Is the Past Participle a Tense?

EARLIER this week, at the Bukit Timah Food Center, while standing in line for what must be the neighborhood’s hottest hawker breakfast favorite, Sheng Cheng’s Teochew fishball noodles, I heard a lady on a mobile phone three spots behind say: “Eh, I’m at the mee pok long, long queue one. You want what?”

I was amused, and not.

Singlish has a way of grating at the ears, yet there’s something silly and endearing about it—it’s part of our culture and our identity, yet we could demonize it all we want, and still, it speaks of home.

Three days later, I’m running my eyes over a stapled double-page handwritten essay with a Primary Four student. She’s done up a narrative set in flashback style, opening with a scene where she’s “Strolling around the gorgeous and breezy park” before “peeking into” her watch. It’s an “unforgettable story that played back like a horror film,” she announces at the end of her opening paragraph. By the time my eyes arrive at the last few lines, I hear her mumble: “I haven’t write finish yet.”

My fingers crawled right up to her forearm. She got it from me: a gentle pinch and an emoji look, a cross between that goofy, winking face and an exasperated, red-in-the-cheeks expression of a pixie-devil.

“Say that again,” I said.

Now, she was thinking hard. “I haven’t finish,” she stumbled. “I haven’t write,” she stutters on. After some iterations of this and that, it dawned on me she wasn’t just saying the phrase out of habit or foul usage, influenced by her Singlish milieu at school and at home. She really had no clue how the phrase, in its grammatically correct form, should be rendered.

“You know what a past participle is, my dear?” I asked.

She shakes her head.

“What about the perfect tense?”

She shakes her head again.

I decided to save that lesson on past participles and the perfect tense for the next class. Most times, I run into so many diversions, I made an executive decision to stay focused that afternoon and fix her essay, which was sorely in need of rescue from the maudlin and the predictable, plus the pain. Yes, pain that “ricocheted [her] body” and shot it “upright.”

Now that we have both happily rescued the essay, I figured I don’t have to wait till next week to explain past participles and the perfect tense. I could do it right now and get it out of my hair and my face.

First of all, let’s get one thing straight: Past participle is not a tense, it’s a verb form. Talking about verb forms, we need to get two other things in order: one, the infinitive; and two, conjugation.

Why all this stuff is not really taught in school, I haven’t the faintest clue, but let’s just get down to business pronto. Here are definitions of these two have-to-know, got-to-know grammatical terms:

  • infinitive (n) ~ the basic form of a verb
  • conjugation (n) ~ the variation of the form of a verb

Now, remember those little verb recitation exercises you used to do: sing, sang, sung; ring, rang, rung; cut, cut, cut; run, ran, run; do, did, done; go, went, gone; write, wrote, written. Please say “yes,” please tell me you’ve done this before. If you haven’t, call me, find me, run to my doorstep right now, I’m always looking for students.

You see the third verb in those sing-song recitations? Sung, Rung, Cut, Run, Done, Gone, Written. These are all past participles. To make things a little clearer, here’s a verb chart:

Infinitive Present Past Past Participle
(to) sing sing/sings sang sung
(to) ring ring/rings rang rung
(to) cut cut/cuts cut cut
(to) run run/runs ran run
(to) do do/does did done
(to) go go/goes went gone
(to) write write/writes wrote written

Can you now see what the infinitive is? It’s the basic form of a verb—good, clean, naked, without any grammatical changes that turn it into a past tense or a past participle. Which brings us next to the perfect tense.

We have two types: the present perfect and the past perfect.

Present Perfect Tense
. have/has + past participle
e.g.  I have finished the cake, all eight slices of it.
        She has finished the cake, all eight slices of it.

Past Perfect Tense
. had + past participle
e.g.  I had finished the entire cake by the time they arrived.
        She had finished the entire cake by the time they arrived. 

So, what did my little friend say that was cranky and troubling, but seemingly universal in our Singlish-colored world? I haven’t write finish yet.

Now, here’s how you’re going to say it next time, my dear: I haven’t finished writing it yet. 

That’s right, present perfect tense with the past participle on the verb “finish” and not “write.” Still, yet, however. I bet I’m going to hear a lot more of that phrase sometime soon, or at least some semblance of it. And who knows, I might just run into that lady again at Sheng Cheng, my breakfast haunt, the mee pok long, long queue one.

Language Bites” are reflections on the joys and angst of language usage, from sentence structure to syntax, voice and vocabulary, some why’s and how’s, plus do’s and don’t’s.


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