What is Tense?
The concept of tense in English is a method that we use to refer to time - past, present and future. Many languages use tense to talk about time. Other languages have no concept of tense at all, but of course they can still talk about time, using different methods.
So, we talk about time in English with tense. But, and this is a very big but:
- we can also talk about time without using tense (for example, going to is a special construction to talk about the future, it is not a tense)
- one tense does not always talk about one time (for example, we can use the present tense, or even the past tense, to talk about the future - see tense and time for more about this)
We cannot talk of tenses without considering two components of many English tenses: time and aspect. In simple terms...
- past - before now
- present - now, or any time that includes now
- future - after now
Aspect can be:
- progressive - uncompleted action
- perfective - completed action or state
The following table shows how these components work together to create some basic tenses.
|simple (no aspect)||sang||sings||will sing|
|aspect||progressive||was singing||is singing||will be singing|
|perfective||had sung||has sung||will have sung|
(Some say that simple tenses have "simple aspect", but strictly speaking simple tenses are simply unmarked for aspect.)
The progressive aspect produces progressive or "continuous" tenses: past continuous, present continuous, future continuous.
The perfective aspect produces perfect tenses: past perfect, present perfect, future perfect.
And the two aspects can be combined to produce perfect continuous tenses: past perfect continuous, present perfect continuous, future perfect continuous.
The above is a summary of the concept of tense in English. There are other factors, including voice and mood, that allow us to create more than the twelve tenses referred to on this page. We deal with those under the English tense system and tenses.