How Many Tenses?

According to many linguists, English only has two tenses: Past, and non-Past. This can seem confusing to many teachers (myself included, for a while) since we teach somewhere around twelve different tenses, possibly more depending on what qualifies as a tense. So what’s different?

First of all, the term ‘tense’ means different things to these two groups of people (linguists and teachers). For linguists, ‘tense’ is just one facet of time expressed through language; it just identifies or dictates whether the verb was completed before the sentence is spoken/written, or not.

For teachers, whether a verb is completed is just one facet of tense. The second primary facet is aspect, including the presence or absence of the perfect aspect, and the presence or absence of the progressive/continuous aspect. A third facet that is usually (but not always) included is mood, or modality, which covers verb phrases that are expected to happen (as in future tenses) and hypothetical verb phrases (as in conditionals), among others. These three facets together form what teachers think of as ‘tenses’.

So if anyone tells you there are only tenses, tell them it depends on who’s talking about them (read our Context Matters post).

Why Past and Non-Past?

What really defines ‘tense’ is even debated among linguists, but one thing they do agree on is that there are only two morphological tenses. ‘Morph’, of course, means ‘change’. Verbs (except for be, have, and do) have two primary forms: present, and past. The classic example is ‘go’, which morphs into ‘went’ for Past usage.

Past and Non-Past are also the only categories that can be expressed by the form of the verb alone. For more complex verb constructions, an auxiliary verb is needed to properly express aspect or mood/modality.

Why isn’t it Past, Present, and Future?

The same base verb form is used for both Present and Future. Usually, the difference in a Future form is an auxiliary verb, not the form of the main verb. And other times, there is no difference in their forms (for example, “The plane leaves at 4:17,” could be a Future expression, even though the verb appears to be Present).

Read: Why ‘Will’ is a Modal

The Takeaway

So why does this matter? For most teachers, perhaps it doesn’t. But it could shed light on the intricacies on English verb construction. We at Insights like to recognize that it informs us of the various facets of what teachers think of as ‘tenses’. It helps us think more about aspect and mood, as well as the role of auxiliary verbs. It also reveals a bit about how we in the western world think about time and express it through language.

This is a field we’re still trying to figure out, but we can improve our teaching methods by deepening our understanding of ‘tenses’ vs. ‘tense’, we’ll let you know!

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