Looking at verbs and language in terms of the kind of distance it conveys is not exactly a new concept, but is definitely one that not that many teachers know about.
I have always found it extremely useful to discuss this with my learners as it seems to help them ‘feel’ the language, rather than memorise a list of grammar rules that they might find hard to put into practice.
And I’m certainly glad to read that my trainee Güven, like me, has found the concept quite thrilling and helpful (only a grammar geek like me would use the word ‘thrilling’ with grammar!) and from his post, he seems to have really understood what I was trying to get across to the class perfectly well…so well that it makes me proud, and I can only hope to add some value to his post.
But let me try.
Have a look at the following sentences.
Label the verbs used and identify the meaning they convey.
(a) Can I go with you? (Taylor Swift)
(b) Could I have this kiss forever? (Enrique Iglesias)
(c) If I could turn back time (Cher)
(d) It could happen to you (Diana Krall)
(e) If I was a rich girl, I’d have all the money in the world (Gwen Stefani)
(f) She’s leaving on a midnight train to Georgia. (Human Nature)
(g) I’m winning that race tomorrow! (My imaginary conversation with Usain Bolt)
(h) Farah claims Gold Number 14 for Team GB (Evening Standard, 4th Aug 2012)
(i) The Olympics finishes on the 12th August 2012 (Sandy Millin)
Have you ever been stumped by students who ask you, “Is ‘could’ the past of ‘can’?”
Indeed, ‘could’ is the past of ‘can’ in sentences like ‘He couldn’t understand why”.
In the request seen in (a) and (b), some say that the use of ‘could’ in (b) makes it more polite or more formal than the use of ‘can’ in (a).
And in (c), ‘could’ signals an imaginary hypothetical situation in which the use of ‘can’ would indicate that the situation was possible. (‘If I can turn back time’ would make no sense unless the speaker is Harry Potter or Superman)
The use of ‘could’ in (d) suggests that there is a probability of it happening, but not as probable as if ‘can’ was used.
In (e), the use of the past tense ‘was’ in the first clause and ‘would’ in the second has nothing to do with past time. Instead they make the sentence seem improbable. We often label this the second conditional, which is often defined as indicating hypothetical or impossible situations.
In (f), the tense used is called the present continuous, but it is used to talk about future arrangements.
Yet in (g), the present continuous is used to show determination and certainty about the future.
In (h), the present simple is not used to talk about events that happen regularly, but in a newspaper headline to indicate a past event.
In (i), here the present simple is used again to talk about a future timetabled event.
So to sum up,
the past is sometimes used to be more polite,
but sometimes used to talk about imaginary or improbably situations.
Yet sometimes it’s used to talk about something probably, but not as probable as when we use a present tense.
And when we use the present continuous, we could be talking about the future.
And when we use the present simple, we could be talking about the past.
Or maybe the future.
How confusing was that?
Perhaps it’d help if we first knew this:
Long long ago, when the first English grammar book was first written, English was a language spoken by the poor and uneducated. The upper classes and the Royals spoke French, and the academics spoke Latin.
English grammar was first put down on paper most probably by a French/Latin-speaking academic. He therefore mapped Latin grammar rules onto the English language observed at that time. And the prevalence of Latin as the language of the educated over the years made it the standard by which grammar rules were formulated. Even today, rules like ‘Never split an infinitive’ originating from a strong influence of Latin grammar still exists today. (To boldly go where no one has gone before!)
Evidently, when one maps the grammar of one language onto another, it could never really match. And hence the misnomers we see above.
So let’s forget those labels for a moment.
Let’s forget that ‘teach’ is ‘present’ and ‘taught’ is ‘past’.
Let’s say that ‘teach’ is ‘near’ and ‘taught’ is ‘remote/far’.
(1) Temporal Distance
When I say ‘I teach English’, it is something that happens all the time and therefore ‘close’ to me.
When I say ‘I taught Julio in January’, it is a story that I tell, and in order to tell it, I have to transpose my mind to being in January; I have to model myself into the past. That is because the event is far away from my reality.
(2) Social Distance
As with the example in (a) and (b), ‘could’, as opposed to ‘can’ is often used to indicate social distance.
This could be due to the fact that ‘could’ be more morphologically inflected than ‘can’.
Lend me £10.
Can you lend me £10?
Could you lend me £10?
Do you mind lending me £10?
Would you mind lending me £10?
I don’t suppose you could lend me £10?
I was wondering if you could possibly lend me £10?
Hmm…I was sure I had £10 in my pocket. Where did it go? I really need it… *hint hint*
It is clear that the more grammar there is and the more lexis is needed, the further the social distance.
So is that the same as saying it’s more polite or more formal?
Consider the following situation:
A husband says to his wife whom he has been married to for 50 years, ‘I was wondering if you could possibly tell whether I should turn left or right at that junction?’
Or simply sarcastic?
How did we know it was sarcastic?
Perhaps the fact that they have been married for 50 years suggests that there shouldn’t be much of a social distance between them. The creation of social distance through such use of language is therefore seen as inappropriate and in fact, impolite.
It is therefore important that teachers and coursebook writers do not oversimplify and label what is socially remote as polite, considering the fact that politeness is a construct dependent on multiple factors.
(3) Psychological Distance
The most interesting of the four, the use of verbs to indicate psychological distance can be seen everywhere around us.
- In example (h), the ‘near’ tense is used in newspaper headlines to create excitement and to make the reader feel like the breaking story is more eminent in some way or other. However, when one continues to read the story, one is moved into the ‘remote’ tense.
‘Farah added a 14th gold medal to Team GB’s impressive haul.’
(Evening Standard, 4th Aug 2012)
- When talking about an ex-boyfriend, I might use the ‘remote’ tense and say ‘He was a very jealous person’ despite the fact that he is still alive.
The use of the ‘near’ tense might indicate that he is still ‘close’ to my heart and that I might still be in love with him… (God forbid)
- When telling jokes, we often say ‘A horse walks into a pub. The bartender says, “Why the long face?”’ in order to make the joke more exciting.
- When reporting a conversation, we sometimes use the ‘near’ tense to create a feeling like the story is unfolding before the listener’s eyes.
There was this woman sitting on three seats.
So I say to her, “Can I sit down?”
And she goes, “No”
And I go, “Come on. I paid for a ticket too.”
And she goes, “I’m taking these seats.”
And I go, “Are you serious?”
And she goes, “Of course I am.”
And I go, “Shut up.”
(If this was a conversation in US English, substiture ‘I go’ for ‘I am like’ and ‘She goes’ with ‘She is like’.)
- A football commentator chooses to create feelings of exhilaration by saying, ‘Rooney scores a goal!!!’ instead of ‘Rooney is scoring a goal right now’ or ‘Rooney just scored a goal.’
(4) Hypothetical Distance
A familiar use of the ‘remote tense’, this is seen not only in the so-called 2nd conditional – Example (e)
If only I could keep up with Güven’s blogging everyday.
I wish I didn’t have to do my day job and blog at the same time…
The use of the ‘remote tense’ in the 2nd Conditional and the two sentences above signals a reduced likelihood and a hypothetical situation that is further from reality.
After having read the above, what kind of distance do you think the following is creating?
Give me a 20% discount, I’ll take 500.
If you give me a 20% discount, I’ll take 500.
If you gave me a 20% discount, I’d take 500.
If you were to give me a 20% discount, I might take 500.
Say, let’s just suppose you were to give me a 20% discount, I might consider taking 500.
The instinctive reaction is to identify with the so-called 2nd conditional and say that hypothetical distance is being created…
But is it really so?
Are we not manipulating psychological distance by playing hard-to-get?
Maybe just like everything is life, ‘near’ and ‘far’ aren’t always separate and exclusive, dichotomous constructs, but positions on a continuum…
And maybe the 1st and the 2nd conditional aren’t always that easily distinguishable either…
Or who was it that said that there were actually 32 conditionals in English?
For more about Distance and verbs, see:
R. Batstone, Grammar, OUP, 1994.
M. Lewis, The English Verb : An exploration in structure and meaning, Language Teaching Publications, 1986.
D. Willis, Rules, Patterns and Words : Grammar and Lexis in English Language Teaching, CUP, 2003.