Mind Our English

Published: Tuesday February 12, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Monday August 19, 2013 MYT 4:03:59 PM

Using tenses correctly

If you think that the Cantonese words jor ( ), the Mandarin le ( ) or the Malay sudah means ‘already’, then you may have to retune your sense of English tenses!

Many readers may be wondering, why we use the terms Simple Past, Present Perfect and Past Perfect to describe tenses.

In the case of the Simple Past, it’s simple! This is the tense without has, have or had; it denotes something that happened at a specific point in the Past:

1) She graduated with a First Class Honours degree in 2010.

2) The breakdown occurred at 6.35pm.

3) The last meeting was held on Dec 21 (passive voice).

The word “perfect” comes from Latin meaning finished or complete, as in the case of a perfect diamond, which is complete in itself.

Thus, we use the Present Perfect to denote an action in a present-related time and the Past Perfect to denote an action in a past-related time.

Present-related time

What is a present-related time?

Today, this week, this month, this year, this century are all present-related because they occupy a time-frame which started in the past and is still current. The action is over, but the time is not. Note how the Present Perfect contrasts with the Simple Past:

1) The Production Department has engaged ten new operators this month (present perfect tense).

2) The Production Department engaged ten new operators last month (past tense).

3) The MD has taken two days leave this week.

4) The MD took two days leave last week.

5) Six fully automated machines have been installed this year.

6) Six fully automated machines were installed last year.

Note other phrases which indicate a present-related time:

While last year entails the Simple Past, this year entails Present Perfect. But what about in the last year?

The phrase in the last year refers to that period of time which started exactly a year ago and is still current; thus, it entails the Present Perfect. This applies to any phrase beginning in the last ...

1) She has applied for three different jobs in the last week.

2) It has become dark in the last half-hour.

3) In the last six months, he hasn’t attended any department meetings.

4) In the last fifty years, the population of the country has doubled.

Note the use of the comma when the time phrase begins the sentence.

The word since entails the Present Perfect because it refers to a time-frame which starts in the past and extends to this moment:

1) We have received over twenty complaints since the beginning of this month.

2) Since the presentation of the audit findings, remedial action has been implemented.

3) I haven’t seen him since he resigned from the company.

The word ever also entails the Present Perfect as it refers to the whole of time or one’s life, up to this moment, as in:

1) Have you ever seen ...?

2) Have you ever been ...?

3) Have you ever eaten ...?

The negative answer, containing never also entails Present Perfect.

(Note: As for the differences between the Past Perfect and Simple Past Tense, this was covered in the first part of “tense means sense”, which was published on Jan 1. The article can be read at thestar.com.my/english)

Sudah, Jor, Le

If you look up the word sudah in a Malay-English dictionary, the first entry is likely to be already. Most people whom I ask to translate the word tell me it means already. This is not true!

To illustrate, let me translate the following Malay sentences into English:

1) Dia sudah sampai: He has arrived.

2) Kita sudah bayar: We have paid.

3) Tingkap sudah dicuci: The windows have been washed.

In Cantonese, the particle jor ( ) or, in Mandarin, le ( ), is used in much the same way as sudah.

1) Hui dou jor/Ta dao le: He has arrived.

2) Ngo dei bei jor cheen/Wo men fu le qian: We have paid.

3) Cheong hau sai jor/Chuang kou xi le: The windows have been washed.

Note that, in the English version, there is no already. The word already is always redundant, while, in Malay, the word sudah is indispensable.

We can, of course, insert already before the past participle. In Malaysian English, it often comes at the end of the sentence; that way also can lah!

What about belum (lagi)? It means not yet, most people would say. Again, not so.

Dia belum sampai: He has not arrived. The word yet, like already, is optional, giving a certain emphasis, perhaps.

Problems happen when sudah and belum are inaccurately translated as already and not yet. These inaccurate translations occasion the basilect forms:

1) Dia sudah sampai: *He come already.

2) Dia belum sampai: *He not yet come.

Unfortunately, many English teachers in schools are perpetuating this by telling their pupils that sudah means already and that belum means not yet.

Sudah is more than a word that may be translated. Sudah is used to express the phenomenon which we call the Present Perfect tense in English.

To be able to teach Tense meaningfully, the teacher needs to take account of the strategies which the pupil has been employing in the mother tongue.

To tell pupils that sudah means already is to ignore these existing strategies, thereby demonstrating what is, sadly, a flawed methodology. This flawed methodology results in, for example, a letter of application shown to me recently by a candidate’s potential employer:

“This year, I already graduate from ...”

Dr Alistair King is an Applied Linguist and Corporate Training Consultant with clients throughout the region, the Middle East and Southern Africa. He also conducts an ongoing programme of public training courses in Malaysia. Send feedback to: alistair@aksb.com.my or http://www.aksb.com.my

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, Education, Mind Our English

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