Tense and aspect

In grammar, the word tense refers to the time period in which the verb of a sentence places an action.

There are two tenses in English: present and past. Unlike many languages, English does not have a future tense. To talk about the future, English requires either the modal verb WILL or the present progressive. Learn how to talk about the future in the lesson future constructions in English.

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For each grammatical tense, there are subcategories called aspects. Aspect refers to the duration of an event within a particular tense. In other words, the aspect of a tense allows us to describe or understand how an event unfolds over time. English has four aspects: simple, progressive, perfect, and perfect progressive.

Here are all verbal aspects in English grouped by verb tense.

Tense Aspect Example
Present simple present I wash the car.
present progressive I am washing the car.
present perfect I have washed the car.
present perfect progressive I have been washing the car.
Past simple past I washed the car.
past progressive I was washing the car.
past perfect I had washed the car.
past perfect progressive I had been washing the car.


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4 Responses

  1. Alex 8 April 2015 / 14:10

    – How many times are there in English?
    -Can a present tense refer to a past or future time?
    – What is the difference between past tense and a past time?

  2. lkl 9 April 2015 / 06:12

    Two: present and past. The present tense can refer to the future – I’m going to the store later – but not the past.

    A past tense is a verb form that refers to the past. A pastime has nothing to do with grammar; it’s a hobby or activity.

  3. Alex 9 April 2015 / 12:00

    Ikl You’re kind of a big deal, thanks!

  4. steven 29 April 2015 / 05:15

    In syntax, the present tense cannot refer to the past. But within a narrative, it can and does quite often in usage:

    “you have a bump on your head, what happened?”
    ” I hit it on the steering wheel.”
    “How, and when?”
    “How did it happen?”
    “OK, here’s what happened: I’m leaving work, and I pull out of the lot on 6th, like always. And this guy on a bicycle comes out of nowhere, and pulls right in front of me. I had to slam on the brakes, and when I did, I hit my head on the wheel…”

    This isn’t necessarily a standard form you find in books of grammar, but it is a common usage that you hear frequently and repeatedly, and it usually is used in such a context as this – the recounting of a personal event that is full of action. The form is used to give emphasis, to add immediacy, and to make the narrative more dramatic.

    The other common usage, among certain demographics, is the form of a narrative telling of a conversation, where the dialogue introductions are coded as present tense, as in “He says/she says…” Thus:

    So, I’m talking to this young man on campus, just the other day, and he says to me, he says, “Who are you, old man??” And I told him, “I work here, young man. You should be more respectful!”

    You will hear many young men tell tales of daring and/or bravery in this fashion. And many older folks introduce past speech events like the 2nd example.

    Likewise, while there is no syntactic conjugation to denote future tense without adding modality, the narrative structure encodes the future tense by placing the present progressive in a denoted future event frame. It is perhaps more applicable, meaningful, and practical to say the present progressive “becomes a future tense when designated such by a time marker, like ‘later’ or ‘tomorrow.'” Rather than saying “the present tense can refer to the future.” Lots of word combinations have variable meanings when placed in different contexts. Tense need not be treated differently than any other syntactic or pragmatic element.

    I do applaud you, though, for not saying, as all too many texts do, that “will” is a future tense. Ugh! When I trained English teachers in Thailand, I gathered all the textbooks and scratched out this equivalency. The Thai morpheme they said was “future tense” and translated as “will” is actually a general marker for non-real events, and is attached to all modalities of propositions that have not actually occurred – like “should, would, might, must, are required to…, cannot, etc. The kids were trying to add “will” to all of those English sentences, such as “I will must go to the store.”

    BTW – Also, past tense is the way language denote the events that have already transpired. Past time is the actual temporal duration that has already transpired. Pastime is a hobby.

    “Baseball is often called our national pastime. The past time when this phrase was coined was the heyday of baseball – it is not as popular anymore, but the nickname remains.”

    Sorry to be Mr. Teacher. I don’t correct people usually – but this site is unusual, and it seemed appropriate.

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