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Grammatical tense is a temporal linguistic quality expressing the time at, during, or over which a state or action denoted by a verb occurs.

Tense is one of at least four qualities, along with mood, voice, and aspect, which utterances may express.

Tenses represent a contrast of temporal references along the timeline of an utterance. All languages use the same tenses -- present, past and future, however the expression of these tenses cannot always be translated directly from one language to another. While verbs in all languages have typical forms by which they are identified and indexed in dictionaries, usually the most common present tense or an infinitive, their use in methods for expressing tense varies among languages.

There are languages (such as isolating languages, like Chinese) in which tense is not inflected through verb forms or expressed structurally, but is instead implied through the use of temporal adverbs when needed, and some (such as Japanese) in which temporal information appears via the use of inflected adjectives. In some languages (such as Russian) a single verb may be inflected to indicate aspect and tense together.

The number of tenses in a language may be controversial, because the term tense is often misconstrued to represent any combination of temporal expression, additional aspects, and even mood. In many texts the term tense may erroneously indicate qualities of uncertainty, frequency, completion, duration, possibility, and even whether information derives from experience or hearsay (the last two are evidentiality). These are in fact not tenses, but traditional nomenclature often classes them as such. In reality, all languages have the same tenses. These are normally divided into three groups -- present, past, and future with each being a range within a given scope. For instance, past tenses are those in which the temporal reference of content verb (Time of Assertion, Time of Completion, or Time of Evaluation) occurs before the temporal reference of the utterance itself (Time of Utterance). Past tenses can range from general past, to immediate past, to distant or even very distant past with the only difference between them being the distance on the timeline between the temporal reference points.

Contents

Expression of Tense in English

Tense in English is grouped into two types -- pure tense and modal tense. Pure tense refers to expressions of present, past, and future tenses in which secondary temporal reference (Time of Assertion, Time of Completion, or Time of Evaluation) is known or perceived to be fully certain. In other words, pure tense refers to expressions in which the attestation is known or thought to be true. Modal tense on the other hand, refers to expressions of present, past, or future in which the certainty of the attestation is not fully certain. In English these forms are expressed with the addition of a modal, modal phrase, or modal adverb.

Only the past tenses in English are expressed by declining the verb. In all raw and perfected aspects, past tense is expressed using the præterite form of the aspectual auxiliary (did, was/were, had) in periphrastic form. In the non-durational aspects (commonly referred to as the Simple Aspect), past tenses may be expressed via a special inflected form in which the aspectual auxiliary did is ommited and the præterite of the content verb is used. This form is only possible in some affirmative statements. In all other types of utterance, the periphrastic form must be employed.

Present tenses are expressed via an unmarked form similar to those of the past tenses, but with the aspectual auxiliary only declined for agreement with person and number (do/does, am/is/are, have/has) in periphrastic forms. As with past tenses inflected forms may be used for certain affirmative statements.

Pure future tenses in English are expressed in the same way as the present tenses but with the addition of a future-marking adverb or time phrase.

Modal Tenses in English are expressed using either the fully undeclined modal form, or a pure tense form with sn additional modal adverb or phrase. Modal tense is most often used in English for expressing futurity.

Modal Future refers to any of eight future forms in which the attestation cannot be known to be true due yo the uncertain nature of future outcomes. These forms vary by certainty and always express that level of future certainty within the scope of a supporting mood.

Expression of Tense in Various Languages

Examples of tense expression in some Indo-European and Finno-Ugric tenses using the verb "to go" are shown in the table below.

Tense Germanic: English:
to go
Germanic: Swedish:
att gå(walk)
Germanic: German:
gehen
Germanic: Dutch:
gaan
Celtic: Irish:
téigh
Romance: Italian:
andare
Romance: Spanish:
ir
Slavic: Bulgarian:
отивам/отида1
Finno-Ugric: Finnish:
mennä
Indo-European: Latin:
ire/vadere
Romance: French:
aller
Notes
Non-durational (simple) Aspects in Present I go. Jag går. Ich gehe. Ik ga. Téim. (Io) vado. (Yo) voy. (Аз) отивам.
(Аз да) отида.
(Minä) menen. (Ego) eo/vado. Je vais. In most languages this is used for most present indicative uses. In English, it is used mainly to express habit or ability (I play the guitar).
Non-durational (simple) Aspects in Past I went. Jag gick. Ich ging. Ik ging. Chuaigh mé. (Io) andai. (Yo) fui. (Аз) отидох.
(Аз) отивах.
(Minä) menin. J'allai/je suis allé This tense implies that the action took place in the past and that it is not taking place now.
Non-durational (simple) Aspects in Future I shall go. Jag ska gå.3 Ich werde gehen. Ik zal gaan. Rachaidh mé. (Io) andrò. (Yo) iré. (Аз) ще отида.
(Аз) ще отивам.
(Minä) tulen menemään.4 (Ego) ibo/vadam. J'irai This can be used to express intention, prediction, and other senses.
Durational (progressive/continuous) Aspects in Present I am going. Tá mé ag dul. (Io) sto andando. (Yo) estoy yendo. (Аз) отивам. (Minä) olen menossa. (Ego) eo/vado.

((Ego) iens/vadens sum.)
Je suis en train d'aller. This form is prevalent in English to express current action. Durational aspects are most common in languages in which the aktionsart of the verb is not a heavily governing factor in determining grammatical structure. Durational aspects use a structural form of the utterance to override the otherwise non-durational aktionsart of content verbs.
Durational (progressive/continuous) Aspects in Past I was going. Jag höll på och gick2 Bhí mé ag dul. (Io) stavo andando. (Yo) estaba yendo/iba. (Аз) отивах. (Minä) olin menossa. (Ego) ibam/vadebam.

((Ego) fui iens/vadens sum)
Durational (progressive/continuous) Aspects in Future I shall be going.
Perfected Non-durational (simple) Aspects in Present I have gone. Jag har gått. Ich bin gegangen. Ik ben gegaan. Tá me i ndiaidh dul. (Io) sono andato. (Yo) he ido. Аз съм отишъл.
Аз съм отивал.
(Minä) olen mennyt. (Ego) ii/vasi. Je suis allé. Refers to a verb that is completed as of the present (as of the Time of Utterance).
Perfected Non-durational (simple) Aspects in Past I had gone. Jag hade gått. Ich war gegangen. Ik was gegaan. Bhí mé i ndiaidh dul. (Io) ero andato / (Io) fui andato. (Yo) había ido. (Аз) бях отишъл.
(Аз) бях отивал.
(Minä) olin mennyt. (Ego) ieram/vaseram J'étais allé. Refers to a verb that is completed as of a time in the past (before the Time of Utterance.
Perfected Non-durational (simple) Aspects in Future I shall have gone. Jag kommer att ha gått. Ich werde gegangen sein. Ik zal gegaan zijn. Beidh mé i ndiaidh dul. (Io) sarò andato. (Yo) habré ido. (Аз) ще съм отишъл.
(Аз) ще съм отивал.
(Minä) olen tullut menemään (Ego) iero/vasero. Je serai allé. Refers to a verb that is completed as of a time in the future (after the Time of Utterance.
Perfected Durational (progressive/continuous) Aspects in Present I have been going. This is used to express the completed duration of an event or habit started at some time prior to the TUTT and continues up to the TCOM which coincides with TUTT and may continue beyong that TCOM, but whose duration is only measurable up to TCOM.
Perfected Durational (progressive/continuous) Aspects in Past I had been going. This is used to express the completed duration of an event or habit started at some time prior to the Time of Utterance and continues up to the TCOM which is also prior to TUTT and which may continue beyond that TCOM, but whose duration is only measurable up to TCOM.
Perfected Durational (progressive/continuous) Aspects in Future I shall have been going. This is used to express the completed duration of an event or habit started at some time before, after, or concurrent with the Time of Utterance and continues up to the TCOM which is after TUTT and which may continue beyond that TCOM, but whose duration is only measurable up to TCOM.
1 Oтивам and отида are two different verbs meaning "to go", which do not differ semantically, but grammatically. Their aspect is different, the first one is an incompletive verb and the second one is a completive verb.
2 This only works with adverbs, as in "I was going when someone suddenly stopped me"; not just "I was going to their house". Otherwise, the corresponding simple tense is used.
3 This is not a true future tense, but a going-to future, as its exact meaning is I am going to go.
4 The use of the verb tulla "to come" to express a future tense is a sveticism and is recommended against by the language regulator. Official Finnish has no future tense, and even the use of this tulen-construction is uncommon in unofficial contexts. Thus, the present tense is used. However, a telic object may implicitly communicate the time, which has no direct equivalent in English.

Classification of tenses

Tenses are broadly classified as present, past, or future. Within these broad classifications exist many possible tenses. The difference among these tenses is primarily one of degrees of temporal distance from the Time of Utterance. For instance, within the general category of past tenses, there may further exist immediate past, distant past, far distant past, and remote past with the only difference between them being an increase in distance from the time of utterance along the timeline of that utterance.

Some languages also distinguish not just between past, present, and future, but also nonpast, nonpresent, nonfuture. Each of these latter tenses incorporates two of the former, without specifying which.

Some tenses:

  • Future tenses. Some languages have different future tenses to indicate how far into the future we are talking about. Some of these include:
    • Near future tense: in the near future, soon
    • Hodiernal future tense: sometime today
    • Vespertine future tense: sometime this evening
    • Post-hodiernal future tense: sometime after today
    • Crastinal future tense: tomorrow
    • Remote future tense: in the more distant future
  • Nonfuture tense: refers to either the present or the past, but does not clearly specify which. Contrasts with future.
  • Nonpast tense: refers to either the present or the future, but does not clearly specify which. Contrasts with past.
  • Past tenses. Some languages have different past tenses to indicate how far into the past we are talking about.
    • Hesternal past tense: yesterday or early, but not remote
    • Hodiernal past tense: sometime earlier today
    • Matutinal past tense: sometime in the morning or early in the day before noon
    • Immediate past tense: very recent past tense, e.g., in the last minute or two
    • Recent past tense: in the last few days/weeks/months (exact definition varies)
    • Remote past tense: more than a few days/weeks/months ago (exact definition varies)
    • Nonrecent past tense: not recent past tense, contrasting with recent past tense
    • Nonremote past tense: not remote past tense, contrasting with remote past tense
    • Prehesternal past tense: before hesternal past tense
    • Prehodiernal past tense: before hodiernal past tense
    • General Past: past, conceived as a whole
  • Present tense
  • Still tense: indicates a situation held to be the case, at or immediately before the utterance
  • Absolute-relative tenses
    • future-in-future tense: at some time in the future, will still be in the future
    • future-in-past tense: at some time in the past, will be in the future

Bibliography

  • Bybee, Joan L., Revere Perkins, and William Pagliuca (1994) The Evolution of Grammar: Tense, Aspect, and Modality in the Languages of the World. University of Chicago Press.
  • Comrie, Bernard (1985) Tense. Cambridge University Press. [ISBN 0-521-28138-5]
  • Guillaume, Gustave (1929) Temps et verbe. Paris: Champion.
  • Hopper, Paul J., ed. (1982) Tense-Aspect: Between Semantics and Pragmatics. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
  • Smith, Carlota (1997). The Parameter of Aspect. Dordrecht: Kluwer.
  • Tedeschi, Philip, and Anne Zaenen, eds. (1981) Tense and Aspect. (Syntax and Semantics 14). New York: Academic Press.

See also

External links

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