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I have a very tricky question about how to perceive verbs because it'll help me understand what native speakers perceive in English (and adopt it for my better English). It's the question about the verbs whose past forms are the same as the present form: put, set, ...

How do native speakers usually perceive the tense of those verbs? My two hypotheses are:

  1. They recognize the tense by context.
  2. They ignore (or don't care about) the tense of those words.

I know those two are very subtle and have no effect in practice, but it at least makes a difference in which logic I should pick up to use them properly.

  1. If they recognize it, I should better make the context clear so listeners can easily recognize whether it's present or past.
  2. If they ignore (or don't care about) it, I should also stop caring about their tense. Maybe their action dominated the word so strongly that the tense became meaningless.

I'd love to hear what's the case from native speakers.

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    Context. John put the meat on the table. "John, put the meat on the table!" said Mother. Commented Jan 18 at 10:07
  • Context and intonation almost always makes it obvious whether someone is speaking about the past, present, or future. Native speakers often ignore tense anyway, so things like "I met him yesterday. He says he wants to see you" are common in conversational contexts. Commented Jan 18 at 12:20
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    Lots of languages have similar ambiguities. People generally understand it unconsciously based on context and expectations. When speaking or listening, people generally don't consciously think about tense or other grammatical categories, and many people understand languages without having any formal understanding of the concept of tense.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jan 18 at 14:43

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I have trouble imagining a scenario in which we "don't care about tense." I can come up with only one at the moment: abstract, decontextualized bits of text, such as are often used as examples in grammar textbooks.

If we are offered the sentence "I set the table," taken out of context and offered as a bare sentence, then there is no way of knowing which tense the author had in mind. So in this setting, it doesn't matter. We're not being offered this sentence for any real purposes of narrative or communication. So in this case you might say we "ignore" the tense, though maybe more likely is that we pick one or other and subconsciously guess. We might imagine the scene either in the present or the past, but it would be no more than an assumption.

But in most real human communication, sentences happen in contexts. It could be spoken or even unspoken contexts, but it's hard to imagine any "real" human communication that would make these tenses unclear, and if it were to happen, we would look at the speaker oddly and ask for clarification. Consider all these:

Billy comes into the kitchen from the dining room. "I set the table!" (Clearly he's reporting something he just did.)

"How do you help at dinnertime, Billy?" "I set the table!" (He's talking in the present, or rather in the abstract about a habitual pattern.)

[On a cooking show, the host is narrating his activities as he prepares for a dinner party.] "While the roast is in the oven, I'll take care of a few last-minute tasks. First I fill the water glasses. Now I fold the napkins. I set the table." (This one is true present, as he sets the silverware in place while speaking. Though it was kind of artificial, for the purposes of this example, that I cast the sentence as I did; he might have been more likely to say "Now I set the table," or to use present progressive "I'm setting.")

So, the simplest answer to your question? We almost always perceive tense from context. Any situation that lacks context is either inherently confusing, and constitutes miscommunication, or is an artificial use of human language. In these cases we might ignore or guess... but do these cases even matter?

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  • Thanks for the detailed explanation! Commented Jan 21 at 19:06

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