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The English Tense System

Firstly a brief explanation aimed at those who may have studied this area of the grammar of English
before. EFL tends to simplify and to teach things piecemeal so you may well find yourself teaching things
you know to be not quite correct. This is particularly true of the tense system. While most linguists would
agree that English does not actually have a future tense and that our 'tenses' are very badly named we do
not usually point either of these things out to the students, especially at lower levels. Please be tolerant.

The Tense Chart


Aspects
The Active and Passive Voices
The 'Present' Tenses

Tense Chart: The English tenses:

Tense

Example

Past simple (or indefinite)

She took him home.

Past continuous (or


progressive)

He was driving dangerously.

Past perfect simple

I had known him for many years. Then one day

Past perfect continuous

He had been watching her for several months.

Present simple

Her husband does everything for her.

Present Continuous

He is watching the match at the moment.

Present perfect simple

I have seen this movie before.

Present perfect continuous They have been seeing each other for some time now.
Future simple

I will give her another chance.

Future continuous

They will be moving quite soon.

Future perfect simple

I will have completed the report by Monday.

Future perfect continuous

He will have been working here for thirty years come the
end of next month.

Quiz 1: Using the examples in the table of tenses above answer the following questions:
What
What
What
What
What

form of the verb is used for the present simple - first, second or third?
form of the verb is used for the past simple?
two things do all of the perfect tenses have in common?
two things do all of the continuous tenses have in common?
do all of the future tenses have in common?

Aspects
An aspect is a grammatical category that helps us to understand the way the event described by a verb
should be viewed. Amongst other things it can indicate that the event is fleeting, habitual, repeated or if it
is in progress at the time of speaking. There are two aspects in English: progressive and perfect.
The progressive aspect is indicated by the presence of a form of the auxiliary verb be used in conjunction
with the '-ing' form of the following verb:

'I am coming with you!'


'He was strolling slowly down the lane.'
'You will be working with me.'

The perfect aspect is indicated by the presence of a form of the auxiliary verb have in conjunction with the
past participle (third form) of the following verb:

'She has bought a new car.'


'She had once lived with a member of the government.'
'They will have eaten all the food before we get there.'

The two aspects can also be combined:

'We have been visiting my grandmother, who is in hospital at the moment.'


'He had been drinking heavily before the accident.'
'They will have been expecting for us for hours!'

Quiz 2: What are the tenses in 1 - 9 above?


The Meaning of the Progressive Aspect
In order to understand what meaning the progressive (sometimes called the continuous) aspect adds to
a tense, we need to contrast it with the simple (sometimes called the indefinite). No doubt, you have
already noticed that either the word 'continuous' or the word 'simple' is present in all of the tense names.
We will start by studying two sentences with similar meaning.

1. I live in Moscow.
2. I am living in Moscow.
Which of the above sentences gives the impression of a temporary situation, and which seems to have no
time limitation either in the past or the future?
The above question should present no difficulty but if you are uncertain try asking yourself to which
sentence do you feel most comfortable in adding the words 'at the moment'?
The answer is, of course, the second. Why? Well, because the progressive aspect adds the idea of limited
duration. Sentence 1 could be referring to the exact same speaker and circumstances as sentence 2. The
choice made by the speaker will depend on the context and how the speaker feels about the situation. If
the speaker has a definite idea of when he or she will move from Moscow, the 2nd sentence is more likely.
If there is no particular need to stress the temporary nature of the situation, then the 1st is likely.
Perhaps, for example, in response to questioning by police where their interest is clearly in the speaker's
current place of residence and not in the fact that this residence is expected to last for only one year.
Police officer: Where do you live?
Responder: I live in Moscow. (Far more likely than 'I am living')
Although the question 'Where are you living?' is possible, it presupposes some prior knowledge on the part
of the questioner as to the temporary nature of the responder's residential situation. So is limited
duration the only thing that the progressive aspect adds? No, but it is probably the most important.
Some verbs are rarely used in continuous tenses and some others are used in continuous tenses only
when the verb in question has certain meanings. Many of these are ' state' verbs such as believe, doubt or
know. Verbs used for the senses are also rare e.g. smell.
Quiz 3: Compare the following pairs of sentences and decide which are acceptable:

a) I am believing you.
b) I believe you.

a) He knows quite a lot about our operation.


b) He is knowing quite a lot about our operation.

a) I've accidentally been cutting myself with the bread knife.


b) I've accidentally cut myself with the bread knife.

a) I see what you mean.


b) I am seeing what you mean.

The sentences in 3 above illustrate an interesting effect that the progressive aspect has on short action
verbs. Grammatically sentence 3a is correct. In terms of grammar there is little difference between these
two sentences:

1. I've been cutting myself.


2. I've been cutting wood.
Native speakers readily accept the second, but in accepting the first have to come up with a context
involving some form of masochism or deliberate harm to oneself. Why? After all, the grammar is
essentially the same. The answer lies in the fact that, 'cut' is a short action verb. We have already
understood that the progressive causes the action to be extended over a limited period, but what if the
verb can't be extended in time. 'Cut' for example takes a very short time in most contexts. In these cases
the progressive still causes the action to be extended but does so by making the action repeat! So, when
we are talking about an action that is repeated like 'cutting wood', the continuous seems natural. However,
'cutting myself' , is not something we would normally want to do and is therefore difficult for us to accept
without some mental gymnastics to come up with a context in which repeatedly cutting oneself makes
some sense.

The Meaning of the Perfect Aspect


Those of you who are from the USA will need to spend a little more time on this section than those from
Britain since you use this aspect less frequently. The Perfect aspect relates an event, state or time to a
later event state or time. Confused? You don't need to be. It's really quite simple. As before let's start with
a couple of examples.

1. I've seen that film already.


2. I felt I knew him: I had heard so much about him.
Sentence (1) is an example of the present perfect tense. Do we know exactly when the speaker saw the
film? What do we know about when he saw the film. The answer to the first question is - 'No, we do not'.
The answer to the second is not very helpful if we really want to know when he saw it - At some point
between his birth and the moment he made the above statement. The information contained in sentence
(1) focuses on the fact that he did see the film and not on when he saw it. After all, when he saw it is
unlikely to be of great interest to the listener.
Sentence (2) is an example of the past perfect tense. Did the event 'heard' happen before or after the
event 'felt'? How do you know? The answers are: (a) Before; (b) Because the use of the past perfect
means that 'heard' preceded 'felt'. When exactly did the speaker 'hear about him'? The answer is that we
don't know. We only know that it was at some point (or points) in the speaker's life before she 'felt she
knew him'. Once again, 'when' is not important here. In the unlikely event that the listeners, for some
reason, wish to know 'When?', they will ask. Even then, it is uncertain they will get a satisfactory answer:
the speaker probably 'heard about him' on many different occasions.
So, the perfect aspect is about 'beforeness': the present perfect is about before now; the past perfect
before a point in the past; the future perfect before a point in the future. It has been said that the perfect
tenses are the 'up to' tenses: Past perfect - up to a point in the past; Present perfect - up to now; Future
perfect - up to a point in the future. The perfect aspect can also help us to understand the order in which
events occurred, and allow us to talk more easily about things that happened at an unknown or indefinite
time.

When used with a 'state' verb such as 'live' we understand that the 'state' exist(s)(ed) up to a point in
time as the following examples demonstrate:

1. I was sent to school in Wales even though we'd been living in France for as long
as I could remember.
2. He has been going out with Emily since last August.
3. I will have worked for this company for ten years by next month.
Quiz 4: What are the two points in time related by the perfect verb forms in each of the
above sentences?

The Active and Passive Voices


Firstly, it is necessary to understand what is meant by the word 'voice' when we use it as a grammar term.
The linguistic term 'voice' describes how a language expresses the relationships between verbs and the
nouns or noun phrases which are associated with them. Again we will contrast two sentences of similar
meaning in order to help us to understand this.

1. The police arrested David for being drunk and disorderly.


2. David was arrested for being drunk and disorderly.
Quiz 5: a) How do the sentences differ in meaning? b) How does the second sentence differ
from the first in structure? c) Which sentence would it be more usual to hear?
Sentence (1) above is an example of the active voice while sentence (2) is in the passive voice. When
we use the passive we do not usually state the agent. This is because it is obvious, unknown or
unnecessary.

This tower was built in 1415. (unnecessary)


I was arrested last night. (obvious)
My car was stolen last night. (unknown)

If we really wish to mention the agent in a passive sentence, we can do so by adding a phrase beginning
with 'by'.
'This tower was built in 1415, by Sir Henry Rumboldt.'
So why might we choose to use the passive in sentences like this? The fact that Sir Henry built the tower
is not obvious, unnecessary and it is certainly not unknown! Also computer grammar checkers are always
highlighting them as something undesirable. Well, let's look more closely at the active and passive
versions of the sentence.

1. Sir Henry Rumboldt built this tower in 1415.


2. This tower was built in 1415, by Sir Henry Rumboldt.
Which sentence is more likely to be found in a book about Sir Henry? Which is more likely in a book about
the tower? Answers: (1) and (2) respectively. When the focus is on Sir Henry the active voice is more
usual, and when it is on the tower the passive is more natural.
One more point, according to most EFL course books the passive is made with the auxiliary verb 'be' and
the past participle (third form of the verb). This is not always the case. What is the difference in meaning
between these sentences?

1. I was arrested last night.


2. I got arrested last night.
Answer: there isn't any difference. Hence the second sentence must be passive too as it has the same
form as the first. This is sometimes called the 'get' passive.

The 'Present' Tenses


This has been added with the sole purpose of clearing up any lingering doubts about the relationship
between time and tense. Consider the following three present simple sentences, and then decide
whether or not each is about the present time and finally, if any are not about present time, when are
they about?

1. My train leaves at 6pm.


2. Water boils at 100oC.
3. She loves him.
No doubt, you have realised that sentence (1) is about the future. In relation to sentence (2), however,
things aren't quite so clear cut. This is because the question 'When?' doesn't make much sense here.
Sentence (2) certainly includes now but it is not only about now. It is about all time - past, present and
future. Sentence (3) is much simpler it is talking about something that the speaker believes is true at this
moment in time. So why is it called the present simple? The answer is largely historical and not relevant
here. The fact of the matter is that it is called the present simple, and there is nothing we can do about it
even if we wanted to. If it helps, there is an element of present time even about sentence (1). It is a
present fact that the train is scheduled to leave at 6pm.
The important thing to remember about the present simple is that the use of this tense to indicate future
time as in sentence (1) often confuses students. As an EFL teacher your job is to explain, and to get them
to accept the use. We do this by telling them that we use the present simple in this case because it is part
of a timetable. This is not the whole truth, but we need to give them something solid to hold onto.
Now let us turn to the present continuous.
Quiz 6: Consider the following sentences and then decide if they refer to present time. If
not, what time do they refer to?

1. I'm flying to Paris on Monday.


2. I'm watching the cup final on TV.
3. At this time on Monday mornings, I'm usually rushing to catch the train to work.
As you can see, like the present simple the use of the present continuous isn't only about now.
Interestingly, even when it is being used to talk about what is happening now it doesn't necessarily follow
that the action it describes is going on at this exact second. For example:
(Extract from a telephone conversation)
A: So, what are you doing now?
B: Oh, I'm fixing the roof. That storm we had the other day loosened some tiles. What about you?
A: Not much, I'm reading War and Peace for my English exam, but it's heavy going. Fancy going out for a
quick drink at The King's Head?
In neither case is it likely that the speakers are actually actively involved in their tasks while they are on
the phone. So the present continuous can also be used to talk about a limited duration activity that has
begun but is not yet complete. Given her level of interest, it might take weeks for speaker B to finish War
and Peace but during that time it is perfectly acceptable for her to say that she is reading it, even though
much of the time, in reality, she is not.
Moving on to the Present Perfect Simple. In the following sentence, what is the time frame; past,
present or future?

I've only been to Germany once.

Answer: The past but we don't know from this sentence exactly when. Even though this is one of the
'Present tenses', it is actually about the past.
Although the meaning of the tense is 'up to now' (see Aspects above), the link to 'now' does not have to
be closed by the action itself.
Quiz 7: Look at the present perfect and past simple sentences below:

1. I've written seven letters this morning.


2. I wrote seven letters this morning.
In the first (present perfect) sentence, what time of day is it?
And in the second (past simple) sentence?
How do we know?
In the present perfect sentence, do we know whether the writer has finished for the morning?
What is finished in the first sentence?
In the first sentence, when did the writer finish writing the seventh letter?
Quiz 8: If the speaker is speaking now, what is the difference in meaning between these
sentences?
Charlie Chaplin wrote an autobiography about Laurel and Hardy.
Charlie Chaplin has written an autobiography about Laurel and Hardy.
And finally, the Present Perfect Continuous operates in exactly the same way as the Present Perfect
Simple but with the added meaning of the continuous aspect (see Aspects above).
There is no need to discuss in depth the 'future' and 'past' tenses at this stage as we have in effect dealt
with them when considering aspects. Additionally, we will be looking at them again in the module on
Presenting Grammar.
End of Section 2
Go to Section 2 Test

Answer to Quiz Questions


Answers to Quiz 1: Tenses
The present simple uses the first form of the verb.
The past simple uses the second form of the verb.
All of the perfect tenses use the auxiliary verb have and the third form of the verb that follows have.
All of the continuous tenses use the verb be and the -ing form of the verb following it.
All of the future tenses use will in the first position of the verb phrase.

Answers to Quiz 2: Aspects


Present continuous
Past continuous
Future continuous
Present perfect
Past perfect

Future perfect
Present perfect continuous
Past perfect continuous
Future perfect continuous

Answers to Quiz 3: The Perfect Aspect


The speaker's earliest memory and the moment of being sent to school in Wales.
Last August and the moment of speaking (now).
When the speaker began working for the company and next month.

Answers to Quiz 4: Active/Passive


They mean the same.
Three things have changed in the second sentence: The agents (the police) do not appear in this version
of the sentence; The noun 'David' which was the object of the first sentence has moved and is now in the
role of the subject of the sentence; The auxiliary verb 'be' has been inserted before the main verb.
The second: it is not necessary to state that the police did the arresting that is understood since it is
comparitively rare that someone is arrested by anyone other than a police officer.

Answers to Quiz 5: Simple Vs Continuous


b
a
b
a

Answers to Quiz 6 Present Continuous


The future although, a strong arrangement already exists in the present - the speaker probably has a
ticket.
We don't know for sure. If the speaker is on the telephone and responding to a question such as 'What are
you doing?' then it is about present time. On the other hand, the speaker could be responding to a
question like 'What are you doing on Saturday?' In which case, it would seem to be about the future.
The word 'usually' gives us the clue. This sentence is about a habitual action so 'When?' is not a useful
question. It certainly refers to the past. It certainly does not refer to the speaker's present since we
understand that for some reason it is not true about this Monday. The future? Probably not. The habitual
action may be in temporary abeyance if the speaker is, for example, on holiday. It could equally well be
finished forever if the speaker has just retired for instance. The sentence doesn't help us with this so it's
easier to think of it as about the past.

Answers to Quiz 7: Present Perfect


It's still morning.
Either the afternoon or the evening of the same day.
Because the use of the past simple shows that morning is 'finished' but the use of 'this' tells us that the
day isn't finished.
No we don't.
Seven letters are finished, the writer might intend to write another this morning.
We don't know. It might have been an hour ago or just now. The only thing we do know is that it was
earlier this morning.

Answers to Quiz 8: Laurel and Hardy


They cannot be about the same Laurel and Hardy. The first is probably about the Laurel and Hardy who
were famous film stars in the nineteen thirties and forties and who are now both dead, whereas the
second must be about some other Laurel and Hardy who are alive and working now.