You are on page 1of 5

What is the difference between tense and aspect?

A. Reflection
Read the following sentences and complete the sentences with the correct number.

David walks to school.


David walked to school.
David will walk to school tomorrow.
David is going to walk to school tomorrow.
David has walked to school many times.
David is walking to school.

 There are _________ tenses (when the verb happens).


 There are ________ aspects (how the verb happens).
 There are ________ ways of expressing a verb.

B. Contextualizing
The sentences in each pair are either in the same tense or have the same aspect. Identify which. Then choose
one of the words from the box that best describes the tense or aspect being used in the sentences.

Perfect past perfect continuous future continuous simple

Pairs of sentences Same tense or aspect What tense or aspect?


1 a) They were singing all yesterday afternoon. Aspect Continuous
b) Right now, it’s raining heavily.
2 a) They sang all night last night.
b) It rains every day in Vancouver.
3 a) At 3 p.m. this afternoon, I’ll be writing my report.
b) I will write your report tomorrow.
4 a) The bomb had exploded before the students arrived.
b) She had been playing outside for two hours before
the rain came.
5 a) It has snowed every day for the past week.
b) By 7 p.m., I will have written my report.
6 a) It has been snowing since 7 o’clock.
b) At 7 p.m., I will have been writing my report for 4
hours.

C. Understanding
What’s the difference between tense and aspect?

When you hear verbs being described as past simple or present perfect, do you know what that means? The
way a verb is described in English is really important, and is directly related to how the verb is being used. If
you understand how verbs work in English, you will make less mistakes when you speak and write.

Many students consider the English verb system to be difficult, illogical and hard to understand.
Unfortunately, this description is not correct. In fact, the English verb system is actually quite easy to
understand, logical and much simpler than the verb systems of many languages.
There are only 12 ways to express verbs in English: each of “three” TENSES (PAST, PRESENT and FUTURE –
which is basically created with a verb in the present) can be expressed in each of the four aspects (SIMPLE,
CONTINUOUS, PERFECT, and PERFECT CONTINUOUS). The diagram below shows this.

3 tenses x 4 aspects = 12 verb forms

The tenses and aspects of English

It is important to remember that the three tenses in English are the past, the present and the future. The
future, however, cannot be considered a proper tense because expressing the future does not involve any
inflection of the verb. In other words, the verb form of the future is formed with the verb in the present tense
and using the modal verb “will” or the auxiliary “be going to”.

Knowing the three tenses refer to time does not mean that you know when the action takes place. This is
particularly true for present forms. For example, the present simple can be used to describe things which are
true over an extended period of time in the past, present, and future. Past and future tenses, however, almost
always refer to things which have already finished and which have yet to begin.

The aspect of a verb refers to whether an action is unfinished or completed. Therefore, the aspect indicates
very important information about the verb. Each aspect has its own function, which stay the same regardless
of the tense it is combined with. For example, the continuous aspect indicates unfinished activity in any of the
three tenses.

Let’s take a look at each aspect and understand how they work.
The continuous aspect is used to describe unfinished activity.
They were singing all yesterday Right now, it is raining heavily At 3 p.m. this afternoon, I’ll be
afternoon. writing my report.
At the time the speaker is talking At the time the speaker is talking At the time the speaker is talking
about (yesterday afternoon), the about (now), the action is about (3 p.m. this afternoon), the
action was unfinished (even unfinished. action is unfinished (even though
though in reality it has finished). in reality it has not yet started).

The simple aspect is used to describe states and events which are considered to be completed.
They sang all night last night. It rains every day in Vancouver. I will write your report tomorrow.

The singing is complete, and The speaker is talking about a The speaker is predicting a future
occurred at a specific point in series of complete actions which event.
time. surround the present.

The perfect aspect is used to describe what happens before a point in time. It talks about not only when an
action began, but when it was completed.
The bomb had exploded before It has snowed every day for the At 7 p.m., I will have been writing
the students arrived. past week. my report for 4 hours.
The speaker is talking about a past The speaker is referring to the The speaker is saying that
event which finished before events which began before the something will have finished
another past event. present and which are now before a point in the future (even
completed, but which have a though is has not yet started).
connection to the present.

The perfect continuous aspect is a combination of the perfect and continuous aspects. It is therefore used to
describe unfinished activity before a point in time.
She had been playing outside for It has been snowing since 7 At 7 p.m., I will have been writing
two hours before the rain came. o’clock. my report for 4 hours.
The speaker is talking about an The speaker is saying that an The speaker is saying that before a
activity which was unfinished at a activity began in the past, and is specific point in the future an
specific point in the past and unfinished at the moment of event will have started, but it will
which occurred before another speaking (and the activity will not be complete.
past event. probably continue).

Summary
1. There are three tenses and four aspects in English, making a total of 12 verb forms.
2. The three tenses are the past, the present, and the future*.
3. The four aspects are the simple, the continuous, the perfect and the perfect continuous.
D. Practice

1 Complete the following statements in as much detail as possible.

The continuous aspect is used to


describe …
The simple aspect is used to describe …

The perfect aspect is used to describe …

The perfect continuous aspect is used to


describe …

2 Checking your understading.


What verb form would you need if you wanted to describe …

a. what you are doing at the moment?

b. an event that finished before another event in the past?

c. an event which will be unfinished at a point in the future?

d. an event which started in the past, but which is still unfinished in the present?

e. an event which will have finished before a point in the future?

3 Write a sentence using each of the following verb forms.

Present continuous

Past perfect

Present perfect

Future continuous

Past perfect continuous

Future perfect continuous

4 Read the following text below. Underline all the verbs and describe the tense and what it means.
The English Mania
Let's talk about manias. Let's start with Beatle mania: hysterical teenagers, crying, screaming, pandemonium.
Sports mania: deafening crowds, all for one idea -- get the ball in the net. Okay, religious mania: there's rapture,
there's weeping, there's visions. Manias can be good. Manias can be alarming. Or manias can be deadly.

The world has a new mania. A mania for learning English. Listen as Chinese students practice their English by
screaming it. … How many people are trying to learn English worldwide? Two billion of them.

… In Latin America, in India, in Southeast Asia, and most of all in China. If you are a Chinese student you start
learning English in the third grade, by law. That's why this year China will become the world's largest English-
speaking country. (Laughter) Why English? In a single word: Opportunity. Opportunity for a better life, a job, to
be able to pay for school, or put better food on the table. Imagine a student taking a giant test for three full
days. Her score on this one test literally determines her future. She studies 12 hours a day for three years to
prepare. 25 percent of her grade is based on English. It's called the Gaokao, and 80 million high school Chinese
students have already taken this grueling test. The intensity to learn English is almost unimaginable, unless you
witness it.

So is English mania good or bad? Is English a tsunami, washing away other languages? Not likely. English is the
world's second language. Your native language is your life. But with English you can become part of a wider
conversation: a global conversation about global problems, like climate change or poverty, or hunger or disease.
The world has other universal languages. Mathematics is the language of science. Music is the language of
emotions. And now English is becoming the language of problem-solving. Not because America is pushing it, but
because the world is pulling it. So English mania is a turning point. Like the harnessing of electricity in our cities
or the fall of the Berlin Wall, English represents hope for a better future -- a future where the world has a
common language to solve its common problems.

Example

The world has a new mania  Present Simple | Describes an action that is true in the present. It’s a fact.