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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 (new tab) on this site.


Telicity and perfective, not perfect, use

The term telicity refers to whether an event is seen to have an end point or not.  In the first case, the use is telic as in, e.g.:
    John has broken his leg
In the second case, the use is atelic as in:
    John has been in hospital for a week
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 no end point in sight.

Telicity is sometimes cited as the reason why some verbs resist the use of the present perfect altogether.  These verbs are often, perhaps not coincidentally, those which also occur almost solely in the active voice although they all take a direct object.  For example:

is often seen as atelic and active only so, while we allow:
    Mary has three houses
    Mary possesses three houses

we cannot have:
    *Three houses are had by Mary
    *Three houses are possessed by Mary

This use of the verbs also resists the present perfect so, for example:
    ?Mary has had three houses
    ?Mary has possessed three houses

are unusual.
matching and fitting
are two areas where verbs are usually active voice only so we allow:
    That tie matches your shirt
    The coat fits me well
    The bag goes well with my shoes

we do not encounter:
    *Your shirt is matched by that tie
    *I am fitted well by the coat
    *My shoes are gone with by the bag

And, again, the present perfect is rare with these verbs because they are atelic:
    ?That tie has matched your shirt
    ?The coat has fitted me well
    ?The bag has gone well with my shoes
is a further atelic concept so we allow:
    She resembles her father in that respect
    He looks like his brother

    He takes after his grandfather
but not:
    *Her father is resembled by her in that respect
    *His brother is looked like by him

    *His grandfather is taken after by him
and the use of the present perfect is also rare:
    ?She has resembled her father in that respect
    ?He has looked like his brother
    ?He has taken after his grandfather

The fact that there is a consistent pattern concerning verbs which resist the passive as well as the present perfect has led some to consider the passive voice as an aspect of the verb rather than the usual analysis concerning voice and the relationships between subjects, objects, agents and patients and verbs.

The atelic nature of an action or event is often strongly signalled by the use of the progressive aspect combined with the perfect.  For example, the distinction between:
    She has been studying the language for over 20 years
    She has studied the language for over 20 years
is quite subtle but the sense of the first is that the studying is atelic.  The second form could naturally be followed by something like:
    and now she's moving on to a different area
but that is less likely with the first example.
Additionally, the progressive form also signals the durative nature of the action so in the first the implication is that her studying has been both long-lasting and quite intensive but in the second, no such implication is carried.

The progressive form is also used to signal iterative aspects of the verb so we get, for example:
    Someone has been stealing vegetables from my allotment
which signals that the action has been repeated and is continuing (iterative and atelic) but
    Someone has stolen vegetables from my allotment
signals that the event was not repeated and is perfective and telic.

The key to understanding this is a semantic issue to do with whether a verb is punctual (for example, hit, bang, knock, break etc.) or durative (for example, live, read, work, enjoy etc.).
When the verb is punctual in nature, the use of a progressive form signals a repeated event, when it is durative, it signals a continuous state as in, e.g.:
    She has been knocking on his door for hours (repeated or iterative sense)
    She has been reading the paper for hours (durative, long-lasting sense)
There is more on this below.

The guide linked above has more on the present perfect simple and progressive.


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 continuous in aspect but the tense choice is simple.  This is the effect of stative and dynamic use and is not parallelled in many languages.  Examples include:
    She appreciates your hospitality
    I understand the main points you are making
    John says he isn't feeling well
    I describe it as deeply foolish

In all these cases, incidentally, the simple form of the verb, in bold, 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.


Iterative and durative distinguished: a semantic issue

As we explained in the general introduction to time, tense and aspect, English, unlike some languages, does not formally distinguish between three aspects, progressive, durative and iterative, by changing the verb form.  So, for example:
    The children are playing truant too often
    The children are playing in the garden

use the same form of the verb and the auxiliary but are clearly different conceptually because the first refers to a repeated event and the second to a progressive or durative event.
The key to understanding this is to look at meaning not structure.  In other words, it is a semantic issue not a grammatical one.

Durative verbs
Some verbs are durative and they include verbs such as:
    continue, play, read, rain, walk, wear, work etc.
which all contain within their meaning an idea that the action they describe may be long lasting.
When these verbs are used with no counteracting adverbials in the progressive form, the sense is durative.  So for example:
    She is playing tennis
    I was reading a book on the train
    It's raining again
    She's on holiday, walking in the Lake District
    Why are you wearing a suit?
    Where are they working today?

etc. all refer to a progressive event.
Punctual verbs
Some verbs are, however, somewhat rarer and describe a punctual or momentary event so their meaning resists any idea of a durative aspect.  Such verbs include:
    arrive, bang, break, explode, hit, knock, shoot, stop, tap etc.
and when they are used in the progressive form, they do not suggest a progressive action rather than a repeated or iterative aspect so, for example:
    The guests are arriving
    She is banging a drum
    The fireworks are exploding
    She is hitting the nail
    I am knocking on the door
    They are stopping the traffic
    Is someone tapping on the window?

etc. all refer not to a progressive but to an iterative event.

Some verbs can be used in both senses of course so we can have:
    I am taking the train to work these days
    She is taking the train to work today

both refer to the same action but the first is iterative and the second is progressive (and possibly prospective).
Not distinguishing the meaning in the classroom leads almost inevitably to errors.  The errors are sometimes covert because if a learner says, e.g.:
    I am taking the train
it may not be clear whether a progressive sense or an iterative sense is intended.


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 or current 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 we use the present progressive form and when we refer to intentions we use the going to structure.  However, 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.  In many of the cases below, the present progressive form is not allowed but an alternative to going to exists in the form of the will future.
(The following is also covered in the guide to talking about the future for obvious reasons but there the use of the present progressive is contrasted with both the going to and will futures.

  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, disappointed, flabbergasted, bewildered etc.  All these sorts of verbs are disqualified from appearing with the be + -ing form, therefore.
    They can all be used, quite naturally with the will future.
  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, 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.
    We do not need to insert a time adverbial when the context has already provided the temporal information so:
        A: Can you come in early tomorrow?
        B: Sorry.  I'm taking the kids to school
    is coherent.
  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.
    This distinction is sometimes confused with the idea that the progressive form for the concept needs to refer to a personal arrangement.  That is a defensible point of view but focuses through the wrong end of the telescope.  It is the nature of participants (in this case the subject) which determines the appropriate form to use.
  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.
    In both these cases, the will future is an acceptable alternative to going to.
  6. Past experience
    Prospective events based on past experience are also only realised through going to or will.  For example, we allow:
        When your father hears, he's going to laugh
        When your father hears, he'll 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'll 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 semantic (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 or main 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 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 independent of other factors 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.
    It is sometimes averred, by some who should know better, that the be + -ing form implies an arrangement between people.  It does, sometimes, but it is perfectly possible to use the form with the sense of only one person's intention.  For example:
        I'm giving John a lift to Margate tomorrow
    does imply an arrangement between the speaker and John which, note, has already been made but:
        I'm driving to Margate tomorrow
    implies no arrangement with anyone else at all.
  10. Person
    In particular, when the subject of the verb is first-person plural an arrangement will be assumed, whichever form is used so, functionally:
        We are meeting in the station
        We are going to meet in the station
    are synonymous.

The prospective nature of the to-infinitive

There is a simple and alternative way to look at the going to structure.
The to-infinitive in English often betokens some sort of prospective aspect as we see in, e.g.:
    I want to visit Margate next week
    I intend to take the train
    I mean to stay a night or two
    I would like to see you when I'm there
    I hope to visit the new museum
    I aim to come back next Thursday
    I plan to see my brother
    I expect to find him at home

and so on.  In all these cases, the first verb denotes a state which precedes the action or event denoted by the second verb in the to-infinitive form.  In other words, the to-infinitive signals a prospective event when verbs catenate.
We can, if we get away from calling it the going to structure, view the verb go in the same way.  The only difference then is that the verb is conventionally used in the progressive form.
Even in this case, most of the verbs in our example apart, arguably, from want, mean and expect, can also be used progressively as in:
    I'm planning to see my brother
    I'm aiming to come back next Thursday

and so on.
The verb phrase would like, of course, cannot be used progressively because modal auxiliary verbs are always finite and have no infinitive or participle forms.
This analysis is not universally accepted and course books and grammars for learners are firmly wedded to calling the going to structure a future form.  It isn't really; it's the verb go followed by a to-infinitive.


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.

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