Understanding Verb Tenses

road sign: past, present, future
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In grammar, tense is the time of a verb's action or state of being, such as present or past.

Many contemporary linguists equate tenses with the inflectional categories (or different endings) of a verb. English maintains an inflectional distinction only between the present (for example, laugh or leave) and the past (laughed, left).

Tense and Aspect: Present, Past, and Future

From Latin, "time"

Examples and Observations

  • "English . . . has only one inflectional form to express time: the past tense marker (typically -ed), as in walked, jumped, and saw. There is therefore a two-way tense contrast in English: I walk vs. I walked--present tense vs past tense. English has no future tense ending, but uses a wide range of other techniques to express future time (such as will/shall, be going to, be about to, and future adverbs). The linguistic facts are uncontroversial. However, people find it extremely difficult to drop the notion of 'future tense' (and related notions, such as imperfect, future perfect, and pluperfect tenses) from their mental vocabulary, and to look for other ways of talking about the grammatical realities of the English verb." (David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 2003)
  • A Broader Definition
    "Some grammarians define a tense as an inflection of the verb—a change of meaning you achieve by altering the form of the verb. So the past tense of win is won. In this sense, English has only two tenses, present and past. But for everyday use—especially for those who are studying foreign languages—this strict definition of tense is not very helpful. There is a broader use of the word [tense]: a form of the verb phrase which gives information about aspect and time." (John Seely, Grammar for Teachers. Oxpecker, 2007)
  • Misleading Labels
    "In discussing tense, labels such as present tense, past tense, and future tense are misleading, since the relationship between tense and time is often not one-to-one. Present and past tenses can be used in some circumstances to refer to future time (e.g. If he comes tomorrow . . ., If he came tomorrow . . .); present tenses can refer to the past (as in newspaper headlines, e.g. Minister resigns . . ., and in colloquial narrative, e.g. So she comes up to me and says . . .); and so on." (Bas Aarts, Sylvia Chalker, and Edmund Weiner, Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2014)

Different Approaches to Tense and Aspect

"Traditional grammarians and modern linguists have approached this complicated area of languages with slightly different terminological conventions. What many traditional grammarians label as various kinds of 'tense,' modern linguists split into two different ideas, namely:

Tense, which is strictly to do with WHEN something happened or was the case;

Aspect, which is concerned with factors such as the DURATION or COMPLETENESS of events and states of affairs.

For English, this difference of terminology comes out mainly in relation to the perfect and the progressive, which many traditional grammarians would treat as part of the system of tense, but modern linguists treat as belonging to the system of aspect." (James R.

Hurford, Grammar: A Student's Guide. Cambridge University Press, 1994)

"Tense and aspect have risen to some prominence within linguistics in recent decades as various theories have taken first the verb and then the inflectional system associated with it to be the central component of the clause. This has manifested itself most obviously in syntax and morphology, but the effort to understand the meaning and use of time-related expressions has coincidentally played a significant role in the development of new theories of semantics and pragmatics, and those theories, in turn, have prompted further research into tense and aspect. . . .

"Almost every area of linguistics, with the exception of phonetics and phonology, has its own approach to tense and aspect. Not only do morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics differ in their terminology and methodology, but each area has its own distinct Problematik—they naturally seek to answer quite different questions where tense and aspect are concerned." (Robert I.

Binnick, "Introduction." The Oxford Handbook of Tense and Aspect. Oxford University Press, 2012)

The Lighter Side of Verb Tense

The past, the present, and the future walked into a bar.

It was tense.

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Nordquist, Richard. "Understanding Verb Tenses." ThoughtCo, Jun. 6, 2017, thoughtco.com/tense-grammar-1692532. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, June 6). Understanding Verb Tenses. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/tense-grammar-1692532 Nordquist, Richard. "Understanding Verb Tenses." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/tense-grammar-1692532 (accessed April 22, 2018).