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Tense is the grammatical expression of the location of events in time. It anchors (or ‘grounds’) an event to the speaker’s experience of the world by relating the event time to a point of reference. The normal, universal and therefore unmarked point of reference is the moment of speaking – speech time, what has been called ‘the inescapable and constantly changing now in which all verbal interaction takes place’. Past event takes place before the ‘now’, while future events are thought of as taking place after it. (Angela Downing, English Grammar: A University Course)

I don’t grasp what she says about the tense exactly. So I brought an example below. In the example, it seems that the ‘speech time’ is past, for the whole story is mainly developed by the tense. Having thought this, I’m confused at the ‘present’ dialogues: “I think you must. . .”, “See? Harry Potter. . .”
Would you let me know what is ‘speech time’, and why it can be constantly changing now?

"Hagrid," he said quietly, "I think you must have made a mistake. I don't think I can be a wizard."
To his surprise, Hagrid chuckled.
"Not a wizard, eh? Never made things happen when you was scared or angry?"
Harry looked into the fire. Now he came to think about it... every odd thing that had ever made his aunt and uncle furious with him had happened when he, Harry, had been upset or angry... chased by Dudley's gang, he had somehow found himself out of their reach... dreading going to school with that ridiculous haircut, he'd managed to make it grow back... and the very last time Dudley had hit him, hadn't he got his revenge, without even realizing he was doing it? Hadn't he set a boa constrictor on him?
Harry looked back at Hagrid, smiling, and saw that Hagrid was positively beaming at him.
"See?" said Hagrid. "Harry Potter, not a wizard - you wait, you'll be right famous at Hogwarts." (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone)

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    To be honest, this is the type of question I'm surprised not everyone already knows the answer to and I thought about flagging the question to be closed. But the more I thought about it, unless someone teaches you something first, we can't really expect you to know it. Especially with a concept this fundamental to languages, we should encourage people to speak up if they don't understand something. – acattle Mar 30 '13 at 4:57
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    @acattle, Thank you very much: if you had closed this question, I might have wandered along. Even into the ELU, receiving the sort of sarcastic attacks, with mean words, for not knowing the fundamental things, positively – I do not know why the kind of guys doing answering activities not encourage people to speak. You’ve solved my age-old question. – Listenever Mar 30 '13 at 6:29
  • @acattle: Very true, sir! – James Grossmann Mar 30 '13 at 6:46
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It's related to the concept of time. You know how the present refers to the exact moment we live in? Everything after it (i.e. everything that hasn't happened yet) is called the future and everything before it (i.e. everything that has already happened) is called the past. Also, you need to realize that the future will eventually become the past.

For example, image it's currently Wednesday. Today, Wednesday, is the present. Yesterday, Tuesday, is the past and tomorrow, Thursday, is the future. Now imagine it's Thursday. Is Thursday still the future? No, it's now the present. And when it becomes Friday then Thursday will be the past. So on Wednesday Thursday was "the future" but on Friday, Thursday is "the past".

Speech time (which I'd probably write as "time of speech") refers to the exact moment a person speaks/writes anything. Tense tells use when an event is happening in relation to when the person is speaking. So on Wednesday, I would use future tense to talk about events on Thursday (e.g. "I will go to the store on Thursday"). On Friday I need to use past tense to talk about Thursday (e.g. "I went to the store on Thursday").

Here is where is gets tricky and here is where I think your problem is: If it is Wednesday and I am talking about Thursday I must use the future tense but what if I wrote my message, "I will go to the store on Thursday", in an email and sent it to you but you didn't read it until Friday? To you Thursday is in the past but I still used future tense. The reason is that at the time I wrote the message (the speech time) Thursday (when the event was to take place) was still in the future. However, time moved forward and by the time you read it, Thursday was in the past. However, this does not affect the grammatical of my message at all.

In the context of the Harry Potter quote, the story takes place in the past. That is why the narrator (the person telling the story to you, the reader) uses past tense. But the events the characters talk about are happening at the same time as they are speaking about them (i.e. the event time is the same as the speech time) so even though to you, the reader, the events are all in the past, the characters must use present or future tense because to them the events either are happening at that moment or have yet to happen.

In summary, tense is decided by the temporal relationship between when a speech is made (the speech time) and when the event it talks about takes place (the event time). The three simplest of these are past, present, and future.

Obviously tenses are more complicated than just past, present, future. Once you feel you understand the basic principle, check out this Wikipedia article for more information on Tenses in English.

  • There's also decoding time, which in many languages is related to tense use in correspondence. I.e, in Latin one has the choice of using a present tense to refer to the time when the recipient reads it, and a past tense for the coding time (= speech time, but for writing). More details in Fillmore's Time lecture – jlawler Mar 30 '13 at 20:18
  • @jlawler Ya, I originally wrote that the time the listener hears the speech doesn't matter but I tried to edit that out after thinking about things as simple as English's future-perfect tense ("I will have been to the store"). Tense is definitely a complicated system. – acattle Mar 31 '13 at 3:27
  • Luckily, English has no future perfect tense; but modals are even more complicated than tense. – jlawler Mar 31 '13 at 4:22
  • @jlawler Well, technically "perfect" is an aspect but in common usage "tense" is the used interchangeably with "inflection". I should have said "future-perfect inflection" but I wanted to keep the vocabulary simple considering this question will be most useful to beginners. – acattle Mar 31 '13 at 6:27
  • There's only one inflection in a so-called "future perfect" construction, and it's the past participle. It consists of an uninflected modal auxiliary followed by an uninflected infinitive followed by a past participle. If – jlawler Mar 31 '13 at 15:20

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