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Concourse 2

Unit 7: aspects in English


This Unit will be hard to understand unless you have already worked through Unit 6 which is concerned (mostly) with the most critical tense forms.
In that unit, aspect was explained like this:
Aspect is a key concept in understanding English tenses because the language depends heavily on forms of the verb to signal how the speaker feels about the tense.  We will use two of the most important aspects of English tense forms to exemplify what is meant:

  1. I can, for example, say:
        John thinks he is Napoleon
    and am making a statement about a present condition.
    However, I can also say:
        Shush.  John is thinking
    and now I am signalling the fact that I am talking about an action in progress.  That's why it is called the progressive aspect.
  2. If I say:
        John has arrived
    then what I am saying is that although John's arrival is finished, the relevance of it to the present is clear to me and I want to communicate it.  What English has done with this form of the verb is embed a past event in the present to make it clear that the past event has changed the way I view the present.
    I might, therefore, go on to say:
        ... so now we can eat
    or express whatever else in the present has been affected by John's past arrival.
    This is called the perfect aspect of the tense in English.

There are other aspects which English does not signal with changes to the verb phrases but which it can express and we will come to those later.
For now, it's enough to know that other languages handle aspect very differently and some, such as German, arguably don't bother with it at all.

Here's the menu and, as usual, clicking on the yellow arrow at the end of any section will return you to it.

Section Looking at:
A Primary auxiliary verbs
The verbs we use to make aspects and some of their other uses.
B Progressive and continuous aspects
And the difference between them.
C Perfect aspects
Relating events in time.
D Other aspects.
Which are less well known.

Section A: Primary auxiliary verbs


The verbs

There are four primary auxiliary verbs and one other arguable case.
The guide (linked below) to the verbs explains what they all do but here we are concerned with just two of them:

  1. The verb be which serves to signal a progressive aspect of a verb and also signals the passive voice (as you saw in Unit 3).
  2. The verb have which signals the perfect aspect (and also makes a kind of passive called a causative, which does not concern us here).

The other two primary auxiliary verbs are do which, as we saw, is used to form negative and questions forms with the simple present and simple past and get which also makes passive and causatives.

The arguable case is the verb will because as we saw in Unit 6, that verb combines with others to make a future form and also works to show willingness (in which form it is considered a modal auxiliary rather than primary auxiliary verb and discussed in Unit 8).

The forms of main that these two auxiliary verbs combine with are different:

The verb: combines with to make, for example
be the -ing form She is going home
They are swimming
Are we inviting the neighbours?
She wasn't working too hard
have the past participle I have finished
She had arrived by then
Have they joined us?
He hasn't begun

(For simplicity's sake here, we are referring to the progressive form with the verb be being following by an -ing form but you may prefer to call it a present participle.  It is just that but -ing forms also perform other functions which are not present participles.)

We can also, as we shall see in a bit more detail, combine aspects like this, for example:
    Has she been running?
    I have been working on this for two days
    We hadn't been enjoying the party up till then

all of which combine the perfect aspect (using have) with the progressive aspect (using be).


The form

Both verbs are irregular so learners need to have memorised the forms before they can make a correct tense structure.
It isn't particularly difficult to do so because, as we note elsewhere, English is not rich in verb inflexions.
They work like this:

be + -ing
Present Past Future Present perfect aspect Past perfect aspect Future perfect aspect
I am
You are
He / She / It is
We are
They are
I was
You were
He / She / It was
We were
They were
I will be
You will be
He / She / It will be
We will be
They will be
I have been
You have been
He / She / It has been
We have been
They have been
I had been
You had been
He / She / It had been
We had been
They had been
I will have been
You will have been
He / She / It will have been
We will have been
You will have been

have + past participle
Present Past Future
I have
You have
He / She / It has
We have
They have
I had
You had
He / She / It had
We had
I will have
You will have
He / She / It will have
We will have
They will

The perfect forms do not need to be repeated in both tables because they are, naturally, the same.
In English, when aspects are combined, the perfect always precedes the progressive so we say, e.g.:
    She has been working
    *She has being worked
Other languages may have different rules.

Learners of English need to memorise the past participle forms of irregular verbs and be able to form and pronounce the regular forms (which take -d or -ed).
There is no problem with -ing forms, apart from some simple spelling changes, because there are no irregular forms in English.

Here is the same table of verb forms that we had at the beginning of Unit 6 but with only the aspectual tense forms included:

Tense Main uses Examples
Present progressive Current events He is writing a letter
Current (background) events which may not be occurring now He is writing a book
He is studying French
Currently arranged future I'm seeing the doctor tomorrow
Past progressive Interrupted past action I was eating when he rang
Progressive action at a particular time I was eating at 7
Discontinued or temporary past habit I was walking to work in those days
Parallel past events or events It was raining and the wind was blowing hard
I was eating while she was watching television
Present perfect A past embedded in the present which changes it I have spoken to him (so now he knows)
I have learnt French (so now I can speak it)
He has broken the pump (so now we can't use it)
To describe past experiences which change the present I have been to America (so I can speak about it)
Present perfect progressive To emphasise the duration of a long event embedded in the present which changes it I've been waiting for hours (and am really cold)
Events embedded in the present which change it and are still current (this is actually continuous, not progressive) She's been looking unwell for some time (and still is)
A series of repeated past events embedded in the present which change it He's been stealing money from his employer
Past perfect Completed events before others embedded in the past which explain it I had already spoken to her before he asked
Completed long events before others embedded in the past which explain it It had rained for a week and the garden was muddy
Past perfect progressive (Un)completed long events before events in the past.  A previous event is embedded in a past event I had been playing chess for two hours before he arrived
To show a past result of a previous event.  The previous event is embedded in the past event He had been working too hard and was exhausted
To show a repeated event embedded in a past event People had been forgetting to come so he sent a reminder
Future progressive Potentially interrupted action He'll be working when you come
Progressive future event happening as a matter of course at a specific time I'll be working at 7
Future perfect Completed event occurring before another and embedded within it which affects the second He'll have finished the book by the time I want it
To show causal connections between future events He'll have repaired the car and then we can use it
States occurring before future events (certain verbs only) which change the second event I'll have been at the hotel for a day or two before I can call you
Future perfect progressive Future progressive events embedded in later events which alter them I will have been working for over two hours before you get here
To show causal connections between long events and states He'll have been travelling for ten hours and will be tired
To show a repeated previous event embedded in a future event I'll have been trying to call him for two hours by then

We have already dealt with some of the aspects of tenses in Unit 6, so here we will focus on the others.


Learn more

If you want to discover more now about tenses of all kinds, go to:
the tenses index
which has links to other guides.
If you are concerned to know more about primary auxiliary verbs and the other things they do, try:
the essential guide


Take a test

Try a test which only focuses on the names of the tenses in the table above.
If you follow any other guides on this site to tense forms, you will come across plenty more tests.


Section B: progressive and continuous aspects


He's sitting in his office

You will very often hear (and, alas, sometimes read) the terms progressive and continuous being used interchangeably.
English, it is true often uses the form of be and the -ing form together to signal both a continuous state and a progressive action so we see, for example:
    Mary is living in France at the moment
    Mary is writing a letter to her father at the moment

However, the meanings are distinct.
In the first case, we can express the same thought as:
    Mary lives in France at the moment
because the aspect is a continuous state, not a progressive action.
In the second case, we cannot replace the verb form with the same effect so
    Mary writes a letter to her father at the moment
is close to nonsense because the progressive aspect is not signalled by the simple form of the verb and must be shown by be plus the -ing form.

Many verbs which imply a continuous state are used in the simple form to refer to a continuous aspect so we find, for example:
    She thinks I don't know that
    He seems lost
    I expect she's the manager
    They make shoes here

and so on.
We do not normally say:
    *She is thinking I don't know that
    *He is seeming lost
    *I am expecting she's the manager
    *They are making shoes here
because the verb itself signals the continuous state.
Nevertheless, all the correct sentences refer to a continuous condition so are in the continuous aspect, whatever the verb form.

We have already encountered issues with the stative vs. dynamic uses of verbs elsewhere.
To repeat what has been said, the continuous aspect may be signalled by a stative use of a verb but the progressive aspect can only be signalled by a progressive form using be plus the -ing form of the main verb.

The progressive aspect can be signalled in all main tenses in English with exactly the same effect and subject to exactly the same restrictions concerning the meaning of verbs so we can encounter, for example:
    She had been thinking about the problem (and was still doing so)
    She will be staying with friends (temporarily)
    I have been talking to Mary (repeatedly and at length)


Temporary, background or progressive?

With most verbs, we signal the progressive aspect by using the be + -ing form and that works just fine when we distinguish between, for example:
    She's knitting a pullover vs. She knits pullovers
    They're playing cricket vs. They play cricket
    We're enjoying the music vs. We enjoy the music
    I'm cooking the dinner vs. I cook the dinner

and so on.

However, when we use a verb such as live, work, read, stay and more whose meaning involves a long-lasting (i.e., progressive) condition or action, using the progressive form suggests not a progressive action or state but a temporary or background one.
For example:
    She's living in a hotel
    They are working abroad
    I'm reading Hemingway
    We're staying with friends

all imply a temporary or background state and she may not be near the hotel, they may be sitting at home, I may be in the pub with friends and we may be in the cinema at the time of speaking.

It matters little which tense is used to suggest this distinction so, for example:
    He has been working in reception
    I had been staying in a hotel
    I will be staying in Spain

all imply temporary or background events, not progressive ones.

time line

Time lines

A diagrammatic representation of continuous and progressive aspects can look like this:
Continuous aspect, simple form:
Progressive aspect (temporary situation):
and like this for true progressive events:


Learn more

If you want to discover more now about how aspect in general:
essential guide to tense and aspect


Take a test

Try a test of your knowledge of the three most important aspects.
Use the 'Back' button to return when you have done that.


Section C: the perfect aspect


The sun has nearly set

In Unit 6, we showed that a sentence such as:
    Mary has just arrived
is about the present because Mary's arrival changes what is likely or possible to happen now.  For this reason there is an implied or stated thought along the lines of:
    ... so now we can begin / eat / go out
We said there that the perfect aspect is used to embed one event in one time in another situation at another time.
All perfect tense forms do this so we find, for example:
    The meal had gone cold so I heated it in the oven (embedding the cooling in the heating actions)
    She has been running to get here on time and is too breathless to speak (embedding the progressive sense of running in her current state of breathlessness)


The perfect aspect in the future

He will have driven for hours  

The future perfect tense is a slight anomaly because it is usually followed by a clause in the present tense or by a time adverbial as in, for example:
    She will have done the work by the time the boss gets here
    I will have finished the work by then
    The new road will have been opened by the end of the year

It is a characteristic of English (and few other languages) that the second clause does not carry a future time marker so we do not find
    *She will have finished when the boss will arrive
although that is logically what we should say because both events are clearly in the future.
Many other languages will do just that and have a future form in both clauses and that, naturally, leads to considerable confusion and error.

time line

Time lines

Time lines are a very useful resource because the perfect aspect in English is very hard for speakers of languages which do not have one to understand and get right.
Because the perfect aspect signals a relationship between two times rather than setting an event, state or action in a single time frame, it is important to include the eye to show the point of view of the speaker.
For example, for a simple present perfect use:
present perfect
and for a situation in which we want to combine the perfect and progressive aspects to express a repeated event, we can try:
present perfect progressive
The past perfect is similarly illustrated as:
past perfect
past perfect progressive
The future perfect also requires an eye to show the point of view because its use involves imagining a later future and looking back on an earlier one as in:
future perfect
future perfect progressive


Learn more

If you want to discover more now about how aspect in general:
essential guide to tense and aspect

There is no test on this section but the guide linked above will take you to more information.


Section D: other aspects


Iterative, durative, prospective and habitual

In some languages, other aspects are signalled by the form of the verb, and in some, there are no recognisable aspectual forms at all.
We will briefly deal with four aspects which are clearly present in English although the verb forms are not recognisably different from the ones we have encountered in this Unit and in Unit 6.
These are they:

  1. The iterative aspect
    Banging the drums
    Is one we have alluded to elsewhere here and refers to actions or events which are repeated as in, e.g.:
        Someone has been stealing apples from the garden
        She was hitting the laptop keys angrily
        They had been throwing a ball about in the garden
    As you can see from these examples, when we use a verb such as hit, break, drop, splash, shoot etc. which, by definition, refer to instantaneous events which cannot be continuous states or progressive actions, the use of be + -ing signals repetition.  That's the meaning of iterative.
    With other verbs which can be seen as continuous or progressive such as play, read, live, walk and so on, the use of be + -ing signals the aspects we encountered in Section B, above.
  2. The durative aspect
    Working all night
    Many verbs signal actions which are progressive or continuous so we do not need the be + -ing  formulation to imply a long-lasting event so we can say
        She worked for two hours
    and the sense of a progressive action is embodied in the verb.
    However, there are times when we want to emphasise the length of an event, state or action and then we can combine these verbs with the progressive aspect form to do so.  We also often add adverbials such as all night, for hours and hours and so on to underline our meaning.  For example:
        The train broke down and we were sitting in the middle of nowhere for ages and ages
        The speeches went on for a long time and I was trying hard to stay awake
  3. The prospective aspect
    We saw, in Unit 6, that we use a present progressive form (be + -ing) to refer to a current arrangement and the going + to formulation to refer to a current intention.
    These can both be seen as prospective aspects of present forms.
    Equally, we can put the aspect into the past and have, for example:
        I was going to call you but I clean forgot
        She had been meeting her friends that evening but found she had to work late
    In both those examples, the sense is of a thwarted arrangement or intention and the forms are sometimes referred to as the future in the past.
  4. The habitual aspect
    We saw in Unit 6, that used to and would are used for this aspect in English as in, e.g.:
        We used to have lunch in the park
        She would get worried when I was late home
    but we have also seen that expressions such as
        I'll be taking the train to work for a while
        I've been trying to learn French for years
        I'm smoking too much
        I always find Monday mornings difficult

    and so on are other ways that English has of referring to habits and routines.

There are few dedicated verb forms for any of these four aspects in English but other languages do have special forms to denote the meanings.

time line

Time lines

We can use time lines to show how English deals with all four of these aspects.
Here are some examples:
present progressive future
used to


Learn more

If you want to discover more about aspects in English, go to either:
the essential guide to tense and aspect
time, tense and aspect
which is more technical.


Take a test

To make sure you have understood so far, try a test of your knowledge of all the aspects in English that we have discussed.
Use the 'Back' button to return when you have done that.