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Concourse 2

Time, tense and aspect

hour glass

If you feel comfortable with the following concepts ...

  • time, tense and aspect
  • perfect, progressive, continuous, habitual, iterative, durative and prospective aspects
  • the distinction between progressive and continuous aspects
  • the distinction between stative and dynamic verb use
  • perfective, perfect and imperfect verb forms
  • telic and atelic clauses
  • finite and non-finite verb forms

... then feel free to use this index to go to the area that interests you

Talking about the Present Talking about the Past Talking about the Future Talking about Always

Otherwise, read on ...


deck clearing

Clearing some conceptual decks

Before we can look at tense forms, meaning and use in English, we have to get three things clear:

  • Time:
    This is the concept of when an action or a state is set.  Traditionally, we have four choices:
    • Now: the action / state is in the present
    • Past: the action / state occurred before the present
    • Future: the action / state will occur after the present
    • Always: the action / state occurred in the past, is occurring now and will continue to occur
  • Tense:
    This is the name we give to the form the verb takes.  It refers to the form of the verb and the grammatical function of any primary auxiliary verbs involved.  In English it is often averred that there are just two:
    • Past tense: e.g., made rather than make
    • Present tense: e.g., comes rather than came
    • but we'll add a third because English most certainly does exhibit future forms (such as will go rather than goes) even if it has no 'proper' future tense as many languages do (and many don't)
  • Aspect:
    this refers to how the user of the language views the event.  There are many of these and they are signalled in languages in a bewildering number of ways.  For the purposes of analysing English verb form, meaning and use, we'll focus on:
    • perfect: relating two times (past to pre-past, present to pre-present, future to post-future)
    • progressive: ongoing
    • continuous: current
    • habitual: routine
    • iterative: repeated
    • durative: long lasting
    • prospective: looking forward

Here's the cut-out-and-keep guide to summarise this.

time tense aspect


clarity

Some examples to make this clear


Example Time Tense Aspect
That'll be the postman Now Future simple Continuous
he is here now signalled by ''ll' he is standing outside the door
I have always arrived on Sunday Always Present perfect Habitual
signalled by the adverb signalled by the form of the verb and the auxiliary this is a routine
He thinks so Now Present simple Continuous
this is his present state of mind signalled by the -s inflexion this is a current state
John is writing a book Now Present Progressive
this is one of his current occupations signalled by is this is an ongoing action
John is always banging on about it Always Present Iterative
signalled by the adverb signalled by is a repeated action
Murray hits a backhand down the line Now Present Progressive
commentary on current actions signalled by -s describing an action in progress
I have finished Present Present perfect Perfect
describing a current situation signalled by the form of the verb and the auxiliary the present related to the past
I leave tomorrow Future Present Simple
signalled by the adverb signalled by base form of the verb a one-off event
I was staying at the Ritz then Past Past Durative
signalled by the adverb signalled by the auxiliary the state went on for some time
He's going to fall Future Present Prospective
signalled by the context signalled by the verb form event after now
What will you do if she doesn't arrive? Future Present Simple
signalled by the if-structure signalled by -s a one-off event
What would you do if she didn't arrive? Future Past Simple
signalled by the if-structure signalled by didn't a one-off event

We can see from even this short list, that time, tense and aspect do not exist in a one-to-one relationship.  Tenses are not, formally, tied to time and aspect is not always signalled by formal changes in the verb.



progressive and continuous

The confusion between progressive and continuous

I think they're talking nonsense  

It is unhelpful to assume that continuous and progressive are simply alternative words for the same aspect.  We may, somewhat loosely, call the tense form something like present / past / perfect etc. continuous but when we consider aspect, we need to be a little more careful.

Continuous aspect
describes a current state of affairs such as, e.g.:
    I believe in fairies
    He loves me
    He is loving the attention
    He hated me
    We are on holiday
    She is living in a guest house
etc.
The clue is in the name – the aspect refers to the speaker's perception that something is a continuing state of affairs.
The continuous aspect does not always require the auxiliary + -ing.  It can be inherent in both the simple form and the auxiliary + -ing forms of the verb.  This is especially true, of course, with verbs such as think, believe, understand, like etc. which contain the sense of the continuous semantically.
Progressive aspect
describes an ongoing action such as
    I'm typing this sentence
    He runs the length of the field and scores
    She is taking liberties
    We were eating in my favourite restaurant
etc.
The clue is in the name – the aspect refers to the speaker's perception that something is in progress at the time of speaking, i.e., an ongoing action.
Notice, again, that the progressive aspect does not always require the auxiliary + -ing.  It can be inherent in both the simple form and the auxiliary + -ing forms of the verb.  For example
    Look, I now turn over the paper and there is the shape
    Here she comes!
    I acknowledge receipt of your letter
The progressive aspect of the verb can also signal a background event which is perceived as taking place in the present but is not necessarily something being done right this minute.
Compare, for example:
    She is studying French at university
which could imply right this minute but probably refers to a background event.  She may not, at the time of speaking, be anywhere near the university in question.
with
    She's in the garden, pulling up weeds
which, because of the nature of the act and the prepositional phrase, almost certainly does refer to the present moment.

thinking believe

The confusion between stative and dynamic

Much of the confusion evident in describing verbs as either stative or dynamic arises from the inability to distinguish between continuous and progressive aspects.

There is a distinction between, e.g.,
    I am thinking
and
    I think that ...
It is the distinction between the progressive aspect (I am thinking) and the continuous aspect with a simple verb form (I think).  In the second of these, the verb is akin to believe (i.e., a continuous state of mind) and in the first, it describes an ongoing (that is to say progressing) action or process.

For this reason, if no other, it makes sense to speak of stative vs. dynamic uses of verbs.

Many other languages make no such distinctions between these uses of verbs and the expressions I go and I am going or I think and I am thinking are indistinguishable.  English is not unique but it is slightly unusual.


endperfect

The confusions between perfective, imperfective and perfect

There are three concepts here:

perfective
is the term used to indicate that an event or state is completed.  For example,
    I went to Margate last Thursday
is a perfective form which may or may not have present relevance but is clearly finished.
    Napoleon died in 1821
is another example of a perfective form in English.
    I have given up smoking
is also a perfective form (because the action is completed) which happens to be in the perfect aspect as well.
The perfective can be contrasted with the ...
imperfective
which is the term that indicates an event is not completed.  Examples are:
    She was playing tennis with John
    I have lived here all my life
In neither case is the event perceived as finished.  The form of the verb is described as imperfect.
perfect
is the term used to signify an imperfective or perfective which has a certain tense structure.
For example,
    I have been to America
is a perfective (the act of going to America has been completed) but is a perfect tense indicating a present relevance of some sort.
    I have lived here all my life
is imperfective (but still a perfect form) because it also signifies some present relevance (in this case that the state is probably (not certainly) current).
The perfect is, in English grammar, contrasted with the simple.

Many other languages, again, make no such distinctions between these uses of verbs and the expressions I went and I have been are indistinguishable.  English is not unique but it is slightly unusual.
Some languages are much clearer about perfective and imperfective forms.  For more on other languages, see the guide to aspect.

reading

Telicity

This is a related phenomenon in languages.
The term telic comes from the Greek, τέλος, meaning end.  The concept of telic and atelic verb phrases concerns whether an activity is seen as finished or unfinished.  To grasp the point, compare:

  1. I read the book for an hour
  2. I read the book in an hour

Sentence 1. suggest that I did not finished the book so the verb phrase is atelic.
Sentence 2. suggest that I finished the book so the verb phrase is telic.

This matters in English because we can say:
    I was reading the book for an hour
but we cannot have:
    I was reading the book in an hour.

The implication for English grammar is that verbs in the perfect or continuous aspects are almost always possible with a time frame adverbial but not with a time span adverbial so.  In other words, perfective forms, which are by definition telic, generally imply a time frame (even when it is not stated) but not a time span.  For example:
    I had been reading for an hour
vs.
    *I had been reading in an hour
or
    I was cycling for a week

vs.
    *I was cycling in a week
or
    I have lived here for a year

vs.
    *I have lived here in a year
or
    I was reading when the telephone rang

vs.
    *I read when the telephone rang.

The situation is complicated by the fact that verbs are generally telic or atelic depending on their meaning so the phenomenon of telicity is as much semantic as grammatical.  For example:

  1. I finished the book in an hour
    is telic by its meaning, because the adverbial refers to a time span, and
  2. I finished the book for an hour
    is not possible because the adverbial refers to a time frame rather than a span.
  3. I was cooking when the telephone rang
    has the atelic verb cooking which is imperfective and the perfective rang which clearly had an end point so is telic.  Compare:
  4. I cursed when the telephone rang
    in which both verbs are telic and perfective.

Some languages, for example Finnish, Estonian, Czech and Hungarian, reserve a special verb form to signal telicity but English often does it through tense aspects.


emc

Relative and absolute tense forms

Here, we depart slightly from a traditional description of tense forms in English and take a more functional view of what the forms actually do and the meanings they realise.

Absolute tense forms
These locate an event in time relative to the here and now, i.e., the time of speaking or writing.  For example:
    She will take the 6 o'clock train
sets her action as lying in the future from now.
    She caught the 6 o'clock train
sets her action in the past seen from now
    She is getting on the 6 o'clock train
sets her action in the present
    She was sitting on the train
sets the continuous state in the past
    She will be sitting on the train
sets the continuous state in the future
Relative tense forms
These take it a step further and relate what is happening relative to an absolute tense.  For example:
    She has caught the train and is working on her laptop
sets the present (working) in relation to a past event (getting on the train)
    She had caught the train and was working on her laptop
sets the past (working) in relation to the pre-past (getting on the train)
    She will have finished by the time the train gets to London
sets the future (finishing) in relation to the a post-future (getting to London)
Relative tense forms do not stop there.  For example:
    She was sitting on the train, reading a book
is absolute in the sense that the events are fixed in time relative to the present as we saw above.
However,
    She was sitting on the train when the she realised her mistake
sets the realising in relation to a background event and
    She had been going to work but had forgotten her laptop
sets the working as a future in the past (although one that did not happen).

An alternative way of seeing these forms is to consider what is being expressed in terms of time and the relationships between events and states, like this (following Lock, 1996: 149):

Time Example Explanation of the concept Visualised
green for present
orange for past
blue for future
The present in the present He is working in the garden The verb form refers to now set relative to now present in present
The past in the present He has worked in the garden The verb form refers to pre-now in relation to now past in present
The present in the past He was working in the garden The verb form refers to the present set in the past present in the past
The past in the past He had worked in the garden The verb form refers to the pre-past set in the past past in past
The present in the future He will be working in the garden The verb form refers to the present set in the future present in the future
The past in the future He will have worked in the garden The verb form refers to the past set in the future past in future
The future in the present He is going to work in the garden The verb form refers to the future set in the present future in present
The future in the past He was going to work in the garden The verb form refers to the future set in the past future in past

Seen this way, complex tenses which combine aspects can be explained conceptually.  Like this:

Time Example Explanation of the concept Visualised
green for present
orange for past
blue for future
 
The present in the past in the present He has been working in the garden The verb form sets the present in the past set in the present present in the past in the present
The present in the past in the past He had been working in the garden The verb form sets the present in the past set in the past present in past in past
The present in the past in the future He will have been working in the garden The verb form sets the present in the past set in the future present in past in future
The future in the past in the present He has been going to work in the garden The verb form sets the future in the past set in the present future in past in present
The future in the past in the past He had been going to work in the garden The verb form sets the future in the past set in the past future in past in past
The future in the future He will be going to work in the garden The verb form sets the future in the future future in future
The future in the past in the future He will have been going to work in the garden The verb form sets the future in the past set in the future future in past in future

The visualisation in colour on the right of these tables appeals to some learners.  Do not present them all at once!

A third way to consider the forms is to view them from the point of view of telicity (see above).
Relative tense forms, often, refer to atelic forms so, for example:
    He will have been travelling for 24 hours
is atelic because there is no obvious end point to the activity, but
    He will travel for 24 hours
is telic because the presumption is that he will stop travelling after the 24 hours is up.


finite

Finite and non-finite forms

In these guides, we are mostly concerned with finite verbs forms (i.e., those marked in some way for person or tense).  There is a guide to finite and non-finite forms on this site.
It should not be forgotten that non-finite forms can also signal aspect, even if they do not signal time or tense.  For example:

Forms Meaning Aspect
Feeling rather shy, he put his hand up At the time he felt shy and at the time he put up his hand:
two processes, one continuous (the feeling) and one instant (the action)
continuous and simple
Being rather a tall man, he reached it easily Two verbs, one a permanent state (tall), the other an action (instantaneous) continuous and simple
Arriving at station, he realised he was late Two simple actions (arriving and realising) simple
If you will just hear me out Two verbs (one apparently future but actually present and referring to willingness), the other an infinitive (non-finite) simple


moving

Moving on

If the distinctions above are clear to you, it's time to look at the ways English refers to time and the speakers' perceptions of time.

To check that you have taken this on board, try a test.


guides

Guides to times, tenses and aspects

In what follows this site takes a somewhat alternative view of tense grammar.

Many grammars, especially those aimed at students, start with the name of the tense, explain its formation and then list the ways in which it is used and the meanings we make with the forms.  It works along the lines of, e.g.:

The present progressive is formed by taking the appropriate present tense form of the verb to be, and following it with the -ing form of the verb (omitting a final 'e' if it is present) so we get, He is having lunch with his mother.
We use this tense to talk about current actions in progress, temporary states, the arranged future and ... etc.

That is familiar to most learners and teachers and may be reassuring.  However, it is a non-functional way to proceed.
It is non-functional because it presumes a mental process something like this:
mental process 1

Here, we are going to work the other way: we will start with the meanings we want to make and identify the major ways to make these meanings using verb forms and their aspects.
This assumes a mental process more like:
mental process 2

In these guides, the assumption is that you know (and can teach) how the tenses and aspects are formed.  We are only considering meaning and function.

Here's the list.  Click on the area that interests you.

Talking about the Present Talking about the Past Talking about the Future Talking about Always


Reference:
Lock, G, 1996, Functional English Grammar, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press