A staple of time travel stories is a moment where the meaning of “before” or “past” can't be taken in the simple normal way, and everyone laughs at the novelty. In reality, a trained ChronoCop Agent would have the vocabulary to succinctly refer to the situation.

Now an extended set of tenses is overkill and not likely to achieve popular use. But a few pieces of Jargon can go a long way to streamlining such situations.

I’m reminded of the case in classic 8086 assembly language where comparing two values can mean two different things. Here, normal English synonyms are used in a formal way as Jargon: greater than/less than is one way and above/below is the other.

So it is with a time traveler referring to the past: his personal experience is different from the past in the normal flow, and he will simply keep track of the distinction.

Any suggestions for that?

More difficult is the case of mixing references, in the case of multiple time travelers relating to each other as well as global history. “I will meet you later.” is odd if the event is in the person’s future experience but in the historical past. It is outright confusing if the person being spoken to already had the meeting in his own past experience.

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    $\begingroup$ "Spoilers!" - River $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Mar 28, 2017 at 1:12
  • $\begingroup$ In all seriousness, I would expect the language to be strongly affected by the time travel rules in that universe. If there are things you cannot do, they will not receive the same attention. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Mar 28, 2017 at 1:13
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    $\begingroup$ I will meat you later sounds a little threatening... $\endgroup$
    – apaul
    Commented Mar 28, 2017 at 3:55
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    $\begingroup$ I see no need for any new constructs. "We will have met in 1453" is pretty clear to anyone who hears it and is aware of existence of time travel. There's a lot of things I hate in English, but time paradoxes it handles surprisingly well. $\endgroup$
    – M i ech
    Commented Mar 28, 2017 at 3:58
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    $\begingroup$ *The Restaurant at the End of the Universe" contains quite the treatise on this exact topic. Surprised it hasn't been mentioned before. The whole thing is too long for a comment, but contains gems like "Most readers get as far as the Future Semiconditionally Modified Subinverted Plagal Past Subjunctive Intentional before giving up" $\endgroup$
    – cobaltduck
    Commented May 5, 2018 at 19:02

4 Answers 4


Not sure about tenses, but you will have to have ways to explain to people

  • You don't know me yet, I meet you in your subjected future 2 years from now.

  • In 6 years absolute from now, I will have been going to go to the Cretaceous for 3 years subjective.


Your best bet is to reread some of the classic time loop stories. (All you zombies, By his bootstraps, The Big Time (Fritz Leiber) ) and make a list of the types of situations. Reduce them to diagrams, and then invent tenses.

I think you will need past/future absolute/subjective correlated/disjoint The first two I think are obvious correlated: subject and object are on the same or close to the same time path. disjoint: One of you is out of sync. If I drive the time machine correlated present. "I went to 1850 to steal the Hope Diamond" steal is past disjoint.

You will have terms for 'self consistent causality loop' (Because of A, then A) for dual mode causality loop (Because of A then B, because of B, then A) multi mode loop...

Depending on your rules you will have principles like 'conservation of historical change' 'collapse of minor universe splits' (this explains both the disappearance and recovery of missing socks and why you didn't see your car keys the last 4 times you looked on the hook, but they are there now.)

Anytime you find yourself drawing pictures to keep track of things then generalize it and invent a word.

I think you need tenses for personal past that differentiate from absolute past. "I drank a milkshake yesterday:" personal. "I drankah milkshake yesterday:" historical. "I will drinkah milkshake yesterday:" Personal future, absolute past.

In this case I think that the auxiliary verbs in English add confusion. May want to look at pigeon languages.

English is almost entirely positional. We aren't aware of 'case' of nouns. In declined languages you become very aware of case. AI research in computer understanding of natural language is re-inventing case as a way of extracting meaning. We are aware of case intuitively: We routinely join nouns that share case. "Mom is baking." "Susan is baking" => Mom and Susan are baking.

"Mom is baking" "The Pie is baking" !> "Mom and the Pie are baking" Mom is the subject, doing the action. Pie, is receiving the action, so is the object.

Take a look at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grammatical_case

Imagine trying to explain music without the words for chord, major, augmented, diminished, modulation, tonic,

You probably don't want to go with a full jargon that professionals would use. They have had decades to arrive at it. Just a sprinkle.

There will be other conventions: If there are multiple time points of an individual present, you always start introductions from the most senior down.

You never mention a person's death to that person.

  • $\begingroup$ We seem to be on the same page. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Mar 28, 2017 at 5:53

Specificity seems like an easy solution.

"I will meet you later in your timeline"
"I will meet you on July, 4th 1776"

I would guess that cronops agents would be agents in the typical sense of the word, so it's probably fair to assume that they're trained like military officers, or have some sort of rigid special agent schooling, so specificity seems like a reasonable fit.

Possessive timelines would also make sense, as noted above.

Talking about the general/historical timeline:
"I will meet you later in our time" Implies the "present", for the agents. As in "once we jump back I'll see you"

Talking about one's own experienced timeline: "I saw him before in my time" Works better in the past tense, but still makes sense.

Admittedly the possessive timelines can get a little murky:

"We will meet again in your past time"
May be confusing to the listener, but there isn't really a good way to tell people that you're jumping about in time and telling them that you'll see them before you have told them wouldn't help the listener anyway.... Bad form for an agent from start to finish and should be avoided.


I think no new vocabulary is needed

First, let me assume that the 'future' visited by the ChronoCops can be altered by those same ChronoCops coming back to the past. For example, if The ChronoCops went to the future and saw someone commit a crime, they could go to the past and arrest (or kill) that person and prevent the crime from happening. I sort of assume this is the purpose of ChronoCops.

Given that assumption, I think that this means that the future is not really affected by things that the ChronoCops may have seen or done when they were there in the future. Instead, as soon as the ChronoCops come back to the past with knowledge of the future, the future that the ChronoCops saw will now never come to pass, and is this basically a separate universe that they have seen, but will never be to again.

In this case, there is no need for the ChronoCops to have multiple tenses for future and past, because at any given point in time, the cops future and past are identical to the future and past of anyone else they might be talking to.

For example, the ChronoCops could talk to me today about something that happens in 2010. Then they could go to 2008 and make sure the 2010 event never happened. However, in this interpretation of time travel, the ChronoCops could never come back to talk to the same 'me' they talked to before they altered the past. They might find a different 'me' at a different point of time, but they could never go back to talk to the 'me' they talked to before they traveled to 2008. Thus, during their first conversation with me, both the Cops and I had the same future and past. After they go to alter the past and/or future, the next me they talk to also has the same future and past as them.

I am not sure I explained this clearly, since its kind of a hard topic to wrap the mind around, but I think that given a time travel where going to the past alters any present or future that the time traveler can return to, there is only ever one timeline the time traveler is 'in,' and therefore there is only ever one future and past to talk to someone else in the current timeline about.

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    $\begingroup$ «am not sure I explained this clearly» which is the whole point of having good nomenclature. You refute yourself, being unable to make the point clear and succinct without specialized vocabulary. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Mar 28, 2017 at 5:51
  • $\begingroup$ Depends on your rules. if a time traveler inthe past is not affected by the changes he makes, then on return to the present he remembers a different timeline. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 13, 2023 at 7:33
  • $\begingroup$ If he is affected,and the time machine is affected too,then Niven's rule of time travel holds. "If time travel is possible, there will never be a time machine." Any time a machine is created some nimrod will go to the past and make a change interferes with it's creation. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 13, 2023 at 7:35

I don't think it would be that hard to come up with extra vocabulary; it's not like there's that much more information to convey. It's relative time words that cause the problem, when the timeline they refer to isn't clear. If the object they referred to was combined with the word, it would be obvious: 'I'll meet you later in your timeline'. This could evolve into something like 'youlater' and 'melater', so I could say 'We'll meet youlater,' or 'we'll meet in three mehours.' As long as each of us understands how the other relates to absolute time, the rest is mostly understandable.

That being said, using absolute words is probably easier and less confusing, so I imagine people would naturally switch to that. This makes me think of the Australian aborigines who don't have words for 'right' or 'left'; instead of using egocentric directions, they use cardinal directions at all times. While it might seem unnatural to us, it makes it much easier for them to navigate in places they've never been before.

Or consider it like using GMT; doing time conversions for everyone you talk to on the internet is definitely doable. Or, you can all just reference absolute time, and that's that.


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