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Concourse 2

Tense and aspect: the essentials


What follows refers only to English.  Languages deal with these two issues very differently indeed.


What's the difference between Tense and Aspect?

Tense refers to the time of an event and is often marked by a change in the verb ending.  So we have, e.g.:

  1. Rita believes in ghosts (present)
  2. Rita believed in ghosts (past)

In these examples, the tense is marked by a suffix, -s for the present tense (which also shows that it is third-person singular) and -d for the past form.
However, unlike many languages, English often has no inflexion on the base form of the verb in many cases.  For example, in:
    They believe in ghosts
the verb is in its base form with no marker to show tense or person but it is still a present tense.
Arguably, too, English has no future tense because we don't have a form of the verb to signify future time.  We denote the future in many ways, for example:
    She is going to talk to me
    She will talk to me

Aspect refers to how an event or state is perceived with reference to time.  So we have, e.g.:

  1. Rita has broken the rule
  2. Rita is breaking the rule

Sentence 3 tells us not only that the rule was broken in the past but also that it changes the present.  The fact that she has broken the rule has consequences now.  It is a present tense in this respect making the present situation clear in relation to the past.  It will come as no surprise that this tense form is referred to as the present perfect.
Sentence 4 gives a different aspect.  The -ing ending on the verb is called a present participle ending and in English that tells us that the event is happening now or happens repeatedly.  Unfortunately, English present tenses are a bit complicated.  Think what these actually mean and then click here for the answers.

  1. Rita walks to school
  2. Rita is walking to school tomorrow
  3. Rita is walking to school now

Aspect and tense are very closely related.  We can use other tenses with progressive (be + -ing) aspects and with perfect aspects (have + the past participle of the verb).  Here are two examples:

  1. Rita had walked to school
    Perfect aspect, past tense – we call this the past perfect tense.  It relates a past event to another past event.
  2. Rita was walking to school
    Progressive aspect, past tense – we call this the past progressive tense.  It is often used in conjunction with a simple form in, e.g.:
    Rita was walking to school when she met her friends
    and this is, again, a relational tense providing the background (walking) to the event (met).

Before we go on, here's a summary of the all the present and past tenses and aspects with their names, along with the future forms English also uses.

Example (form in italics) Tense name
She often speaks to her boss Present simple (habit)
She is speaking to her boss Present progressive
She spoke to her boss Past simple
She was speaking to her boss Past progressive
She has spoken to her boss Present perfect
She has been speaking to her boss Present perfect progressive
She had spoken to her boss Past perfect
She had been speaking to her boss Past perfect progressive
She will speak to her boss Future simple (factual future)
She is speaking to her boss tomorrow Present progressive (future)
She is going to speak to her boss 'going to' future (intentionality)
She will be speaking to her boss Future progressive (ongoing future)
She will have spoken to her boss Future perfect (past in the future)
She will have been speaking to her boss Future perfect progressive (past in the future)



An important concept to understand when talking about tense and aspect is the distinction between an absolute tense and a relative tense.

  • Absolute tenses set an event or a state in time with no need for any reference to any other event or state.  For example:
    • She ate lunch at 1 o'clock
      which sets the action in the past and tells exactly when it happened
    • He lives in London
      which sets the state in the present with no need for any further information
    • The London train always leaves at 6
      which sets the action as a definite, timetabled event.  We know it refers to the present, the past and the future.
    • I will be forty years old on Monday
      which sets the state (being 40) in a specific time frame (Monday)
  • Relative tenses relate two actions together and cannot be fully understood without some kind of context or additional information.  For example:
    • He has lived in India for 20 years
      which may be considered as a reference to the past but is only fully understandable if it comes with some additional information, for example
      ... so he can tell you (now) something reliable about India
          but he is moving to Germany soon
          and he will continue to do so
    • She had already eaten
      which clearly refers to the past but is not understandable without some more information, for example:
          so didn't want anything
          but was happy to have a little lunch with us
    • They will have been at university for 2 years
      which tells us about the future but is incomplete.  We need to add information, for example:
          and have learned a good deal about geology
          and will graduate next year
    • She was sitting on the bus
      which tells us that an event was ongoing in the past but needs to be completed with something like
          when she realised she had missed her stop
          when she started to feel ill
    • She had been running
      which combines two aspects (the perfect and the progressive) and is incomplete unless we know what the tense relates to with, for example:
          because she was late for work
          and was exhausted

This is important because many languages do not make a clear distinction between the two types of tense and the concepts are not easy to grasp.

This page is available to download as a PDF document.

Related guides
a lesson plan If you would like to see how considerations of aspect might work in a full lesson
a lesson for elementary learners on using past simple and past progressive
voice with a focus on the active and passive
copular verbs for a guide to how be and other verbs work to link the subject and complement
the present perfect for a guide to how have works to form the language's most troublesome and misunderstood tense
aspect a more technical guide to the area in the in-service training section of this site

Click to go on to the test.