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Concourse 2

Talking about present time


English uses a number of strategies to apply aspect to present time.  The form we use depends on the aspect we perceive.
You may be mildly surprised to find the present perfect, the going to formulation and the use of be + -ing in this section.  The argument is that, while they do refer to future or past states or events, they do so premised on present states or events and can only be understood with reference to the present.  In this sense they are relational not absolute forms and belong here.

If you are expecting to find consideration of the present simple tense in English in this guide, you will be disappointed.  That tense is considered in the guide to talking about always because it is a factual, absolute tense, unmarked for time.


Perfect aspect in the present

It has rained
It has been raining

The clue to a major use of the present perfect lies in its name: it is the present perfect.
If we want to refer to a present state of affairs or action in relation to the past, this form will do it for us.
For example:

The meaning I want to convey Form of choice Aspect
I want to say that a current event is also a previous event It has rained all day
and is still raining
I want to say that a change to the present event is the result of a recent finished past event He has finally arrived
so now we can get on
I want to say that a present state is the result of past event (recent or not) I have learned French.
so now I can speak it
I want to say that a present state is a continuation of a past state I have owned the house for some time
and still do

We can combine the perfect aspect with a continuous, progressive, iterative, habitual, durative or prospective aspect and for these purposes, we choose a different form.  All the following retain the sense of the perfect aspect, i.e., the relation of the present to the past but have an additional aspect grafted on to them.
For example:

The meaning I want to convey Form of choice Aspect
I want to say that a current state is also a previous state I have been feeling rough for a while
and I still feel rough
I want to say that a current ongoing action is a continuation of a previous ongoing action I have been walking quickly for hours
and am still walking quickly
I want to say that a current series of events is the continuation of a previous series of events It has been raining on and off all day.
and is still raining on and off
I want to say that a routine continues from a previous routine I have been taking the 4 o'clock bus for years
and it is still my habit to do this
I want to say that a current long-lasting action continues from a long-lasting action I have been thinking about it for a while.
and continue to do so
I want to say that a future event or state arises from a past event or state I have been meaning to talk to you for a while
and will do so very soon
The river has been rising all night
and will soon flood the streets

Speakers will often choose prepositional phrases (circumstances, if you prefer) to reinforce the meaning of what they say from their point of view.
There is a guide to the present perfect on this site but it does not focus on more than two aspects.

One important point about the present perfect is that it can refer to an imperfective or perfective use of the verb.
For example:
    I have returned
is perfective, insofar as the returning is complete.  Another way to say this is that the verb use is telic, with a perceived end point.
    I have worked here for ten years
is imperfective because the implication is that I will go on working here.  Another way to say that is that the verb use is atelic, having not end point in sight.


Progressive aspect in the present

While he is walking in the mountains,
he looks out for bears

The progressive aspect is not the same as the continuous.  We can assert that something is ongoing, i.e., in progress, in three ways:

The meaning I want to convey Form of choice Aspect
I want to say that an action is currently in progress She is sitting on the bus, reading War and Peace and loves the story
right now
progressive (all three)
I want to say that an action is in progress but is not currently happening She's reading War and Peace
but may be at work now
I want to comment on or describe an action in progress See, I open it like this, take out the screws and put them aside
Peterson moves quickly and scores

Simple forms, with certain types of verbal processes, especially mental processes such as enjoy, appreciate, love, understand and verbal processes such as say, aver, assert, describe, are often progressive in aspect but the tense choice is simple.  This is the effect of stative and dynamic use and is not paralleled in many languages.  Examples include:
    She appreciates your hospitality
    I understand the main points you are making
    John says the weather will be better tomorrow
    I describe it as deeply foolish

In all these cases, incidentally, the simple form of the verb is used although the verb is atelic, have no explicitly stated end point.  This is slightly unusual because telicity is routinely signalled by aspect in English with, e.g.:
    I am living in London
which is atelic with no stated end point.
The unusual factor is that in the present tense, we can also express an unfinished (atelic) event with the simple aspect:
    I live in London.
This is not possible in the past because:
    I was living in London
is atelic with no end point but:
    I lived in London
implies the event is concluded and is a telic use.


Continuous aspect in the present

I don't understand it
I am not following you

As with the progressive aspect, the continuous is expressed through both the simple and more complex verb forms.
For example:

The meaning I want to convey Form of choice Aspect
I want to say that a state currently exists I feel terrible
right now
I'm feeling better
right now
I want to say that a state of mind currently exists I think that's astonishing
but this cannot be a permanent condition
I'm looking forward to meeting you
but this cannot be a permanent condition

Here, too, the distinction between stative and dynamic verb use is apparent but in some circumstances, for example with the verb feel, they are interchangeable with little or no change in meaning.  When feel is used in the sense of believe, it is timeless, usually, so we can have:
    I feel that's mistaken
but not:
    *I am feeling that's mistaken.
(For more on verbs encoding mental or verbal processes which are used in the simple form when they are statements of timeless fact and in the progressive form when they refer to ongoing mental processes, see the guide to talking about always.  In that guide the short list of examples is: believe, suggest, say, propose, aver, opine, avow, state, claim, declare, swear, profess and so on.)

In all these cases, the verb is imperfective or atelic because no end point is explicit.


Durative aspect in the present

I'm smoking too much

English happens to distinguish between the habitual (which is not solely a present aspect) and the durative.
For example:

The meaning I want to convey Form of choice Aspect
I want to say that an action is a present long-standing routine which may cease I'm staying at the Astor
right now and for some time in the past and future
I want to say that a long-standing state currently exists but may cease soon It's cooling down a bit
right now
I want to say that a current event is understandable from previous experience of the same event That'll be the neighbour's son coming home
That'll be the post arriving
right now

All of these could be described as progressive but the first speaker may not be in the hotel now (so it isn't an action in progress) and the second speaker may not be talking of weather at this moment in time (so the state is not current).  In both cases, however, the event is unfinished.
A sub category of the durative, for which some languages have a separate form, is the continuative which is signalled in English by an adverbial of some kind rather than a tense form.  For example:
    She is still eating.


Iterative aspect in the present

Who's banging the drum?

Note the distinction here with verb meaning:
    Who's banging the drum?
is iterative (i.e., repeated) because the verb implies a short, sharp action but
    Who's playing the bagpipes?
is durative because the verb implies a long action.
The distinction between durative and iterative aspects in English often lies in the meaning of the verb rather than the tense form.  That is not the case in other languages which may signal the uses in distinct verb forms.
For example:

The meaning I want to convey Form of choice Aspect
I want to say that an action may not be happening exactly at the moment of speaking but is happening now to all intents and purposes Someone's knocking on the door
right now but the knocks may be quite infrequent
I want to say that an action is repeated but may not be happening right now People are forgetting to return their books
over a period of time, repeatedly

Who bangs the drum? and Who plays the bagpipes? are iterative, not present per se.


Prospective aspect in the present

Who's going to drive?
Who's driving tomorrow?

You may be slightly surprised to find what are often contrasted as two future forms in the section on talking about the present.  However, seen from an understanding of prospective aspect, it makes good sense.
Just as the perfect aspect (above) highlights the nature of a present state of affairs or action in relation to the past, so the prospective aspect highlights the relationship between a current situation and the future.
Both the obviously present forms that we use to talk about the future in that analysis are better understood as being rooted firmly in the present.

The meaning I want to convey Form of choice Aspect
I want to say that an action now will have a future fulfilment So, we agree; I'm driving tomorrow
the agreement is current, the consequence is not
I want to say that a decision taken now will have a future fulfilment I want to be clear: I'm not going to drive
the decision is now
I want to say that a current state has future consequences By the look of those skies, it's going to rain again.
the appearance of the sky is immediate and present
I'm feeling a bit ill so I'm taking tomorrow off
the feeling is current and there's no obvious arrangement, incidentally

The traditional analysis of these two forms as future indicators is not without merit but their use for the future can only be understood from previous events or states.
The distinction between an intention with going to and an arrangement (with the -ing form), if it is sustainable at all, can only be discovered by reference to actions or states at a time before the future.

It is sometimes said, with reason, that when discussing plans and arrangements (for which we use the present progressive form) or intentions (for which we use the going to structure) the forms are, in fact much more fluid than the simple dichotomy suggests.  Functionally, there is little distinction between the meanings of the forms, so:
    He's taking a holiday next week
carries the same meaning as
    He's going to take a holiday next week
    I'm going to see my mother on Monday
    I'm seeing my mother on Sunday
are also virtually indistinguishable.

There are times, however, when the forms are not interchangeable or when ambiguity needs to be avoided.

  1. Semantic disqualification
    red card
    With some verbs, arrangement is semantically possible.  For example, we can have:
        I'm turning up at my mother's party on Sunday
        I am going to turn up at my mother's party on Sunday
    with little difference, if any, in meaning.
    But, if the meaning of the verb specifically excludes any possibility of an agreed arrangement then the progressive form is not possible so we can have:
        I am going to surprise my mother by turning up at her party on Sunday
    but not:
        *I am surprising my mother by turning up at her party on Sunday
    because, semantically, you cannot arrange to be surprised, astonished, excited, flabbergasted, bewildered etc.  All these sorts of verbs are disqualified from appearing with the be + -ing form, therefore.
  2. Avoiding ambiguity
    alternative meanings
    The progressive form, in order to avoid ambiguity, usually needs to be accompanied by a time adverbial unless the context makes the future nature of the current plan clear.  So, for example, we can have:
        I'm going to drive to London
    without context and the future sense is still clear.
        I'm driving to London
    without any context is ambiguous and could mean:
        I'm driving to London as we speak
        I'm planning / have arranged to drive to London

    or even
        It is my current, temporary habit to drive to London (rather than use an alternative form of transport)
    If the context does not clarify the situation as in, e.g.:
        A: Can you come in early tomorrow?
        B: Sorry.  I'm taking the kids to school

    we need to insert a time adverbial to disambiguate what we are saying so, e.g.:
        I'm driving to London in the morning
        I'm driving to London soon
    are not ambiguous even without context because of the prepositional phrase adverbial or the adverb respectively.
  3. Stative vs. Dynamic verb uses
    The going to formulation can be used with verbs used statively so we allow, e.g.:
        He's going to be angry when he gets the news
        She's going to look wonderful at tonight's party
        They are going to seem out of place in that company

    we do not allow the progressive forms:
        *He is being angry when he gets the news
        *She's looking wonderful at tonight's party
        *They are seeming out of place in that company

    if the reference is to the future.
    Both forms can be used with verbs used dynamically, only going to is used statively.
  4. Inanimate subjects
    We do not ascribe the ability to plan or form arrangements to inanimate objects so we allow, e.g.:
        Look out!  The ladder's going to slip in a minute
    but not:
        Look out!  *The ladder's slipping in a minute.
    This distinction is most noticeable when we are talking about the weather.  Because it is inanimate, the weather is spoken about as:
        It's going to rain tomorrow
    but not as
        It's raining tomorrow.
  5. Present evidence
    Only going to can be used to refer to present evidence leading to a future event.  So we allow:
        It's making her angry.  She's going to lose her temper soon
    but not
        It's making her angry.  She's losing her temper soon
    Again, the present evidence rule applies when talking about inanimate objects such as the weather when present evidence is important so we get, for example:
        Look at the clouds.  It's going to rain soon
        Look at the clouds.  *It's raining soon.
  6. Past experience
    Prospective events based on past experience are also only realised through going to.  For example, we allow:
        When your father hears, he's going to laugh
    but not
        *When your father hears, he's laughing
    even though the future reference is clear.
    Again, past experience of weather conditions often makes the form suitable for that, too.  For example:
        It's going to snow a lot in Canada in January
        *It is snowing a lot in Canada in January.
  7. Conditional and contingent clauses
    train snow
    This is another sematic (or pragmatic) issue.  For example, we allow:
        If the trains aren't running, I'm going to drive
    and it is a conditional expressing the fact that the speaker does not yet know if the trains will be running.  However,
        If the trains aren't running, I'm driving
    does not have the same sense because it implies that the speaker already knows the trains are not running so has formed a plan or arrangement to drive.  It could be realised as
        As the trains aren't running, I'm driving.
  8. Modal auxiliary verbs
    Because most modal auxiliary verbs are defective in English and do not exhibit the full range of forms that lexical verbs do, there are severe limitations on the ways they can be used with either the going to or the be + -ing structure.
    • Deontic modality refers to duty or obligation and we allow, e.g.:
          I am going to have to talk to her
          I am having to work long hours
      but the second of these refers to present rather than future obligation and
          ?I am having to attend a meeting tomorrow
      is at best questionable.
      Other expressions of this form of modality which are rendered in the present with modal auxiliary verbs such as should and ought to.
      There are no equivalent forms using either of these structures so, e.g.:
          *He is going to ought to tell her
          *The are shoulding do it

      are not available.
      Other languages allow future forms of equivalent modal auxiliary verbs and learners may be surprised to find that English does not.  In fact, these deontic modal auxiliary verbs are used interchangeably in English to refer to present and future obligation as in, e.g.:
          I should smoke less
          I should talk to him
          I ought to be better at this
          I ought to tell her

    • Epistemic modality refers to possibility and likelihood and are again not expressed with these two structures so, e.g.:
          *He is going to ought to be there by now
          *She is shoulding be there soon
      are not possible.
      Again, both these future meanings are expressed using the same form for present and future time as in, e.g.:
          She should be here before six tomorrow
          They ought to arrive soon
          It ought to work
          It should be possible now

    • Alethic modality refers to the general truth of a proposition and is usually timeless so present forms are used and we cannot have, e.g.:
          *A square is going to have to have four sides
          *A square is having to have four sides.
    • Dynamic modality refers to the individual's capabilities, as in, e.g.
          I can see the point
      The going to formulation is available for some forms of dynamic modality to refer to a present ability realised in the future so we allow, e.g.:
          He is going to be able to help later
      but we do not allow, e.g.:
          *He is being able to help later
      so the be + -ing form is not available to refer to current ability realised in the future.
  9. Arrangements
    This is a marginal difference and more a tendency than a rule.  By their nature, arrangements are made between people but intentions can be formed individually and only later communicated to others.  Most English speakers will prefer, therefore:
        All of us are meeting at the restaurant in the square tomorrow
        All of us are going to meet at the restaurant in the square tomorrow
    although both are possible with little effect on meaning.
    However, in an exchange such as:
        A: Are you writing to the boss about this?
        B: No.  I'm going to talk to her face to face.

    then the second speaker has only now communicated a pre-formed intention.  If the second speaker had said:
        B: No.  I'm meeting her face to face.
    then the meaning is that the speaker and the boss have reached an agreement to meet.


Prospective aspect triggered by past events

It is possible that the event or state which triggers the future may even be in the past, omitting any reference to the present altogether as in, e.g.:
    We talked it over and we're going to emigrate.
    We had a long chat and are moving in together.
which are both examples of a perfective past simple resulting in a current prospective event.
The prospective present can also be combined with the perfect as in, e.g.:
    It has been agreed that I am driving / going to drive.
In the last case, we have a perfective action (completed) couched in perfect form and followed by a prospective aspect in a present tense (and either form is acceptable).

Take a short test to see if you can match aspect to meaning.

the tenses index