Grammatical tense

From FrathWiki
Jump to: navigation, search

A tense is a grammatical category that locates a situation in time, to indicate when the situation takes place.[1][note 1] The tenses are past, present, and future.

Tense can also make finer distinctions than simple past-present-future; past tenses for example can cover general past, immediate past, or distant past, with the only difference between them being the distance on the timeline between the temporal reference points. Such distinctions are not precise: an event may be described in the remote past because it feels remote to the speaker, not because a set number of days have passed since it happened; it may also be remote because it is being contrasted with another, more recent, past event. This is similar to other forms of deixis such as this and that.

In absolute tense, as in English, tense indicates when the time of assertion, time of completion, or time of evaluation occurs relative to the utterance itself (time of utterance). In relative tense, on the other hand, tense is relative to some given event.

The number of tenses in a language may be disputed, because the term tense is often used to represent any combination of tense proper, aspect, and mood. In many texts the term "tense" may erroneously indicate qualities of uncertainty, frequency, completion, duration, possibility, or whether information derives from experience or hearsay (evidentiality). Tense differs from aspect, which encodes how a situation or action occurs in time rather than when. In many languages, there are grammatical forms which express several of these meanings (see tense–aspect–mood).

In languages which have tenses, they are normally usually indicated by a verb or modal verb. Some languages only have grammatical expression of time through aspect; others have neither tense nor aspect. Some East Asian isolating languages such as Chinese express time with temporal adverbs, but these are not required, and the verbs are not inflected for tense. In Slavic languages such as Russian a verb may be inflected for both tense and aspect together.


Tense comes from Old French tens "time", from Latin tempus

"time",[2] a translation of Greek chrónos
"time".[3][4] "Tense" as an adjective is unrelated, since it comes from the perfect passive participle of the Latin verb tendere "stretch".[5]


Latin and Ancient Greek

The word "tense" is used in the grammar of Latin and Ancient Greek as a morphological category of verbs. Latin is said to have six tenses:

  • Present
  • Imperfect
  • Future
  • Perfect
  • Pluperfect
  • Future perfect

The tenses of Ancient Greek are similar, with an additional tense called the aorist. Though aorist is "Past" tense, but its main thrust is in its aspect: undefined. Other Greek tenses have an aspect related to continuity. Hence aorist has its special function as the only tense that can point to "point-like" events or non-continuity. Sometimes it is used to denote some actions which is in present tense as of English. The study of modern languages like English has been greatly influenced by the grammar of these languages, and their terminology is sometimes used to describe modern languages. This leads to sentences like "He had walked" in English being labelled as "pluperfect". Another example is that six tenses in German have been identified which correspond to the six Latin tenses above.


See also English verbs#Overview of syntactic constructions for more information

English has two true tenses, past and present (sometimes analysed as non-past). These are distinguished by the inflection of the verb, by either ablaut or a suffix -ed (walks ~ walked, sings ~ sang). The future is expressed with a modal construction, which is not a true tense,[6] and does not always appear (it is optional in subordinate constructions such as I hope you (will) go tomorrow, and is prohibited with other modals as in I can go tomorrow, but past tense cannot be similarly omitted: *I hope you go yesterday, *I can go yesterday). English also has so-called "compound tenses", such as the past perfect and present progressive, which use modals to combine tense with other grammatical categories such as aspect.

Tense, aspect, and modals in English
Tense Modal Aspect
Perfect Progressive
-Ø (nonpast)
-ed (past)
Ø (none)
will (future)
Ø (none)
have -en (perfect)
Ø (none)
be -ing (progressive)
go, goes
will go have gone be going

Traditional grammars often considered will to be a future marker and described English as having two non-inflected tenses, a future marked by will and a future-in-past marked by would.

Other languages

Indo-European languages inflect verbs for a variety of tenses, aspects, and moods, as well as combining them with verbal auxiliaries, the most common of which are "be", "have", and modal auxiliaries such as English will, Danish vil . Romance and Germanic languages often add "hold", "stand", "go", or "come" as auxiliary verbs. For example, Spanish and Portuguese use estar ("to be") with the present gerund to indicate the present continuous aspect. Portuguese uses ter ("to have") with the past participle for the perfect. Swedish uses kommer att ("come to") for the simple future. Portuguese/Spanish ir and French aller ("to go") have the same sense of simple future. These compound verb constructions are often known as "complex tenses" or "compound tenses", despite involving more than tense.

Examples of tense and aspect in some Indo-European and Uralic verbs for "to go" are shown in the table below.

Tense/aspect Germanic: English:
to go
Germanic: German:
Germanic: Dutch:
Germanic: Danish:
at gå
Germanic: Swedish:
att gå(walk)
Celtic: Irish:
Romance: Italian:
Romance: Portuguese:
Slavic: Bulgarian:
Slavic: Macedonian:
Uralic: Finnish:
Uralic: Hungarian:
Indo-European: Latin:
Romance: French:
Turkic: Turkish:
Non-durational (simple) Aspects in Present I go. Ich gehe. Ik ga. Jeg går. Jag går. Téim. (Io) vado. (Eu) vou. (Аз) отивам.
(Аз да) отида.
Јас одам (Minä) menen. (Én) megyek. (Ego) eo/vado. Je vais. Giderim.
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. Ich ging. Ik ging. Jeg gik. Jag gick. Chuaigh mé. (Io) andai. (Eu) fui. (Аз) отидох.
(Аз) отивах.
Јас отидов. (Minä) menin. (Én) mentem. J'allais/je suis allé Gittim.
Implies that the action took place in the past and that it is not taking place now.
Non-durational (simple) Aspects in Future I will go. Ich werde gehen. Ik zal gaan. Jeg vil gå.3 Jag ska gå.3 Rachaidh mé. (Io) andrò. (Eu) irei. (Аз) ще отида.
(Аз) ще отивам.
Јас ќе одам. (Minä) tulen menemään.4 (Én) menni fogok. (Ego) ibo/vadam. J'irai Gideceğim.
Can express intention, prediction, and other senses.
Durational (progressive/continuous) Aspects in Present I am going. Ich bin am gehen.5 Ik ben aan het gaan. / Ik ben gaande. Jeg er gående. "Jag är gående" Tá mé ag dul. (Io) sto andando. (Eu) estou indo. (Аз) отивам. (Minä) olen menossa. (Ego) eo/vado.

((Ego) iens/vadens sum.)
Je suis en train d'aller. Gidiyorum.
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. Ich war am gehen.5 Ik was aan het gaan. / Ik was gaande. Jeg var gående. / Jeg skulle til at gå2. Jag var på väg att gå2 Bhí mé ag dul. (Io) stavo andando. (Eu) estava indo/ia. (Аз) отивах. (Minä) olin menossa. (Én) megyek vala.6 (Ego) ibam/vadebam.

((Ego) fui iens/vadens sum)
Durational (progressive/continuous) Aspects in Future I will be going. Ich werde am gehen sein.5 Ik zal aan het gaan zijn. / Ik zal gaande zijn. Jeg skal til at gå. Beidh me ag dul. (Eu) estarei indo. (Аз) щях да отида Gidiyor olacağım.
Perfected Non-durational (simple) Aspects in Present I have gone. Ich bin gegangen. Ik ben gegaan. Jeg har gået. Jag har gått. Tá me i ndiaidh dul. (Io) sono andato. (Eu) fui/tenho ido. Аз съм отишъл.
Аз съм отивал.
Јас имам отидено. (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. Ich war gegangen. Ik was gegaan. Jeg havde gået. Jag hade gått. Bhí mé i ndiaidh dul. (Io) ero andato / (Io) fui andato. (Eu) fora/havia (tinha) ido. (Аз) бях отишъл.
(Аз) бях отивал.
Јас имав отидено (Minä) olin mennyt. (Én) mentem volt.6 (Ego) ieram/vaseram J'étais allé. Gitmiştim
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. Ich werde gegangen sein. Ik zal gegaan zijn. Jeg vil have gået. Jag kommer att ha gått. Beidh mé i ndiaidh dul. (Io) sarò andato. (Eu) terei ido. (Аз) ще съм отишъл.
(Аз) ще съм отивал.
Јас ќе имам отидено. (Minä) olen tullut menemään (Ego) iero/vasero. Je serai allé. Gitmiş olacağım.
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. Ich bin am gehen gewesen.5 Ik ben aan het gaan geweest. (Eu) estive indo.
Expresses 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 beyond that TCOM, but whose duration is only measurable up to TCOM.
Perfected Durational (progressive/continuous) Aspects in Past I had been going. Ich war am gehen gewesen.5 Ik was aan het gaan geweest. (Eu) estivera indo/tinha estado indo.
Expresses 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. Ik zal aan het gaan geweest zijn. / Ik zal gaande geweest zijn. Eu terei estado indo (Аз) щях да съм отишъл.
Expresses 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.
5 Used only in colloquial language in the Rhineland area.
6 Used only sporadically or in archaic Hungarian.


Tenses are broadly classified as present, past, or future. In absolute-tense systems, these indicate the temporal distance from the time of utterance. In relative-tense systems, they indicate temporal distance from a point of time established in the discourse. There are also absolute-relative tenses, which are two degrees removed from the temporal reference point, such as future-in-future (at some time in the future, event will still be in the future) and future-in-past (at some time in the past, event was in the future).

Many languages do not grammaticalize all three categories. For instance, English has past and non-past ("present"); other languages may have future and non-future. In some languages, there is not a single past or future tense, but finer divisions of time, such as proximal vs. distant future, experienced vs. ancestral past, or past and present today vs. before and after today.

Some attested tenses:

  • Future tenses.
    • Immediate future: right now
    • Near future: soon
    • Hodiernal future: later today
    • Vespertine future: this evening
    • Post-hodiernal: after today
    • Crastinal: tomorrow
    • Remote future, distant future
    • Posterior tense (relative future tense)
  • Nonfuture tense: refers to either the present or the past, but does not clearly specify which. Contrasts with future.
  • Present tense
    • Still tense: indicates a situation held to be the case, at or immediately before the utterance
  • 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.
    • Immediate past: very recent past, just now
    • Recent past: in the last few days/weeks/months (conception varies)
      • Nonrecent past: contrasts with recent past
    • Hodiernal past: earlier today
    • Matutinal past: this morning
    • Prehodiernal: before today
    • Hesternal: yesterday or early, but not remote
    • Prehesternal: before yesterday
    • Remote past: more than a few days/weeks/months ago (conception varies)
      • Nonremote past: contrasts with remote past
    • Ancestral past, legendary past
    • General past: the entire past conceived as a whole
    • Anterior tense (relative past tense)

See also


  1. Bernard Comrie, Aspect, 1976:6:
    the semantic concept of time reference (absolute or relative), ... may be grammaticalised in a language, i.e. a language may have a grammatical category that expresses time reference, in which case we say that the language has tenses. Many languages lack tense, i.e. do not have grammatical time reference, though probably all languages can lexicalise time reference, i.e. have temporal adverbials that locate situations in time


  1. Fabricius-Hansen, "Tense", in the Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, 2nd ed., 2006
  2. Template:L&S
  3. Template:LSJ
  4. Template:OED
  5. Template:OEtymD
  6. Template:Cite web


  • 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.

External links

Template:Grammatical tenses

This article incorporates text from Wikipedia, and is available under the GNU Free Documentation License.
For the original article please see the "external links" section.