Tense and Aspect

What we call 'tense' in English combines the grammatical notions of tense and aspect. Tense indicates the time that the action of the verb took place (now, earlier, later or present, past, future). Aspect indicates whether the action is completed or on-going (perfect or progressive). Historically, English has ending for only two tenses, present and past (He plays/He played, She swims/She swam). Through the centuries other tenses and aspects have developed using additional words rather than endings. These are called periphrastic rather than grammatical tenses and aspects.

The first of these was the perfect. Today it can be identified by the following frame: HAVE + Verb -ed/-en, in other words, the auxiliary verb "have" followed by the past participle.

The last couple of centuries has seen the development of the progressive. It can be identified by the following frame: BE + Verb -ing, in other words, the auxiliary verb "be" following by the present participle. This fairly recent grammatical development is more common in the spoken than in the written language. Some even call it the "conversational present tense" since it is most commonly used to indicate "what is happening now."

Another recent grammatical development is the future. Reflecting its new development, the future has different forms for the spoken and written language. For most of the history of the English language, the future was formed simply by adding a future time word, such as 'tomorrow' or 'next Sunday', to a sentence in the present tense. This is still possible, as in "The course starts tomorrow." In the written language, the most common future is formed by adding a 'will' to the beginning of the frame that identifies the verb as in "The course will start tomorrow." "Will" or the contraction "'ll" can also be used in conversation, but more commonly is the "gonna" or "going to" future, as in "The course is going to start tomorrow." Another way to indicate the future is the use the progressive with a future time word, as is "The course is starting tomorrow."

Naming the tenses:
Name the tenses in the following sentences. Remember, first find the frame that surrounds the main verb of the sentence (i.e. the verb with its helping verbs). Then start with the first word in the frame and name the tense and name the following aspect frames (perfect: have + Verb-ed/-en; progressive: be +Verb-ing) in the order you find them.

  1. TicketMaster was selling tickets until 10 last night
  2. The baby has eaten all her food.
  3. My cat loves dog food.
  4. They will have been swimming two hours by sundown.
  5. We'll be there tomorrow.
  6. They had been working on it all night.
  7. I'm doing my homework.
  8. We will have seen the parade by then.
  9. The rat hid in the corner.
  10. They had made the best possible plan.
1. past progressive, 2. present perfect, 3. present, 4. future perfect progressive, 5. future, 6. past perfect progressive, 7. present progressive, 8. future perfect, 9. past, 10. past perfect

Some discourse principles:
As you saw as you named the tenses, the tenses and aspects combine to form at least 10 tenses in English. The problem isn't naming them, or even forming them, but deciding which one to use, especially in written English.

The decision is easier when a couple of discourse principles are kept in mind. These principles are illustrated in the following snippits of conversation.

Test your grammatical intuitions in the following:

Suppose you were the second speaker in the following. Which verb form would you choose? (Don't think about it too much.)

a. Speaker 1: Let's go see the new Matrix movie.
    Speaker 2: Thanks, but I (saw) ('ve seen) it already.

Did you choose 've seen? The majority of native speakers of English do. The descriptive rule is that when a conversation takes place using the present tense (Let's go see), it continues in the present tense. To indicate that something happened earlier (i.e. perfect), use the present perfect rather than the past. The past tense is used only it a definite past time word is added as in the following:

a': Speaker 1: Let's go see the new Matrix movie.
    Speaker 2: Thanks, but I (saw) ('ve seen) it yesterday.

In this case native speakers choose  saw of the word 'yesterday.'

b. Speaker 1: Barbara sure is hanging around a lot lately.
     Speaker 2; Yah, I (bumped) ('ve bumped) into her several times this week.

Did you choose 've bumped? Notice it follows the same descriptive rule. The conversation is in the present (Barbara is hanging around), so it continues in the present, using the present perfect (I've bumped) to indication an action that happened earlier.

Notice again that the present perfect is used rather than the past to talk about past actions.

c.  Speaker 1: Did you go dancing at the new club last night?
    Speaker 2:  Naw, I (was) ('d been) there already. I wanted to go somewhere new.

Notice that speaker 1 used the past tense (did) because of the time word "last night."
Native speakers choose 'd been to indicate that the action had happened earlier than last night.

In other words, tense and aspect in English work around a time axis. If the discourse (written or spoken) is set in the present, that past or earlier events are indicated through the present perfect. If in the past, the past perfect.

d.  Speaker 1:  Did you help John wax his car yesterday?
    Speaker 2: Yep, we were finished by ten. He sure (loved) (loves) that machine.

Note that speaker 1 uses the past tense (did) because of the time word 'yesterday.' Speaker 2 continues in the past (were) because of the discourse rule we just looked at. Notice, however, that the meaning changes when choosing 'loved' or 'loves'. 'Loved' implies that he crashed his car. 'Loves' indicates it is still true. This is the second discourse rule to keep in mind when deciding which tense to use. It you want to indicate that something still is true or always is true, switch the time axis to the present until you finish making your "true" statements.

In other words, tense is used in English not just to indicate the time something happened, but to indicate whether or not something is still true.

Since the future and the progressive are a fairly new developments, they do not fit into these discourse rules quite as neatly. What do you think the "past of the future" is? The "past of the progressive"?

Another thing to consider is how the situations change the use of tense. Suppose you work with children at a preschool. Think of which tense you would probably use in the following situations.

  1. You look out the window and report what some children are doing in the patio.
  2. You make some general comments on what children do when they play outside.
  3. You report what you saw the children doing yesterday during playtime.
  4. You report what the children did outside earlier that morning.
  5. You report what you will do with the children when they come back in.
  6. You explain why some of the children look a bit messy after coming in.
Did you sometimes have a choice of tense? Does the choice have any effect on meaning?

The progressive is generally used only with action verbs where the subject of the sentence is causing the action to happen (e.g. He is playing, She is eating.) With action verbs, the progressive indicates what is happening now. The simple present tense indicates what usually happens but does not indicate what is happening now.

Some verbs express an action or mental condition that the subject of the sentence does not control. These are called stative verbs. These verbs are usually used with only the simple present tense to indicate what is happening now rather than the progressive.  When these verbs are used in the progressive, rather than imply that the action is happening now, they indicate something else. In the following sentences, some of the verbs are action verbs, others stative. See if you can determine which is which according to the meaning change when the verb is in the progressive.

  1. Jose is hot. vs Jose is being hot.
  2. Marta has a new colt. vs Marta is having a new colt.
  3. Maria is weighing the steak. It weighs 10 oz. vs *It is weighing 10 oz.
  4. This evening now costs me fifty bucks. vs This dinner is now costing me fifty bucks.
  5. We hate gummy worms. vs We are hating gummy worms.
  6. They love John. vs They are loving John.
  7. She wants an explanation. vs She is wanting an explanation
  8. Jose thinks about the answer. vs Jose is thinking about the answer.
  9. Jose knows the answer. vs Jose is knowing the answer.
  10. Csaba doubts you. vs Csaba is doubting you.
  11. I look at elephants on the wall. vs I am looking at elephants on the wall.
  12. I see elephants on the wall. vs I am seeing elephants on the wall.
  13. I see Mary on the porch. vs I am seeing Mary on the porch.