Relative and Absolute Tense

Relative And Absolute Tense

Grammatical tenses are deictic; that is, the time they refer to cannot be known without context. The center of deixis may be either the moment of discourse or narration (a so-called absolute tense) or the moment under discussion (a so-called relative tense).

English uses absolute tense. For example, if John told someone "I will go to the party." but doesn't show up, that person would report his words as "John said that he would come." Because the event took place in the past, all verbs must be in the past tense. (Would is the past tense of will.) The phrase "John said that he will come" means something different: That the time of his expected arrival is in the absolute future, later than the time of reporting it.

In a language with relative tense, however, both situations would be described as "John said that he will come." Because the time of arrival is later than the time of his words (that is, the moment when John actually came was some time after the moment when he was talking), the verb come must be in the future tense, regardless of whether it is past, present, or future of the current moment. In some treatments, the terms anterior tense and posterior tense are used for relative past and future.

A few authors (e.g. Joan Bybee) use the term 'anterior' for the perfect. However, while the perfect is anterior in tense, it also includes the aspectual distinction of being relevant to the time in question, and is therefore more than a simple tense.

Read more about Relative And Absolute Tense:  In English

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