head figuring out what’s the actual difference between the two and when to use each tense. Seems like English tenses are complicated, right?

However, the reality is that it’s not as complicated as it may seem at all! It’s actually pretty simple. Terms may seem scary at first, but every term is given that name for a reason. When we know what the name really means, everything suddenly falls into place. Just like that moment when you discover the name of someone you’ve been really admiring for a long time.

Simple Tense

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The simple tense is used when we’re simply talking about things. Why have such a tense? Notice when we’re engaged in a conversation (especially when you’re gossiping about your favorite celebrity or trying to brainstorm for ideas), we mention a lot of things in passing and never really do anything about it? That’s what the simple tense is all about.

So when we say “He ate nasi lemak at the warung”, we’re just simply mentioning it, without actually having any concern about the lucky chap we mentioned in our conversation.

Whoever he-who-must-not-be-named is, we simply don’t care, and we’re simply just talking about things!

Continuous Tense

The continuous tense on the other hand is used when there’s an expectation for the listener to do something about what you’ve just said. Maybe it that lucky chap you were talking about is actually David Beckham, who was eating nasi lemak at that warung behind your school, so you told your friend who happens to be his die-hard fan that “David Beckham was eating chicken rendang at the warung”. When the action of eating chicken rendang is still on-going (perhaps because he took too much gravy and needs time to adjust to the heat!), you’d be crazy not to at least want to rush to the place to witness him eating chicken rendang, no? 

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Perfect Tense

Next, the perfect tense is used when things are done and nothing can be done about it. We use it to give a sense of closure, or to be a bit dramatic, to say there is no more hope.

Let’s say Chris Evans ate at that warung before David Beckham was there, and you were too late to tell your friend about his presence in your neighborhood, but you don’t want your friend to rushing to the warung, you would say “Chris Evans had eaten kuih bingka at that warung”.

That way, you get to save your friend from any disappointments or potential heartbreak from not seeing Chris Evans. ;)

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Perfect Continuous

Finally, the perfect continuous tense is used to explain observations. From these observations, we then try to find conclusion. Perhaps, you wonder why a certain person likes to whisper a lot, then you observed the person or asked around and discovered a certain habit.

You would then say “He had been eating dates ever since he was a kid”. Now, that explains a lot!

But, macam mana nak guna have, had, and had? Don’t worry. I got you covered. Click here.

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So there we have it, the secret behind understanding tenses! All that really matters is for us to actually understand any given term or category before deciding if it’s difficult. Once you know why something was named that way, it really becomes easy, no?

Hope that has shed some light on the topic, and hopefully that would guide you to use the right tense without actually feeling tense! In our next column, we’re going to get a little cheesy without needing to order any wedges – we’ll be dipping into the wonderful flavors of rojak, I mean, Malaysian English and Manglish! Until next time!

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Mr. Nazriq Ahmad is a lecturer who enjoys being mistaken as a student because he believes learning is a lifetime process .He secretly dreams of becoming a rock star and can always be found with a guitar when not lecturing. Follow him (@nazriqahmad) and send him a thank you note!