The Past Tense System in English and Romanian

A Contrastive Analysis

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2012 19 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics



1. Introduction

2. General overview
2.1 Modality/Mood
2.2 Tense
2.3 Aspect

3. Comparison of tenses
3.1 Simple present/Present
3.1.1 Formation
3.1.2 Use Similarities Differences.
3.1.3 Summary
3.2 Present perfect/Perfectul compus
3.2.1 Formation
3.2.2 Use Similarities Differences.
3.2.3 Summary
3.3 Simple past/Perfectul simplu & Imperfectul.
3.3.1 Formation
3.3.2 Use.
3.3.3 Summary
3.4 Pluperfect/Mai mult ca perfect
3.4.1 Formation
3.4.2 Use
3.4.3 Summary

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

As Martin Haase points out, the term ‘tense’ in any given language can hardly be isolated. In a broader context, it usually consists of an interwoven system, the so-called Tense-Aspect- Modality (TAM). English and Romanian are no exception. Haase states that “it is far from simple to attribute TAM-categories clearly to either tense, aspect or mood, since most categories contain a temporal as well as an aspectual or modal meaning.” (Haase, 1994:135). In order not to go beyond the intended scope of this analysis, I will thus straightforwardly compare English and Romanian past tenses, thereby avoiding a detailed discussion on the inner TAM workings of each language, as this could easily fill entire books on its own. Nonetheless, when absolutely necessary, I will include mood and aspect since both of them cannot be entirely ignored in an analysis about time-related utterances. My main concern, however, is to illustrate the general differences of the tense systems rather than to consider all the exceptions that follow in their wake. Thus, before explaining the construction of the main past tenses, I will provide a short overview and definition of the terms tense, aspect and mood in the English and Romanian language.

2. General overview

Belonging to the West Germanic language group of the Indo-European language family, English is at present the most wide-spread language on earth, a ‘lingua franca’ with about 340 million people speaking it as their native tongue and approximately a further 1.8 billion speaking it as a second language (estimation as of 2004). On the other hand, Romanian, also an Indo-European language, belongs to the Romance language group and is the only Eastern Romance language. Like Italian, Spanish, French and Portuguese, it developed from the ancient Vulgar Latin. Due to its relatively secluded position however, Romanian has most retained the old Latin structures. Furthermore, its proximity to Slavic language countries influenced its vocabulary, which comprises of around 15 % of words of Slavic origin.

While English is morphologically relatively poor, having mostly fixed, regular verb forms with only slight alternations (the development from Old English to Modern English led to a strong simplification of what had once been a morphologically rich verb system) Romanian morphology did not transverse major changes. Thus, its verb system is varied and features eleven different conjugations (cf. Schaller, 1975:85). However, both languages are marked by a complex tense and mood system. Within certain boundaries, English allows for free variations between the use of tenses, depending on what exactly is supposed to be conveyed with the speech act, or which form is predominantly used in a certain region. The appliance of tenses in Romanian on the other hand could be described as more rigid. This, of course, reflects the higher sensitivity for violations of the tense system in Romance languages in general, as they strongly distinct when to use a certain tense. Deviations from the norm are therefore often highly marked.

2.1 Modality/ mood

The terms modality and mood are to be distinguished. While the former refers to a semantic category, which has to do with the truth of the utterance (epistemic modality), the latter denotes a grammatical category in which the very same is expressed. Through mood, particular kinds of modal meaning can be expressed with a lexical verb form, which is not preceded by a modal auxiliary. English has three moods; indicative, imperative and subjunctive. Other than that, modality in English is expressed by modal auxiliaries (must, would…) and modal adverbs (possibly, certainly…) (cf. Declerck, 2006:39)

Romanian verbs have five finite moods which change their form according to the person of the speaker, and four non-finite moods which do not change their form. The finite moods are: indicative, subjunctive, presumptive, conditional and imperative. The non-finite moods are: infinitive, gerund or present participle, past participle and supine. (cf. Gönczöl-Davies, 2007:83).

2.2 Tense

As a linguistic concept, the term tense denotes “…the form taken by the verb to locate the situation referred to in time, i.e. to express the temporal relation between the time of the situation in question and an ‘orientation time’ which may be either the ‘temporal zeropoint’[…] or another orientation time that is temporally related to the temporal zero point.” (Declerck, 2006:22). According to Declerck, the English tenses are:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

As he also points out, only the indicative forms are tensed. Furthermore, all tenses have non- progressive as well as progressive forms. Progression is, however, strictly speaking a feature of aspect. One already gets an idea of how tense, aspect and mood quickly becomes an inseparable unity in expressing temporal meaning. Depending on how one looks at it, the number of tenses varies. Canavan, for example, includes the continuous forms, thus coming to a total of 12 tenses. (cf. Canavan, 1983:17). The confusion about how to classify the English tense system still exists in linguistics, but it shall not be delved into further at this point. I will therefore adhere to Declerck’s model.

In Romanian, Gönczöl-Davies distinguishes …”three main tenses in the indicative, i.e., the present tense, the past tense (compound past, simple past tense, past continuous tense or imperfect and past perfect) and the future tense (with three forms and a future in the past tense). In the subjunctive, the presumptive and the conditional, it has a present and a past tense. The imperative has only a present tense. In the non-finite moods, only the participle has a present tense and a past tense. The other non-finite moods have only one form.” (cf. Gönczöl-Davies, 2007:83). Apparently, she counts in all mood and aspect variations, listing the number of tenses for each category. In analogy with Declerck’s list, I will break the number down, excluding the subjunctive and presumptive moods, except for the conditional.1 I will also incorporate the tense terminology used by Haase as well as the tense names used by Laura and Radu Daniliuc. We then have the following:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

2.3 Aspect

Aş merge la mare, dacă aş avea bani. (I would go to the seaside if I had the money.) Dacă aş fi avut timp, aş fi mers la mare.(If I had time, I would’ve gone to the seaside.)

“The grammatical aspect refers to the possibility of using special grammatical forms (verb forms) to express various meanings which have to do with how the speaker wants to represent the internal temporal structure of a situation.” (Declerck, 2006:28). With regards to the languages examined here, can a verb be modified in such a way as to convey whether a situation has ended (perfective) or is still ongoing (imperfective). In English, these two aspects are systematically expressed by special verb markers, which convey the progressive or non-progressive character of an utterance:

I’m writing an essay. (progressive, ongoing situation.)

I wrote an essay last night. (non-progressive, completed action.)

The non-progressive form wrote indicates, that the speaker views the situation of writing an essay as complete, while in the first example, the -ing suffix marks an action in progress.

The aspect in Romanian is not an independent feature. Like in the other Romance languages, it is the imperfect past tense itself which carries a progressive aspect. While in English, the progressive aspect is freely combinable with tense forms, the imperfect of the Romance language system constitutes a set of own verb endings, inflected for person and number. Gönczöl also calls the imperfect the past continuous. It is, however, restricted to utterances referring to past situations. A major difference of aspect between Romanian and English but also between Romanian and other Romance languages is, that there is in fact no possibility to convey a present progressive aspect grammatically (for example, the Spanish gerund, Estoy trabajando. > I am working.). Either it has to be expressed by lexemes, or it can be inferred contextually while using the simple present:

Progressive aspect with simple present:

- Ce faci? (What are you doing?)
- Citesc, nu vezi? (I’m reading, don’t you see?) The Romanian present indicative can correspond to the English present indefinite and present continuous in the same sentence.
- Eu predau italiană, dar acum predau şi spaniolă. (I teach Italian, but now I am teaching Spanish, too.) (Cojocaru, 2003:133) Progressive aspect with lexical expression
- Ce faci acum? (What are you doing now?)
- Tocmai lucrez. (Right now, I am working.)

3. Comparison of Tenses

3.1 Simple Present/Prezent

3.1.1 Formation

The morphological scarcity of English is most apparent in the present tense, in which the verb deviates from the infinite verb form merely by adding an -s in the 3rd Person Singular. Other than that, English does not inflect in present tense. Romanian, being of Latin origin, has a strong inflection. Compared to other tenses, “the Romanian present is not marked by special inflections, i.e the element that must be taken into account is the verb root.” (Daniliuc, 2000:152). The root is therefore the basis for the inflection of the verb. Depending on the verb class, either the root changes throughout the conjugation, the endings alternate, or both. In the following example of a face (to do), the conjugation is relatively regular:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

table 1

Due to the strong inflection in Romanian, there is hardly any room for confusion as to the person. (exception: 1Sg <> 3Pl, some verbs 2Sg <> 3Pl and possibly the gender of 3Sg ).


1 Olga Miseska Tomic states, that the infinitive is still in wide use in Romanian, although it is predominantly a feature of the literary language. In many environments, the infinitive co-exists with tensed subjunctive contructions. (cf. Miseska Tomic, 2006: 511). I will point out the use of subjunctive mood when necessary. Other than that, and for the sake of a clear comparison, I will not count it in, because the Romanian subjunctive is but slightly different from the infinitive form.


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Past Tense System English Romanian Linguistics



Title: The Past Tense System in English and Romanian