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Do nouns have tense? This blog post by Edwin Battistella looks at “temporal interpretation.”

Do nouns have tense?

You may have seen the 2021 BBC story with the heading “Nirvana sued by the baby from Nevermind’s album cover.”  

The 1991 album cover showed the then-baby nude and swimming toward a dollar bill on a fishhook. Not long ago, the thirty-ish grown-up baby sued the former members of Nirvana and the estate of Kurt Cobain, accusing them of child pornography and of causing him emotional damage.  But the headlines make it sound like a baby is suing. CBS News tried for tortuously clarity, offering “Man shown as a baby on Nirvana’s Nevermind album appeals ruling in band’s favor.” 

The clunkiness of both attempts is a reminder that English noun phrases have something called a “temporal interpretation.” That’s linguist-speak for how we understand their place in time relative to the tense of the verb. You can think of it as a time stamp on a noun phrase.

There is a robust academic literature on temporal nouns and some excellent articles, dissertation, and books by scholars such as Irene Heim, Murvet Enç, Renate Musan, and Judith Tonhauser, among others.  

The basic point is that a noun can be understood as existing at a different time than the verb. For example, a tired mom might elbow her partner in the middle of the night and grumble, “It’s your turn to feed the baby.” The baby and the feeding are both in the present. But an adult showing old family photos might comment that “The baby in that picture is me.” The baby is in the past. And a pregnant mother-to-be would be likely to say that “The baby was kicking all day,” using baby rather than fetus or baby-to-be. The baby is in the not too distant future.

“A noun can be understood as existing at a different time than the verb.”

We often gloss over the alignment or misalignment of a noun’s time stamp with its predicate. If I say that “A student of mine was named to the board of Tesla,” it can be understood as referring to a current student or a former student. University students are not typically on corporate boards (even Elon Musk’s), so the likelihood is that I mean a former student. A listener gets that, even if I choose not to make things unambiguous by adding former.  

Modifiers like former or current help to place a noun phrase in time, giving nuance: a current student, a former Governor, a sitting Senator, an erstwhile roommate, a past lover, a one-time contender, an old professor, the present administration, and so on.  

Former baby sounds a bit odd, since babyhood is something that one naturally grows out of, like being a high school student. So, consider a sentence like “A high school student invented a new type of telescope.” The phrase high school student suggests a temporalityso just a date will do. Adding former would confuse matters. 

Other nouns have similar temporal limitations: Murvet Enç’s clever example “Every fugitive is now in jail” means that those who were formerly fugitives are now jailed, since fugitive implies flight. And nouns like captive and hostage can be used to refer to those who have been recently released or freed, though after a certain interval former seems necessary. “Every incumbent is running again” is fine, but with current added, we get redundancy.  

Sometimes the mismatch of verb tense and noun temporal interpretation jumps out at us, like when a baby files a lawsuit. Sometimes it slips right by. The lesson here is to keep an eye on both the tense of verbs and the time stamp of nouns.  

Featured image by Sonja Langford on Unsplash (public domain)

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