Automatically Changing Tense

By Deane Barker on December 7, 2005

Is there such thing as an “automated tense modifier”? This would be a program or script that could modify the tense of a block of text — so “we will” becomes “we did,” etc.

I’m reading a book on enterprise content management right now that advocates embedding case in your XML content. So you’d presumeably do something like this:

On Monday, September 4, 2006, Accounts Payable
  <variable-tense date="2006-09-04 12:00:00 UTC">
    <future>will change</future>
their procedures...

Now, this strikes me as incredibly impractical, but the book’s case study has a price tag of $11 million, so they’re obviously operating on a much higher level than I am. The theory here is that after a certain date, all the tense changes to the past without any human intervention.

Has anyone else thought about this? Has this been attempted by any project you know of?



  1. It may work in English, but I’d hate to the task of internationalising the tense system, because there are some killer grammar rules out there.

    English: I will eat something I ate something

    German: Ich werde etwas essen. (Lit. I will something eat) Ich habe etwas gegessen. (Lit. I have something eaten)

    Notice two words change, separated from each other. In this simple example there is only one word between the two that change. However in the real world, there could be any number of words between them.

  2. I would have thought English would have been the most difficult to implement this facility, too many exceptions to any rules.

    You’d probably need a huge database to cover all the different verbs and their different tense variations, even though the changes are only minor.

    How does Word cover this in a spell check sense? Does it just have entries for each tense of a verb?

  3. I’ve thought about this from time to time when reading BBC News and other news sites, blogs etc. A database or such to hold the different tenses/rules/etc would be a ballache – I would just give the user the option add a date driven tense change via a textbox widget when they are entering their content.

  4. This is a cool idea, the other aspect of it is to have whatever you write date stamped, in which case a reader can easily check to see if it’s still relevant… (Blogs already have this nice feature)….

    A better tool in my mind would be to link to a follow on article/document… currently that seems to be a lot of work, either by the writer to go and update old docs, or by the reader to search for (and possibly find) more up to date docs.. Even in the blog world that’s surprisingly hard (especially if you look at the volume of posts in gadgetopia)…

    Exploring this idea though, could you have an automatic ‘related posts’ updated in a similar way to Trackbacks? ie: it’s quite common to write a post referring to a previous post (for a history of the situation/technology/for the fun of it), that’d be cool if it auto updated that old post with a link to this new one…

    Just a thought…

Comments are closed. If you have something you really want to say, tweet @gadgetopia.