Distancing – the difference between ‘tense’ and ‘time’



A lot of learners are confused by English grammar, and it is fairly easy to see why. Students are repeatedly confronted with verb forms that they have been told are ‘past tense’ but on closer inspection, actually have little to do with the past. Learners often find it difficult to differentiate between ‘tense’ and ‘time’ and struggle to grasp that just because something is written in a way that looks like a past tense, doesn’t mean this is actually talking about a past time.

One way to make this a little easier is to look at it as ‘distancing’. In English, we use language that looks like the past forms to create distance. We create:


Temporal distance – or distance to do with time.

I met him in the bar.

It happened in the past, and the past simple form of the verb ‘met’ is used.

Hypothetical distance – or distance to do with unreal situations

If I had a million dollars, I would buy you a house.

Social distance – or distance for politeness

I was wondering whether it would be possible to have the day off.


In these examples, only the first has anything to do with past time, it is creating distance from now to a point in the past. The others are just part of that wonderful thing we call English. Hypothetical distance is created using the subjunctive – it just so happens that the subjunctive in English is the same as the past simple form of the verb in all cases except ‘be’. We use it here to create distance from reality – ‘I don’t have a million dollars, but if I did…’. The same can be said of social distancing. If I am talking to my friend and I want a drink, I’m likely to ask ‘Can I have a drink?’. If I am hanging out in Buckingham Palace with the Queen, I’m probably more like to ask ‘Could I have a drink please?’ as I am normally polite when talking to royalty 🙂





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