The Domain of Tense

The syntactic domain of tense is the clause: tense appears in some form in every clause of a tensed language. Semantic interpretation of tense requires information from context, however. This has been clear at least since Partee's 1984 demonstration of the anaphoric properties of tense. In this talk I will show that the facts about context are quite complex, perhaps more so than has been appreciated. There are three patterns of tense interpretation, depending on the type of discourse context in which a clause appears. I will introduce the notion of discourse mode to account for the different types of context.1 I offer an interpretation of tense in Discourse Representation Theory, a framework which is organized to deal with information from the context. I also show that a syntactically based theory can handle contextually-based tense interpretation. In §1 I set out the basic analysis of tense and show how it applies to sentences in isolation. §2 discusses types of discourse context and patterns of tense interpretation; §3 considers the formal analysis of tense; §4 concludes with a summary and a prediction about temporal interpretation in tenseless languages.
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