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Non-native speakers often get confused about what the various tenses and aspects mean in English. With input from some of the folk here I've put together a diagram that I hope will provide some clarity on the matter.

I offer it as the first answer to this question. Consider it a living document. Input is welcome, and good suggestions will be incorporated into the diagram.


Nota bene: What this is not is a discussion of whether there are more than two tenses in English. We have a dedicated question for that, to which this question is not intended to supply arguments one way or the other. Here, the aim is to provide an overview of what constructions English-speaking people use for conveying information about actions referring to past, present, and future, and to provide it first and foremost to precisely the people who are likely to use "tense" as a catch-all term in their search, rather than to linguists who know better.

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Tenses are confusing. Despite what you've heard, English only has two tenses: past and non-past. We have a wealth of periphrastic constructions which allow us to express aspect at all, and more specific tense. –  Jonathan Sterling Apr 24 '11 at 23:21
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@Jonathan: I understand what you are saying, but that is highly dependent on how you define the word "tense". Taking the meaning commonly ascribed to it by the majority of native speakers, it isn't true to say there are only two tenses (though I realise the word has a narrower meaning in linguistics); similarly with "periphrastic" - in the technical sense what you say is true, but not so with the common meaning, since "I will go" is the shortest (standard) way of expressing that meaning :) –  psmears Apr 25 '11 at 18:30
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@Jonathan: (And whatever we call them - tenses, modals, auxiliaries, periphrastic constructions - many people come to this site looking for advice on how to use them :) –  psmears Apr 25 '11 at 18:31
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That's not our problem. If they come looking for eternal salvation, would you have us administer sacraments? Lying to students is the reason why we're in this mess to start with; there's no excuse for continuing the practice. –  John Lawler Apr 12 '13 at 17:59
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@JohnLawler What is it someone's been lying about? And what mess? Really hoping for some elucidation. –  John M. Landsberg Apr 16 '13 at 9:11

5 Answers 5

up vote 107 down vote accepted

A visualization of what we mean in English by the various tenses

EDIT: Added past continuous, trimmed image so it would be slightly larger, and gave it a transparent background.

EDIT: Added middle line, made some adjustments per @Kosmonaut.

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I like the idea of the diagram, but it doesn't make a visual distinction between the non-continuous and possibly-continuous tenses. I can make revisions tomorrow. –  Jon Purdy Apr 20 '11 at 3:17
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Would it be possible to name the tenses? For example, "I had eaten (past perfect/pluperfect)". –  waiwai933 Apr 20 '11 at 4:37
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I think this diagram fails to convey anything useful, except maybe for the notion of past and future, which is the last thing people are likely to have trouble with. It also lacks internal consistency: "I am eating" : "I have been eating" = "I was eating" : "I had been eating", yet there is no graphical correspondence. –  LaC Apr 20 '11 at 13:16
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@Robusto, have you considered adding a legend (along left or right edge of diagram) with the names of the tenses the examples embody? –  jwpat7 Feb 29 '12 at 1:18
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The point is that there are several thousand such constructions; I didn't even scratch the combinations. They can't all be tenses. In fact, none of them are tenses. That's why we say there are only two tenses in English. –  John Lawler Apr 11 '13 at 22:30

For the sake of presenting the information in another way:

I eat

habitually; in general.

  • “I eat venison occasionally.”

as a command

  • “Now, we eat!”

I am eating

at this point; at this point, continuously; at a point in the future.

  • “I am eating these leftovers. Would you like some?”

  • “I am eating lunch with John on Thursday.”

I ate

at a point in the past.

  • “I ate squid once.”

  • “I ate lunch early today.”

I was eating

at a point in the past, continuously.

  • “I was eating my dinner, when the phone rang.”

I have eaten

at a point in the past; in the past in general.

  • “I have eaten many different kinds of sushi.”

I have been eating

up to and including now, continuously. = I was and am eating.

  • “I have been eating the bread that's on the counter, not knowing it's mouldy.”

I had eaten

before a point in the past.

  • “I had eaten barbecue before, but this steak was better than any I'd ever tasted.”

I had been eating

up to and including a point in the past, continuously.

  • “I had been eating breakfast in bed, till I started seeing ants in my room.”

  • “I had already been eating for fifteen minutes by the time she showed up.”

I will eat

at a point in the future; in the future in general.

  • “I will eat an apple a day from now on.”

  • “I will eat dinner with you tomorrow if you want.”

I will be eating

up to and including a point in the future, continuously.

  • “I will be eating only a little bit of this cake. You can have the rest.”

I will have eaten

before a point in the future.

  • “I will have eaten by the time you get out of work, so we can't eat together.”

I will have been eating

up to and including a point in the future, continuously.

  • “I will have been eating a vegetarian diet for twenty years next month.”
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Feel free to flesh out the examples. I preferred a single verb for consistency. –  Jon Purdy Apr 20 '11 at 20:34
    
Habituality is by no means the only use of the present indicative in English. For example, if I say "I am hungry" it means I am hungry right now, not as a habit. There are also other mistakes, but I'm posting too much. –  LaC Apr 21 '11 at 12:26
    
The present indicative can also be used to describe things as they happen, e.g. a sports commentator: "Montana goes back to pass, and he's sacked at the 42 yard line." –  Kosmonaut Apr 21 '11 at 12:39
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I sit in my chair. I see a computer in front on me. On its screen, a message by @Jon Purdy claims I am being unfair. I disagree. –  LaC Apr 21 '11 at 16:25
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@LaC: Oh no, a slew of other verbs are totally valid examples, and my post is definitely simplified to the point of being incomplete. It's only I am hungry that I had a problem with, since you're using to be to introduce a predicate. Also, there's some colloquial (and facetious) use of do be to denote habitual states: I do be hungry; the Pope does be Catholic. But anyway, the point of making a post CW is that it can be continually improved. If I haven't done a good job, help me. –  Jon Purdy Apr 21 '11 at 18:14

My guess is that you read a table something like this:

  • Present Simple (I eat)
    • habitually; in general.
    • as a command
  • Present Continuous (I am eating
    • at this point
    • at this point, continuously
    • at a point in the future.
  • Past Simple (I ate)
    • at a point in the past.
  • Past Continuous (I was eating)
    • at a point in the past continuously
  • etc...

and found it confusing. Your first instinct (and it's a good one!) was to draw a diagram to make sense of it. But the diagram is just as confusing as the table.

The problem is that our brains just don't work that way. If you ask a typical native speaker to list all the situations where he uses a particular tense, mood & aspect, he'll find it impossible. But if you show him a sentence and ask him to choose the correct tense, mood & aspect, he'll have no trouble. In other words, our mental table of tenses and moods looks more like this:

  • habitually, generally
    • I eat cheese.
  • habitually, in the past
    • I ate cheese.
    • I would eat cheese.
  • making a request
    • Please eat cheese.
    • Could you eat cheese?
    • Would you mind eating cheese?
    • I was wondering whether you would eat some cheese?
  • imaginary situation in the future
    • If I eat cheese, I will have cheese in my belly.
  • imaginary situations in the past
    • I wish I had eaten cheese.
  • etc.

So if you want to make a diagram that is useful to learners of English, you need to take the same approach. That's a tall order! I don't even know that it's possible. I'd love to know about any past attempts.

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Actually, I just put it together by hand, with input from Kosmonaut and a few others. Of course it will never cover all possible use cases nor be eternally accurate to six decimal places. I intended it as a rough guide for non-native speakers, who may be surprised that, say, you can't indicate precisely that an action is currently being performed without use of the progressive. And so on. –  Robusto Feb 3 '12 at 16:14
    
A little late in my response, I know, but actually you can indicate actions taking place now. "I now pronounce you man and wife." "I write to inform you that ...." (arguably) "[I] Thank you." It's called the performative. Admittedly, it's not very common, but I think it reinforces the point I made in my earlier answer. –  Pitarou Mar 19 at 2:11

Your past perfect tense starts in the infinite past for any action, but it doesn't have to happen so. I include an illustration for the verb see in the past perfect from the following text, written around 2010, which is about a movie that was shelved in 1981, kept for two decades, but finally released around 2002. So, instead of two reference points on the timeline, there can be three.

  • The story behind Ladies and Gentleman, The Fabulous Stains is a messy and complicated one. It was riddled with production problems, an editing process that took over a year to complete, and after all was said and done, Paramount Studios decided to shelf the film for over 20 years. … Adler also took over a year to edit the film after shooting wrapped up, allegedly changing the ending several times. Once Ladies and Gentleman, The Fabulous Stains was completed, it was previewed at a few test screenings and the response was so poor that Paramount decided not to release it at all. Many of the cast and crew hadn’t even seen the film in its entirety after it was completed.

------------------------1981=========2002------NOW------------------------

Extra reference points can be included for some other tenses, but I leave that to the readers.

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don't forget subjunctive/conditional:

Ernie would eat that cookie if Bert were not watching him.

Ernie would eat that cookie if Bert was not watching him.

The first is subjunctive: it implies Bert is watching Ernie, but if that weren't true, then Ernie would eat the cookie. Subjunctive tense is used when stating a condition that isn't true, but we are imagining an alternate reality.

The second is conditional (not sure if that's the right name): whether Bert was or wasn't watching Ernie is unknown.

The normal subject-verb agreement ("Bert was") gets tweaked to form subjunctive ("was" -> "were")

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Those are moods, not tenses. –  LaC Apr 20 '11 at 13:25
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@LaC: Couldn't "I will eat!" be considered a mood and not a tense? –  Dan Apr 20 '11 at 20:52
    
@LaC: go figure, I could have sworn they were tenses. Either we were taught wrong or the name has changed or I'm just forgetting things ;-) –  sibbaldiopsis Apr 20 '11 at 22:08
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There's no difference in the way English grammar treats will/would/shall/should/can/could/may/might/must. However, when teaching English, it's awkward to say that these are all tenses, and it's awkward not to have a future tense. Thus, constructions with "will" are called tenses, and constructions with "would" are sometimes called tenses, and constructions with the other auxiliary verbs above are generally called moods. –  Peter Shor Apr 21 '11 at 0:43
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Now, to answer the question, "tense" refers to the time of the action (in fact, the word "tense" is just a fancy-pants way of saying "time"), while "mood" refers to one of several modes of use (to indicate fact, hypothesis, command, etc.). The two concepts are orthogonal: for instance, "I was" is past tense, indicative mood; "[if] I were [king]" is present tense, subjunctive mood; "[if] I had been [awake]" is past tense, subjunctive mood"; "I see [a cow in the field]" is present tense, indicative mood. –  LaC Apr 21 '11 at 12:19

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