>>Someone recently referred to the conditional as a tense.  I think of it 
>>as a mood.  My reasoning is that it's not a reference to time, and that 
>>it goes hand-in-hand with the subjunctive mood.  Any opinions?
>  You're right -- indicative, imperative, subjunctive, and conditional 
>  are moods, not tenses.
>  I once saw someone call the plural form of a noun the "plural tense".  
>  Now there's someone with =no= concept of grammatical terms.

It's certainly true that "plural" isn't a tense but a number. But nouns
*can* have tenses, as in "ex-wife", "president-elect", "husband-to-be",
etc.  And even compound tenses -- a friend once told me that
"ex-mother-in-law-to-be" was the most wonderful kinship term she'd ever

If you cavil at calling this the future perfect form of
"mother-in-law", why not cringe at calling "will have gone" the
future perfect form of "go"?  Both of them use auxiliaries,
and the noun form is arguably a single word, whereas the
verb form is clearly a multi-word phrase.

In Latin and Greek and any inflected language, "tense" usually
means a paradigmatic set of affixes that refers (often obliquely)
to time in some sense.  The English word "tense" comes from
Latin "tempus", after all.  But English is almost uninflected,
unlike Latin, and there are really only two inflectional tenses,
on the Latin model, left: present (am/are/is, go(es), walk(s), etc.)
and past [purists may prefer "aorist"] (was/were, went, walked, etc.).

Besides those, there are innumerable possible phrases formable
from auxiliaries like (forms of) "be", "have", "do", "will", "would",
"must", "might", "may", "shall", "should", "can", "could", "go",
"come", "let", "ought", "get", etc.  These can co-occur in so
many combinations that it seems wasteful to assign special names
to each combination.  And most English "traditional tenses" (i.e,
the tenses that are "sort of the same as" the 6 tenses Latin had:
present, imperfect, future, perfect, pluperfect, and future perfect)
canonically use only a few combinations.

As for "conditional": usually it's just using the modal auxiliary verb
"would".  Since this is a modal auxiliary, it expresses a "mode" or
"mood".  So it's certainly not a tense.  But tense and mood (and aspect)
are interrelated.  Anything in the future, for instance, is imaginal, and
that's the realm of the subjunctive/conditional -- in creole studies, this
is called "irrealis", and creole languages (i.e, brand-new languages)
always have one marker for "irrealis" that works for future, too.  And one
for perfective (i.e, completed, done, end-point reference) that works for
past, too.

When I was teaching English to speakers of other languages, I always
just taught them how to use modal auxiliaries, within the rubric of how
to form an English verb phrase.  The senses and idiomatic usages of each
combination need to be learned separately in any case.  Calling this
"the conditional" is harmless enough, but it does give the impression
that there is a well-worked-out list of other constructions that have
special names and special purposes, when in fact there's just a lot of
constructions with special purposes, some of which have special names
for no particular reason.

There really isn't any such thing as "the X tense" in a general sense. All
languages have their own repertory of forms and grammatical constructions,
and some of them may make sense when considered as "tense"; others don't.  

The same can be said of sounds; there also isn't any such thing as "the
phoneme /t/" in a general sense, because all languages have their own
repertory of sounds and phonological constructions.  This is an example of
what linguists call "the double articulation", or the principle that
language is structured (often in the same or similar ways) at both the
meaning/grammar and sound/phonology level.

I wouldn't want anybody to think, though, that I'm displeased at Latin
grammar; it's wonderful stuff, for Latin.  And we can all thank our
lucky stars that English traditional grammar is based on a Latin model,
instead of (say) Finnish; who wants to decline every English noun in 16

-- Followup:
>Past tenses:
>Past Simple               I went
>Past Emphatic             I did go
>Past progressive          I was going
>Past Perfect              I had gone
>Past Perfect Progressive  I had been going

But how about such "past" "tenses" as:

Past Necessitive              I had to go
Past Usitative                I used to go
Past Intentional              I was going to go
Past Potential                I might have gone
Past Potential Progressive    I might have been going
Past Potential Necessitive    I might have had to go
Past Potential Intentional    I might have been going to go
Past Perfect Intentional      I had been going to go
Past Perfect Necessitive      I had had to go
Past Usitative Necessitive    I used to have to go
Past Habilitative             I could go
Past Contrahabilitative       I could have gone
Past Conditional              I would go
Past Contraconditional        I would have gone

... etc.  There are lots more English auxiliaries left to conjugate, and
plenty more Latin grammatical terms where these came from.  This is one 
of the big reasons why Latin grammar isn't a great model for English
grammar; Latin is inflected (it "has a tense system"), and English isn't.  
Anybody who feels (as many do) that these aren't "real" tenses is using a
sense of "tense" that isn't terribly defensible in modern English.

There's no objective reason why *some* English verb constructions
are popularly called "tenses" and others aren't.  Obviously, they
could be.  Linguists reserve the technical term "tense" for true
inflection, i.e, one that produces a real change in a single word, as in
Latin or Spanish, which are inflectional languages and have a lot of
tenses, all encompassed paradigmatically.  English really has only two
actual tenses: present (go/goes), and past (went).

"Tense" comes from "tempus" ('time'); when you change the verb itself
(not just add another word to it, but actually change ["inflect"] it) to
refer to time, you got a tense.

Change the verb itself to show how true it is, you got a "mood", like
Subjunctive, Indicative, Optative, Benedictive ["May this house be safe
from tigers"].

Change the verb itself to show your viewpoint, you got an "aspect", like
Progressive, Usitative, Inceptive ["He started to leave"].

Change the verb itself to show agency (who did what to whom), you got a
"voice", like Passive, Active, Mediopassive, Reflexive,

Everything else that doesn't actually produce a different verb form
(as opposed to another word in the phrase) *isn't* yet another "tense",
but rather verb phrase syntax.  English verbs are notoriously simple
in terms of their inflection, but getting all the verb phrases right is
a nightmare.

>The problem of idiom in English is huge.  That is why this newsgroup 
>exists.  But an error in idiom does not make the sentence meaningless as it 
>does in other languages.

What in the world could this possibly mean?  If you make a mistake in
speaking English, they'll understand you anyway?  English speakers are
telepathic?  English idioms are different from other peoples'?
Most unlikely.

>The real problem with English is that they have stopped teaching grammer in
>English speaking North America.  This has been going on for long enough to 
>ensure that todays English teachers do not know grammer either.

If grammar were reasonably well taught in grammar schools, these facts
about English wouldn't have to continue to be so surprising. (that's the
Conditional Negative Necessitive Counterfactual Continuative Experiential
of "surprise", incidentally :-)

--- More followup (quoting me in the post above as ">>")

>>There's no objective reason why *some* English verb constructions
>>are popularly called "tenses" and others aren't.  Obviously, they
>>could be.  Linguists reserve the technical term "tense" for true
>>inflection, i.e, one that produces a real change in a single word, as in
>>Latin or Spanish, which are inflectional languages and have a lot of
>>tenses, all encompassed paradigmatically.  English really has only two
>>actual tenses: present (go/goes), and past (went).
>Yes, but English is not a latin based language.  It is much more reasonable 
>to compare English to German, which had nine tenses the last time I looked 
>(but I admit that was several decades ago and my memory isn't what it used 
>to be).  While I'm not a linguist--I can swear adequately in only a few 
>languages--I have read many articles by linguists bemoaning the fact that 
>so many of their colleages are fixated on Latin when they write about 
>English grammer.  There is, to take your phrase, "no objective reason" why 
>the latin paridigm of tense inflextion should be used anywhere outside the 
>romance languages.  

Quite right, English (and German) are not Latin-based; they're
Germanic, not Romance.  But the study of Latin grammar was for
over a millenium what "grammar" meant, since anything written
in Europe was most likely to have been written in Latin.

And old habits die hard.  So the early grammarians of English (e.g.)
and German, and Spanish and Russian and lots of other languages
used the same terms and procedures that had worked so well for Latin.

German, like English, has only two actual tenses - past and present.
There are also two moods - subjunctive and indicative - in each tense.
Then, like English, there are a number of constructions that can occur
with various auxiliary verbs (like "werden", which is often called
the future tense, like constructions formed with the modal "will"
in English).  Any attempt to grant German 9 tenses is based on the
Latin model, just like the canonical 14 English tenses (or is it 16?)

> The criterion that the verb must be changed to qualify as a "tense"
> strikes me as arbitrary and illogical.  The purpose of tense, surely,
> is to use the verb to _communicate_ the concept of time from the
> speaker to the listener.

Well, no, not really.  First, tense only "has to do with" or "comes
from" time.  It doesn't really "communicate" or "refer" to it.  For
instance, the so-called "present" tense (Bill walks to school) isn't
really about the present time at all.  It's generic, describing a
characteristic activity of the subject, which is more than likely
not being indulged in at the present moment.  You want that, you
should use the "present progressive" (present tense, progressive
aspect: Bill is walking to school).

Second, the "requirement" is essentially a distinction between
morphology and syntax, the two kinds of grammar.  Morphology is what
shows up in paradigms of the amo, amas, amat or he, him, his variety; it
refers to the *internal* economy of words, how they're formed and
changed and the regular, paradigmatic changes they go through.  Syntax,
on the other hand, refers to the *external* economy of words, their
relative order, which ones can be used together, which ones *must* be
used together, what kind of morphology is governed in each case,
agreement phenomena, that kind of thing.

Every language has about the same amount of grammar - lots.  But
some languages, like Latin, have more morphology than syntax,
while others, like English, have more syntax than morphology.
Since the binding energies are much looser in syntax than in
morphology -- consider that all idioms are syntactic, for example --
one finds that there is vastly more variation than in morphology.

For instance, a dictionary can list all the words in a language, even in
all of their inflected forms; but no finite book can conceivably list
all the possible sentences of any language.  The idea is ludicrous.
That's why syntax can't be treated in a word-and-paradigm model like
morphology (or classical Latin grammar); when your paradigms have
several thousand rows and columns each, and are full of lacunae, you're
not really dealing with paradigms at all -- you're dealing with
combinatorics, which is the basis of syntax.

>>>The problem of idiom in English is huge.  That is why this newsgroup 
>>>exists.  But an error in idiom does not make the sentence meaningless as 
>>it does in other languages.
>>What in the world could this possibly mean?  If you make a mistake in
>>speaking English, they'll understand you anyway?  English speakers are
>>telepathic?  English idioms are different from other peoples'?
>>Most unlikely.
>If a non-native speaker says, "I is going..." I know what he means. In many 
>languages, mistakes of this order are either not understood, or if aimed at 
>the french, purposely not understood.  Spend some time in non-English 
>speaking coutries and you'll get my point.  

If a non-native Spanish speaker says "Yo no hablar español", they'll be
understood (and believed), too.  I don't know where you're getting your
data, but the fact is that people vary quite a lot in how well they
understand, how much they *try* to understand, and what kinds of factors
influence it.  Pronunciation is at least as important as grammar, and
so is vocabulary choice.  Idiomaticity has something to do with it,
but certainly not everything, and there's no evidence that English
idioms are somehow different from those of other languages.  Try speaking
some other language besides English and you'll see how easy it is.

--- More followup:  

>Just one question:  Where does the past perfect ("have gone", "have sung")
>fit into this scheme?  Both the verb itself undergoes a change and
>an another word is added.  So is it a tense, or just verb phrase syntax?

The Present Perfect is formed with the auxiliary "have", and
the Past Participle of the next verb.  It's a construction,
like the Progressive construction and the Emphatic construction,
and it's an integral part of the English Verb Phrase.  In the
nuclear Verb Phrase (before getting to the complicated stuff),
there can be up to 4 of these constructions, in a rigid order:

   Modals     Perfect        Progressive      Passive       Main Verb
1)  *    + Infinitive
2)            have    +  Past Participle
3)                            be      +   Present Participle
4)                                              be         +  Past Part.
(* = may might can could shall should will would must)
All of these go before the Main Verb, the one that means something
lexically instead of grammatically.

(2) is called the "Perfect" construction, (3) the "Progressive",
and (4) the "Passive".  The rule is that the FORM of the next verb
(Infinitive, Past or Present Participle, inflected form, etc.)
is determined by the preceding verb, and the first verb is inflected
for tense (past or present), and person and number subject agreement in
the present (and in the past for "be").  So the presence of the
auxiliary verb *plus* the form of the next verb is the mark of the
As to how the "Perfect" is used, that's a different matter.  There
are four principal uses, including my own favorite, the "Hot News!"
       Japan has invaded Lesotho!
which is better for implying recentness of occurrence than
       Japan invaded Lesotho!
which seems more of a "historical" past tense.

And the ever-strange distinction between

      Clinton visited Princeton.         Clinton has visited Princeton.
      Einstein visited Princeton.       *Einstein has visited Princeton.

the last one sounds weird because Einstein is dead and dead folks have
found it difficult to be the subject of a verb in the Present Perfect.
Just one more handicap the life-challenged have to put up with in English.

The best source for this is the late lamented Jim McCawley's 
classic article 
"Tense and Time Reference in English", pp 96-113 of Studies in Linguistic 
Semantics, edited by Fillmore and Langendoen. New York: Holt, Rinehart 
and Winston, 1971.

 -John Lawler                     More grammar
  Linguistics Program   University of Michigan
 "..and, who knows? Maybe the horse will sing."