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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 surprise 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.


perfectaspect

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
perfect
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.  Notice that 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
continuous
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
progressive
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
iterative
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
habitual
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
durative
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
prospective

Note that 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.


walking

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
progressive
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


continuous

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
continuous
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 note that in some circumstances, they are interchangeable with little or no change in meaning.


smokinghabitual

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
durative
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

Both 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).
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.


bang

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.
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
iterative
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.


americaprospective

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
prospective
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.


skip

Prospective aspect triggered by past events

It is possible that the event or state which triggers the future may even be in the past, skipping 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