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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 five qualities, along with mood, voice, aspect, and person, which verb forms may express.

Tenses cannot always be translated 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 meanings vary among languages.

There are languages (such as isolating languages, like Chinese) in which tense is not used, but implied in temporal adverbs when needed, and some (such as Japanese) in which temporal information appears in the inflection of adjectives, lending them a verb-like quality. In some languages (such as Russian) a simple verb may indicate aspect and tense.

The number of tenses in a language may be controversial, since its verbs may indicate qualities of uncertainty, frequency, completion, duration, possibility, and even whether information derives from experience or hearsay (the last two are evidentiality).


Basic tenses in English

English has two tenses by which verbs are inflected: a non-past tense (present tense) and a past tense (indicated by ablaut or the suffix -ed). What is commonly called the future tense in English is indicated with a modal auxiliary, not verbal inflection.

The following chart shows how TAM (tense/aspect/mood) is expressed in English:

Tense Modal Aspect Verb
Perfect Progressive
-Ø (nonpast)
-ed (past)
Ø (none)
will (future)
Ø (none)
have -ne (perfect)
Ø (none)
be -ing (progressive)

Because will is a modal auxiliary, it cannot occur with other modals, such as can, may, and must. Only aspects can be used in infinitives ("to have talked": perfect aspect; "to be talking": progressive aspect).

Grammarians and linguists typically consider will to be a future marker and give English two non-inflected tenses, a future tense and a conditional, marked by will and would respectively. In general parlance, all combinations of aspects, moods, and tenses are often referred to as "tenses".

Further tenses

The more complex tenses in Indo-European languages are formed by combining a particular tense of the verb with certain verbal auxiliaries, the most common of which are various forms of "be", various forms of "have", and modal auxiliaries such as English will. Romance and Germanic languages often add "to hold", "to stand", "to go", or "to come" as auxiliary verbs. For example, Spanish uses estar ("to be") with the present gerund to indicate the present continuous. Portuguese uses ter ("to have") with the past participle for the perfect aspect. Swedish uses kommer att ("come to") for the simple future. These constructions are often known as complex tenses or compound tenses (a more accurate technical term is periphrastic tenses).

Examples of some generally recognized 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:
Celtic: Irish:
Romance: Italian:
Romance: Spanish:
Slavic: Bulgarian:
Finno-Ugric: Finnish:
Present simple I go. Jag går. Ich gehe. Téim. (Io) vado. (Yo) voy. (Аз) отивам.
(Аз да) отида.
(Minä) menen. 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).
Present continuous I am going. Tá mé ag dul. (Io) sto andando. (Yo) estoy yendo. (Аз) отивам. (Minä) olen menossa. This form is prevalent in English to express current action, but is absent or rarer in other Indo-European languages, which prefer the simple present tense. The continuous is more an aspect than a tense and is included here only because of its prevalence in English to substitute for the simple present.
Present perfect I have gone. Jag har gått. Ich bin gegangen. Tá me i ndiaidh dul. (Io) sono andato. (Yo) he ido. Аз съм отишъл.
Аз съм отивал.
(Minä) olen mennyt. Common past compound tense. In some languages indicates recent past, in others indicates an unknown past time.
Preterite/Aorist I went. Jag gick. Ich ging. Chuaigh mé. (Io) andai. (Yo) fui. (Аз) отидох.
(Аз) отивах.
(Minä) menin. In English, unlike other languages with aorist tenses, this implies that the action took place in the past and that it is not taking place now.
Imperfect I used to go. Théinn. (Io) andavo. (Yo) iba. (Аз) отивах.
(Аз да) отидех.
The English construction I used to go has a very restricted use, compared to the imperfect tenses of other languages, which often translate better as I was going, I would go, or even I went. Although not shown here, Finnish, Swedish, and German can explicitly express a habit (Swedish jag brukade gå, Finnish tapasin mennä, German Ich ging).
Past continuous I was going. Jag var gående2 Bhí mé ag dul. (Io) stavo andando. (Yo) estaba yendo. (Аз) отивах. (Minä) olin menossa.
Conditional I would go. Jag skulle gå Ich würde gehen. Rachainn. (Io) andrei. (Yo) iría. (Аз) бих отишъл.
(Аз) бих отивал.
(Minä) menisin. The conditional is regarded as a tense in the grammars of some languages, although others treat it as a mood. Notice that it can refer to the past, for example in reported speech: I warned him that I would call the Police if he did not turn the music down. This implies a condition not met. The past is also referred to by I would have called the Police if he had not turned the music down. This implies a condition that was met.
Pluperfect (past perfect) I had gone. Jag hade gått. Ich war gegangen. Bhí mé i ndiaidh dul. (Io) ero andato / (Io) fui andato. (Yo) había ido. (Аз) бях отишъл.
(Аз) бях отивал.
(Minä) olin mennyt. This expresses a past action that was completed before some other past event.
Future I shall go. Jag ska gå.3 Ich werde gehen. Rachaidh mé. (Io) andrò. (Yo) iré. (Аз) ще отида.
(Аз) ще отивам.
Tulen menemään.4 This can be used to express intention, prediction, and other senses.
Future perfect I shall have gone. Jag kommer att ha gått. Ich werde gegangen sein. Beidh mé i ndiaidh dul. (Io) sarò andato. (Yo) habré ido. (Аз) ще съм отишъл.
(Аз) ще съм отивал.
This expresses a future action that will be completed before another future action. As Finnish has no future tense, the present perfect is used instead.
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.

Tense, aspect, and mood

The distinction between grammatical tense, aspect, and mood is fuzzy and at times controversial. The English continuous temporal constructions express an aspect as well as a tense, and some therefore consider that aspect separate from tense in English. In Spanish the traditional verb tenses are also combinations of aspectual and temporal information.

Going even further, there is an ongoing dispute among modern English grammarians (see English grammar) regarding whether tense can only refer to inflected forms. In Germanic languages there are very few tenses (often only two) formed strictly by inflection, and one school contends that all complex or periphrastic time-formations are aspects rather than tenses.

The abbreviation TAM, T/A/M or TMA is sometimes found when dealing with verbal morphemes that combine tense, aspect and mood information.

In some languages, tense and other TAM information may be marked on a noun, rather than a verb. This is called nominal TAM.

Classification of tenses

Tenses can be broadly classified as:

  • absolute tense: indicates time in relationship to the time of the utterance (i.e. "now"). For example, "I am sitting down", the tense is indicated in relation to the present moment.
  • relative tense: in relationship to some other time, other than the time of utterance, e.g. "While strolling through the shops, she saw a nice dress in the window". Here, the "saw" is relative to the time of the "strolling". The relationship between the time of "strolling" and the time of utterance is not clearly specified.
  • absolute-relative: indicates time in relationship to some other event, whose time in turn is relative to the time of utterance. (Thus, in absolute-relative tense, the time of the verb is indirectly related to the time of the utterance; in absolute tense, it is directly related; in relative tense, its relationship to the time of utterance is left unspecified.) For example, "When I walked through the park, I saw a bird." Here, "saw" is present relative to the "walked", and "walked" is past relative to the time of the utterance, thus "saw" is in absolute-relative tense.

All of the following tenses may occur in either an absolute or a relative frame.

Tenses can be quite finely distinguished from one another, although no language will express simply all of these distinctions. As we will see, some of these tenses in fact involve elements of modality (e.g. predictive and not-yet tenses), but they are difficult to classify clearly as either tenses or moods.

Many languages define tense not just in terms of past/future/present, but also in terms of how far into the past or future they are. Thus they introduce concepts of closeness or remoteness, or tenses that are relevant to the measurement of time into days (hodiernal or hesternal tenses).

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
    • Post-hodiernal future tense: sometime after today
    • Crastinal future tense: on the day of tomorrow; after today
    • Remote future tense: in the more distant future
    • Predictive future tense: a future tense which expresses a prediction rather than an intention, i.e., "I predict he will lose the election, although I want him to win". As such, it is really more of a mood than a tense. (Its tenseness rather than modality lies in the fact that you can predict the future, but not the past.)
  • 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.
  • Not-yet tense: has not happened in present or past (nonfuture), but often with the implication that it is expected to happen in the future. (As such, is both a tense and a modality). In English, it is expressed with "not yet", hence its name.
  • 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
    • Preterite: 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 perfect tense: by some time in the future, before some time in the future
    • 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
    • future-perfect-in-past tense: by some time which is in the future of some time in the past, e.g., Sally went to work; by the time she should be home, the burglary would have been completed.
    • past perfect tense: at some time in the past, was already in the past


  • 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]
  • Downing, Angela, and Philip Locke (1992) "Viewpoints on Events: Tense, Aspect and Modality". In A. Downing and P. Locke, A University Course in English Grammar, Prentice Hall International, 350--402.
  • 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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