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It's often said that travelling through time screws up the tense system. Sometimes the fact is lampshaded with something like this: "Then I will have seen my future self in the past... uh... what was I saying?"

What's the earliest time travel story where this acknowledgement, or a similar one, is made? My first answer was Larry Niven's Bird in the Hand from 1970, where Hanville Svetz uses some odd constructions and Zeera wants him to say all that again, but 1970 feels too recent for this. "a similar one" in the description is to allow other jokes about confusing description of the chronology of a plan if the language doesn't have tense, but prefer to post examples that outright use tenses.

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    Does it have to be a joke, or just an in-universe acknowledgement of the difficulty in describing the temporal relationship of activities in a different time after (or before?) travelling?
    – DavidW
    Commented Jun 17, 2023 at 16:39
  • Any acknowledgement is fine. I said "joke" because it often is one, sorry bout that. Commented Jun 17, 2023 at 18:16
  • I wonder when Heinlein first addressed it. I haven;t read much of his recently, but I'm fairly sure there's something in The Number of the Beast (1980)and probably Time Enough for Love (1973)
    – Chris H
    Commented Jun 19, 2023 at 11:03
  • Not technically a time travel story per se, but we clearly observe this so-called screwing up the tense system in most religious texts that describe the afterlife and the fate of people in heaven or hell. For example, many references to the afterlife in Quran are stated in past tense, though it is supposed to happen in far future. Commented Jun 19, 2023 at 11:50

3 Answers 3

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Lester Del Rey's "And It Comes Out Here" from 1951 has :

You will, you know, so why quibble about it? At least, you always have... or do... or will. I don't know, verbs get all mixed up. We don't have the right attitude toward tenses for a situation like this.

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Not the first story, but this quote just has to be here:

“One of the major problems encountered in time travel is not that of becoming your own father or mother. There is no problem in becoming your own father or mother that a broad-minded and well-adjusted family can't cope with. There is no problem with changing the course of history—the course of history does not change because it all fits together like a jigsaw. All the important changes have happened before the things they were supposed to change and it all sorts itself out in the end.

The major problem is simply one of grammar, and the main work to consult in this matter is Dr. Dan Streetmentioner's Time Traveler's Handbook of 1001 Tense Formations. It will tell you, for instance, how to describe something that was about to happen to you in the past before you avoided it by time-jumping forward two days in order to avoid it. The event will be descibed differently according to whether you are talking about it from the standpoint of your own natural time, from a time in the further future, or a time in the further past and is futher complicated by the possibility of conducting conversations while you are actually traveling from one time to another with the intention of becoming your own mother or father.

Most readers get as far as the Future Semiconditionally Modified Subinverted Plagal Past Subjunctive Intentional before giving up; and in fact in later editions of the book all pages beyond this point have been left blank to save on printing costs.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy skips lightly over this tangle of academic abstraction, pausing only to note that the term "Future Perfect" has been abandoned since it was discovered not to be.”

Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980)

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  • 1978 (radio), 1979 (book), I believe.
    – Basya
    Commented Jun 18, 2023 at 8:22
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    I concur; a DNA ought to be mandatory. For the curious, on-find further explanation along with practical examples here which wioll haven be useful somewhen. Certainly.
    – noughtnaut
    Commented Jun 18, 2023 at 13:21
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    @Basya This passage is not from the original radio series — at least, not according to The Original Hitch-Hiker Radio Scripts. I don't know whether it appeared on the second LP; if not, then its first appearance is from the book quoted in this answer, first published in October 1980.
    – gidds
    Commented Jun 18, 2023 at 17:54
  • @gidds - thank you for the clarification. I felt the date was needed; should we edit the date you mentioned into the answer?
    – Basya
    Commented Jun 18, 2023 at 19:20
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    @Basya Feel free!
    – gidds
    Commented Jun 18, 2023 at 20:10
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I'm not accepting this self-answer because it doesn't actually use tenses, which is what this post was after, but H.G. Wells' The Time Machine from 1889 has an example of linguistic confusion with regards to time travel:

Will he ever return? It may be that he swept back into the past, and fell among the blood-drinking, hairy savages of the Age of Unpolished Stone; into the abysses of the Cretaceous Sea; or among the grotesque saurians, the huge reptilian brutes of the Jurassic times. He may even now—if I may use the phrase—be wandering on some plesiosaurus-haunted Oolitic coral reef, or beside the lonely saline seas of the Triassic Age.

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    TVTropes is generally pretty good at indexing this sort of thing, and The Time Machine is the oldest entry under Time Travel Tense Trouble.
    – Mark
    Commented Jun 18, 2023 at 7:57
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    TVT is often missing older stories from SF mags and such. I sometimes index the results of this community on TVT, though, such as adding Year 4338 as the oldest example of Future Imperfect. Commented Jun 18, 2023 at 9:39

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