What is Tense?

tense (noun): a verb-based method used to indicate the time, and sometimes the continuation or completeness, of an action or state in relation to the time of speaking. ORIGIN Latin tempus "time"

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:

Note that many grammarians take the view that there are only two tenses in English: present tense and past tense. That is because we make those two tenses with the verb alone - he walks, he walked. They do not consider that he will walk, he is walking or he has walked (for example) are tenses because they are not formed solely from the verb "walk". For English learners, most EFL teachers and books treat all these constructions as tenses. On these pages we do the same.

We cannot talk of tenses without considering two components of many English tenses: time and aspect. In simple terms...

Time expresses:

Aspect can be:

The following table shows how these components work together to create some basic tenses.

past present future
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.