Compound Tenses in English Grammar

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Compound tense
A compound tense is one in which a verb phrase consists of at least two words. Andy Ryan/Getty Images

In English grammar, compound tense is a traditional term for a verb construction that uses more than one word to express a meaning related to time. A verb construction that uses only one word is called a simple tense.

Compound tenses are made up of auxiliary verbs (or helping verbs) combined with other verb forms. The perfect, past perfect (also known as pluperfect), progressive, and (in some cases) future are forms traditionally regarded as compound tenses in English.

Examples and Observations

  • Simple Tenses vs. Compound Tenses
    "The distinction between simple and compound tenses corresponds to the distinction between affixes and words. A simple tense form of a verb is a single word, usually augmented by a suffix (less often a prefix). A compound tense form consists of several words, at least one of them an auxiliary. The work done by the affix in a simple tense form and the auxiliary in a compound tense form is broadly the same; it expresses some distinction in the general area of time. . . .
    "What is potentially confusing here is the fact that English, like many European languages, uses the past participle (e.g. taken) both for the perfect (a compound tense) and for the passive voice. Note that the English passive is formed in a way quite parallel to the formation of compound tenses, i.e. with an auxiliary and a participle. But, of course, passive is not a tense."
    (James R. Hurford, Grammar: A Student's Guide. Cambridge University Press, 1994)
  • "[W]hen the father comes in from work, he eats, and finally the mother herself eats alone or with the smaller children, who probably have already eaten what they wanted with the others."
    (Jack E. Weller, Yesterday's People: Life in Contemporary Appalachia. University Press of Kentucky, 1995)
  • "I wash my face, dress and go downstairs where my wife is feeding the baby."
    (Julius Lester, Lovesong: Becoming a Jew. Arcade, 2013)
  • "Anyone who has read the judgments of Lord Denning or Lord Atkin will know the importance of the way the facts are presented."
    (Alan Paterson, Final Judgment: The Last Law Lords and the Supreme Court. Hart, 2013)
  • "Dana had left the office to tend to the children, and Keith puttered around the church, unable to do anything productive. He finally left."
    (John Grisham, The Confession. Doubleday, 2010).

Perfect Aspect and Compound Tenses

"The perfect is a past tense that is marked by means of an auxiliary verb rather than by inflection, like the preterite. The auxiliary is have, which is followed by a past participle. Examples are given in [40] along with their non-perfect counterparts:

[40i] a. She has been ill. [perfect]  b. She is ill [non-perfect]
[40ii] a. She had left town. [perfect]  b. She left town. [non-perfect]
[40iii] a. She is said to have spoken fluent Greek. [perfect] (b) She is said to speak fluent Greek. [non-perfect]

In [ia] and [iia] the auxiliary have is itself inflected for primary tense, has being a present tense form, had a peterite. These constructions thus have compound tense: [ia] is a present perfect, [iia] is a preterite perfect. In [iiia] have is in the plain form, so this time there is no primary tense, no compound tense."
(Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, A Student's Introduction to English Grammar. Cambridge University Press, 2005)

Expressing the Future With Compound Tenses

"Past and present are the only English simple tenses, using one-word forms of the verb. Future is expressed in English as a compound tense, with two words, using the modal auxiliary will, e.g. will come; the corresponding past tense came is just one word."
(James R. Hurford, Grammar: A Student's Guide. Cambridge University Press, 1994) 

"Bessie was baffled. How do these birds live? Where do they sleep at night? And how can they survive the rains, the cold, the snow? I will go home, Bessie decided. People will not leave me in the streets."
(Isaac Bashevis Singer, "The Key." The New Yorker, 1970)

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Compound Tenses in English Grammar." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Compound Tenses in English Grammar. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Compound Tenses in English Grammar." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).