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The Bridge: Tense and aspect


On your initial training course, you probably encountered all the traditional names of the tenses in English including, for example, present perfect continuous, past simple, future simple (with will) and much else.  You may even have encountered the difference between progressive and continuous meanings.

? To remind yourself of the names you learned, take a short matching text.

Also on your initial training course, you may have been made aware of the fact that tenses are not the same as times.  For example, in this little, made-up dialogue, tenses and times do not always match:

John Do I hear knocking?
Mary That'll be your brother
John It won't.  He's flying to the States tomorrow
Mary Well, are you going to see who it is?
John Why don't you go?
Mary I would if I knew who it was

? Think about what tenses are used and what times they refer to and then click here.

How did you do?

two springs

Two tenses in English

A major peculiarity of English tense forms is that there are, technically speaking, only two.  We can describe them as Now and Not now.
Tense, properly described, refers to making morphological changes to a verb's base form.  For example, in French, there are at least:

Form French English
Present Je vois la maison maintenant I see the house now
Past J'ai vu la maison hier
Je voyais la maison hier
I saw the house yesterday
Future Je verrai la maison demain ???? the house tomorrow

and the same phenomenon is observable in a range of other languages.

But English has a range of ways to complete the final cell of the table, indicated by ???? and could employ:
    I am seeing the house tomorrow
    I will see the house tomorrow
    I am going to see the house tomorrow
    I see the house tomorrow

We can see from the examples above that French makes morphological changes to the base form of the verb (voir) to betoken the tense in which the verb is used so we have vois, present, voyais, past and verrai, future.  These forms also, incidentally, signal person as well as tense so we see is rendered as nous voyons, for example.
You may argue that English makes no changes to the base form of the verb in the present tense but it does.  The form takes -s or -es to show the present tense in the third-person singular (she sees) and has a zero inflexion in all other persons.  A zero inflexion is still an inflexion.
In the past, the form is regular (taking -d or -ed) or irregular by changing the internal form of the verb or adding a non-regular inflexion to the end (or both).
All the other forms of the verbs in English which signal time or the speaker's perception of it are, technically, aspectual forms, not tense forms.


The future is not simple

If you did the short test above, you will, if you got it right, have identified I'll eat as an example of the future simple and you will be right.
The problem with suggesting that English has no future tense is that it rather obviously does, but it does not make it by internal, morphological changes to the verb itself; it does it by inserting the auxiliary verb will.  So we can have, for example:
    I will be 45 tomorrow
    Next Thursday will be their anniversary
    2020 Summer Olympics will not be held

and so on.
But there's a problem to do with the overlap between tense and modality.

Because the future, by its nature, is not always certain, the usual sense is not to do with time but to do with the speaker's perception of the likelihood of an event occurring.  For example:
    He'll be here by six
does not per se refer to the future.  It refers to the speaker's current perception of what the future may hold.  Whereas:
    He'll be a year older then
does not refer to the speaker's perception of likelihood but to the future itself.

By the same token, when used with the first person, the form often betokens willingness rather than pure futurity so, for example:
    I'll talk to you tomorrow
represents not futurity but the speaker's current commitment to do something and
    We'll try to be early
represents a promise made now, not a prediction about the future.

Other forms, which are often given names such as the present continuous for the future, the going to future and so on are not, by the analyses used on this site, really future tense forms in the same way that the future simple can be described as one.
What they are, in fact, is present forms with future reference.  That is to say, they are prospective aspects of present forms.
For example:

  1. I am going to talk to the boss about this
    refers not to the future but to the speaker's current (i.e., present) intention
  2. It's going to rain
    refers not to a fixed future but to the speaker's current (i.e., present) prediction based on evidence to hand
  3. I'm seeing the doctor tomorrow
    refers to the speaker's current (i.e., present) arrangement concerning the future
  4. The train arrives at 6
    refers to a current (i.e., present) timetable, not to the event itself (which may not happen, of course)



One way to understand tense and verb forms in English is to distinguish between those that are absolute (and, therefore usually take adverbials referring to absolute time) and those which are relative (and take adverbials referring to relative time).
For example,
    He arrived late to the meeting yesterday
is an absolute tense form which sets the event unequivocally in the past and is not relative to any other time.  Even if this event is reported years afterwards, the sense remains:
    He arrived late to the meeting the previous day
    He's arrived late to the meeting
clearly sets the arriving in relation to the present (it is, as it were, a past set in the present).  This clearly carries the sense of his being present now which the first, absolute tense example does not.

By this analysis, there are three absolute tense forms in English:

  1. Present:
        I live in London
    The tense refers to current location at the moment or to a period which includes the present moment.
  2. Past:
        She travelled to Paris
    The tense refers to a completed past event (no matter how long it took or when it happened).
  3. Future:
        Everybody will die someday
    The tense refers to an absolute future truth and does not depend on the speaker's sense of likelihood or willingness.

And there are a number of relative or relational tense forms (aspects, really) which are qualitatively different:

  1. Present in the present:
        She is walking the dogs
  2. Past in the present:
        They have won
  3. Present in the past:
        She was cycling to work
  4. Past in the past:
        They had broken the door
  5. Present in the future:
        They will be inviting their mother
  6. Past in the future:
        She will have finished it soon
  7. Future in the present:
        I am going to walk home
  8. Future in the past:
        She was going to talk to you
  9. Future in the future:
        They will be going to help you

And five more which are complex relative forms:

  1. Present in the past in the present:
        She has been trying them on
  2. Present in the past in the past:
        They had been working on the problem
  3. Present in the past in the future:
        He will have been driving all night
  4. Future in the past in the past:
        She had been going to tell you
  5. Future in the past in the future:
        They will have been going to explain the issue

One advantage of seeing English tense forms this way is that it gets over the misleading description of, for example, the present perfect referring to the past before now, the past perfect as the past before the past and the future perfect as the future before the future etc.
Instead of reference to the something before something, this analysis refers to times within times and that is a better representation of reality.


Perfective and imperfective

These are not terms you are likely to have encountered on an initial training course but they are concepts worthy of your attention, not only because English distinguishes between events and actions which are completed but also because many other languages take the same route.

is the term used to indicate that an event or state is completed.  For example,
    She spoke to me yesterday
is a perfective form which is clearly finished.
    The bridge was finished last year
is another example of a perfective form in English.
    I have been to New York
is also a perfective form (because the action is completed) which happens to be in the perfect aspect as well so it is an example of the past in the present.
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 although the first example is past progressive and the second is present perfect.
    Please be quiet, I'm thinking
is another imperfect form in the present (a present in the present, in fact) in which the speaker does not signal any type of completion.

The distinction is important because, as we saw above both perfective and imperfective forms in English can be signalled by a range of tense forms.  This is not the case in many other languages in which the distinction is far more important and different verb forms are used consistently for each idea.
What is the case in English is that the -ing form is frequently used to signal imperfection as in, e.g.:
    She was living in London when I met her
which has no sense of whether she stopped living there after the event or continued to do so.
However, in:
    She had just given up living in London when I met her
it is clear that the event of living in London is perfective although the first tense form is still relative.


Time (and other) adjuncts

The term adverbial rather than adverb has been used advisedly because there is a range of possible ways to refer to time, manner and place and they are not all adverbs.  Another way to refer to them is as circumstances.
This section uses the term adjunct to describe ways of modifying the verb.  Here are some examples:

Because this part of The Bridge is concerned with tense and aspect, we are interested in time adjuncts in particular.


Getting things the right way round

You may have been told, and may even have told your students, that if, for example, we use the words just or in recent weeks, we need to use the present or the past perfect and if we use terms such as on Thursday or at 3 o'clock, we should use the past simple form.
However, that is the wrong way round.
The right way to see these is to look at whether a tense form is relative or absolute and then the appropriate type of time adjunct will follow naturally.
For example:
    I have previously mentioned this
in which the adjunct, in this case the adverb previously, is clearly linking past to present.  It's a relative concept, not an absolute one.
    They had only just arrived when the play started
in which the complex time adjunct, only just, again refers to the relationship between the starting of the play and their arrival.
    She came at five and left an hour later
contains two time adjuncts, both of which refer to absolute times because the tense use is absolute.
    She had recently had a shock
clearly has a time adjunct, recently, which is relative to the past.  This is a relative or relational tense so naturally fits well with a relative time adjunct.
    She will have been driving for hours so will need to rest
in which we have the time adjunct, in this case a prepositional phrase, for hours, which is relative to now.  The nature of the relativity of the tense determines the appropriacy of the adjunct form.

Similarly, the time adjuncts which are appropriate to use will depend on whether an event or action is perceived as finished, perfective, or unfinished, imperfective.
For example:
    She had been living in Paris for some years when I first saw her
has the adjunct prepositional phrase of duration, for some years, which does not signal a perfective situation.  She may, in fact, still be living there.  However, in:
    She lived in Paris in the 60s
is a perfective form (in the past simple) which signals a finished event so the adjunct of choice needs to be consistent and is (in the 60s).
However, it is unfortunate in English, unlike other languages, that the adjuncts are not always confined to each sense.  We can have, for example:
    They had been playing tennis all afternoon
which implies that the afternoon was not finished (and nor was the playing), or we can have:
    They played tennis all afternoon and in the evening went to a restaurant
in which the tennis playing is perceived as finished.
However, the -ing form will be unlikely with perfective events so:
    They were playing tennis all afternoon and in the evening went to a restaurant
is unlikely at best.

The simple moral is to see (and teach) the -ing form as reference to unfinished time or events within other times.
This explains rather a lot.  For example:

  1. The difference between:
        I have played tennis
    which refers to a finished event (a past in the present so of current relevance), and
        I have been playing tennis
    which may refer to a finished event but the emphasis is on the action as a background cause of another present event, e.g., so I'm hot and sweaty etc.
  2. The sense of back-grounding of unfinished events as in, e.g.:
        He was cycling to work when he thought of the idea
    in which the cycling is unfinished and simply works to form the background event.
  3. The sense of present in the present in, for example:
        The professor is giving a series of lectures
    in which the time is unspecified but the event is seen as background to the present.
  4. The sense of a repeated and repeatable action in, for example:
        She has been delivering letters in the village for 20 years
    in which the -ing form is used because the sense is iterative (i.e., repetitive).

? The final exercise is for you to put the analysis into practice and analyse the following forms in a way that might make sense to your learners, without using the traditional names for the forms.
When you have thought about each one, click on the eye open for some ideas.  What you have may be different, of course.

Next January will be his third year here
eye open
She has, at last, brought the food
eye open
The guests arrived at six
eye open
Will you help me?
eye open
She has arrived
eye open
She will have taken the bus, I expect
eye open
I had been walking for hours and was exhausted
eye open
I had walked for hours when I finally found the dog
eye open

If that's all clear enough to you, you can go on to the guides below (on the right).  If you still feel slightly confused, try the links on the left.


Guides in other areas
Initial plus essential guides In-service guides
index of English tenses time, tense and aspect
tense and aspect talking about the present
the present tenses talking about the past
the present perfect talking about the future
four future forms talking about always
four past forms aspect
the past perfect the future in the past