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I was thrown for a loop when I found out that, in addition to describing events that are happening currently, the ている-form could also be used as past tense:

まだ食べていない。
I have not eaten yet.

I now have come up with an idea that might be able to satisfyingly explain the fact that one verb form can be used for two different tenses. It all comes down to one attribute of the て-form: The verb in the て-form does not show any tense of its own. Instead, its tense seems to be inferred by other verbs and context.

So, what if it is not one and the same ている-form that is being used for past and present, but actually two forms that differ in the hidden tense of the verb in the て-form and thus only appear to be the same?

The verb 食べる in the example above, then, would actually be past tense, which is however not visible because of the て-form superficially overwriting the tense of the verb.

In conclusion: My theory states that when the ている-form is used to describe current events happening in the present, the verb in the て-form is in its present tense. Accordingly, when the ている-form is used to describe events of the past, the verb in the て-form is in its past tense. It's just that this is not visible because the て-form does not allow for a display of tense.

Now, to my actual question: Does this way of trying to explain these circumstances hold any water? Are there any flaws with it that I have overlooked? Feedback would be greatly appreciated!

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    Isn't the English grammar you're referring to the present perfect though? – Leebo Jun 25 at 21:03
  • It seems like I didn't think this through the whole way, yeah. – Kaskade Jun 26 at 8:45
  • No worries! This is intriguing stuff. – mamster Jun 26 at 13:47
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There are a couple of things going on here, so let's try and tease them apart.

  1. "I haven't eaten yet" is not past tense in English. Past tense in English would be "I didn't eat." There is overlap between these ways of expressing a state, both in Japanese and English, but they're not the same.

  2. In both English and Japanese--and probably in many other languages that have something like a perfect tense--negative states are more likely than affirmative states to be expressed in the perfect, probably because it's more common to say that something hasn't happened yet (but leave open the possibility that it might!) than to say that something did happen but might "unhappen." (e.g., it's natural in English to say, "I already ate" or "I've already eaten," but if you said, "I didn't eat," to mean you're ready for a meal now, that would sound odd.)

  3. So why is it okay to say まだ食べていない in Japanese when we would never say "I'm still not eating" to mean "I haven't eaten yet" in English? Because te-iru form is not the same as progressive form in English.

Te-iru form is linguistically a durative marker, meaning an action or state started in the past (before the time of utterance) and continues through the time of utterance. Depending on the context and the type of verb, the same form can be used to show a continuing state (電気を消している), a progressive action (今泳いでいます) or a habitual action (毎日運動している). (Hat tip to my friend Rie Tsujihara, who did graduate research on this topic.)

In this case, 食べていない is showing a continuing negative state: at some point I entered the state of having not eaten, and I remain in that state.

Don't try to map this to English usage. It's unlikely to help you learn the usage patterns, because it's so different!

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