Hoping for a Future Past

The simplest of questions sometimes are the trickiest to answer. A friend asked me this past week to explain why we use the past participle to refer to a future circumstance, as we do, for example, in the sentence I hope you get accepted. The question gives us the chance to review what’s involved in a construction we use all the time.

Let’s begin by sorting out one common misunderstanding: a participle is not a verb. A participle is an adjective built from a verb in order to name a quality that is the result of some action. That’s why we sense, and rightly so, something going on when we read a participle like the word accepted in our example, but it is also why we are tempted to conclude incorrectly that a participle is a verb. When we refer to a verb, we most often mean what is more accurately called a finite verb, that word or phrase which denotes the actual phase of time (past, present, or future) when the subject is acting.

Every finite verb must have a subject, and every time we combine the two, we produce a clause. That means that in the sentence I hope you get accepted, we have two clauses, I hope, representing the independent, or main, thought, and you get accepted, the thought dependent upon that hope, what it is the subject I actually hopes. In the second clause, the finite verb is get, and we often use that verb, instead of the verb be, to construct the passive voice when we want to emphasize in a more casual tone the action of a circumstance over the state of the circumstance itself. This difference between action and state is obvious when we closely compare I hope you get accepted with I hope you are accepted. The first puts the light on the action of someone’s accepting you; the second turns it on the situation that has resulted from that action. Grammar calls this the difference between an actional and statal passive.

But let’s turn our attention again to the participle accepted in order to see how the sense of time works in this sentence. The verb of the first clause, hope, is in the present tense, and we can call this actual time because it means to refer to an actual day on the calendar or hour of the clock. At the present time (the time of speaking the sentence), the subject I hopes for something, and what she is hoping for is a future action, that you will get accepted (let’s assume by a school or program of some sort). To hope for something inherently carries with it a sense of future time, because we don’t hope about what happened but only about what is to come. What the subject hopes for is the getting or the becoming of something, namely, the getting accepted, and so the you get accepted of the original sentence is really an elliptical, or very economic, way of saying you will get accepted, where will denotes the future tense.

But why, then, do we find the past participle accepted? Because participial time is relative, not actual. A past participle means to point to an action or state in existence before another action, whenever that other action might have occurred. Here, the action to which the past participle accepted relates is the future will get, and so we are to understand that what the subject I is hoping for is a situation in which she finds that you have already been accepted, or more exactly, will have already been accepted. The past participle accepted denotes a time prior to the future of get (or will get): she doesn’t want to find you getting accepted, but having gotten accepted, and for that to be the case, the accepting will have to have occurred sometime earlier.

More could be said, but the last word here should probably be to remind ourselves that an investigation of grammar can quickly get complicated because language tries in its rough way to represent the awe-inspiring and subtle complexity that lies behind our most common experiences and simple-appearing sentences. So much the better, I say, for us all.


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1 Comment

  1. Elegant mining of a complex topic, an excellent post.

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