English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I have questions which perhaps should be posted to Linguistics.SE; but since my primary concern is to discover what terminology in discussing English grammar and usage on ELU (and in similar contexts), I hope I may be allowed to post them here.

Back in the early ‘60s, when I was learning to distinguish tense, aspect and mood in Latin and English, it was explained to me that (despite what the schoolmarms were telling me) I should regard these categories as attributes not of verbs but of entire sentences, realized in Latin primarily through verbal inflection but in English mostly through constructions employing a variety of lexical and syntactic components.

This way of thinking about the categories has always made sense to me, and it is echoed here and there in my old Introduction to Theoretical Linguistics (Lyons, 1968). For instance:

Tense is therefore a deictic category, which […] is simultaneously a property of the sentence and the utterance. (305)

In recent years, however, I have on several occasions been chided for using the term tense in this manner. I am told that it is properly applied only in cases where temporal reference is expressed through inflection. I have not been made aware of any similar restriction in the use of aspect or mood.

I am painfully aware that my understanding of English grammar and syntax is by now two generations out of date. So I’d like to ask:

  • Is the term tense today only properly used in the restricted sense, in formal discourse about English grammar?
  • Does this restriction similarly apply to 1) such terms of tense-distinction as past, present and future, and 2) the parallel categories aspect and mood and their corresponding terms of distinction?
  • In cases where such restrictions apply, what terms should be used to name the categories and distinctions when they are expressed through some means other than inflection of a verb?
share|improve this question
Excellent question StoneyB; studying English language, same doubts arise on my mind too, +1. – user19148 Oct 14 '12 at 20:38
You mean as in - how do we describe the "tense" of "I'm leaving later" so it more closely matches the semantically similar "I'll leave later" and "I'll be leaving later"? – FumbleFingers Oct 14 '12 at 20:46
@FumbleFingers Ultimately how to describe it, but immediately what do I call the phenomenon I'm describing, if I am forbidden the term tense? – StoneyB Oct 14 '12 at 20:49
@tchrist This is not a prescriptivist vs descriptivist issue. Just about everybody who is active on this site is both. It's a question of "What usage dominates today among those who are competent to discuss the topic at the level at which we discuss it?" – StoneyB Oct 14 '12 at 21:23
I think I'm with tchrist here - use "tense" if you want to indicate you have something in mind that's not quite what what other people might normally understand/mean by that term. Or how about temporality, for a "you can guess what I mean even if you've never seen this usage before" type of word? – FumbleFingers Oct 14 '12 at 23:16
up vote 32 down vote accepted

I’m Drew Ward, the linguist who wrote the linked to pages on the CALLE site. This debate over the use of the word tense has been something that’s been coming up quite a bit lately and perhaps reflects a change in recent years among university professors in what they are and are not teaching students. A few years ago the challenge with the term tense was that it was being used too broadly to refer to anything and everything “temporal” (including aspect and such). The problem today seems to be the polar opposite and is just as full of problems. As mentioned above, the current popular approach is to limit the use of the word tense to only those situations in which verb morphology is inflected to convey time information.

This view unfortunately can’t work. In fact, if you applied this sort of thinking to English, not only would we not have future tenses, but we’d have neither past nor present tenses either. Expression of verbal information in English requires two functional units working together (usually an auxiliary + a specific subordinate form — for instance aspect requires either DO+VERB or BE+VERBing). Tense is expressed via combination of the verb form of the left-most auxiliary in a verb construction (whatever auxiliary is nearest the subject) in tandem with some temporal adverbial which can be either explicit (tomorrow, yesterday, at 3pm, this one time when I was a kid) or implicit via context or logical order.

No verb form in English can be called an X-tense form because none of them have only that function. However, there are three general forms that tend to be default verb forms for expressing tense. The first form (usually called present tense form) is unmarked for tense and used for expressing certainty. Examples include “I am typing now (present tense)”, “Santa Claus comes tonight (future tense)”. Absent of additional time-marking (explicit or implicit), this form defaults to “present”.

The second form is the praeterite. The praeterite is traditionally called “the past tense” form but this is only one of its functions. The praeterite can be used to express the certain past (indicative) or the uncertain present (subjunctive). Like the unmarked certain form, absent of other time-marking or mood-marking, the default for the praeterite is “past tense”.

The third form (often referred to as “future tense form” is the unmarked uncertain form, or unmarked modal. This form can be used to express any tense as allowed by the modal used (can, may, might, have, must, be able, be going, etc.). The big difference with this form is that the argument of the verb is uncertain and generally relies on some added qualification as denoted by the modal used for whatever is attested to to come to fruition. Modal forms generally express either present or future tenses and again do so with some added implicit or explicit time marking. Absent of additional temporal marking though, the default tense for this form tends to be future.

This debate in general comes down to petty arguments over terminology, but since tense is nothing more than a way of describing temporal contrast as the relative position and distance of two temporal references along the timeline of an utterance, and those range from far distant past to far distant future (with the only “single tense” being present which is always an ever-changing point “now”), to say that any language has more or fewer tenses than any other is honestly asinine if not in the least just closed-minded and ignorant. If we as human beings can talk about future, we have future tenses (same for present and past). How that information is conveyed though may be drastically different from one language to the next.

share|improve this answer
Thank you for your enlightening remarks. It helps immensely to have the dispassionate view of a professional linguist about this kind of high-level technical stuff. I agree that "This debate in general comes down to petty arguments over terminology", as do many debates. When I studied MA-level Linguistics, it was important to know all the terminology & distinctions. When teaching EFL, it's necessary to use simpler (even if technically inaccurate) language that EFL students understand because they've been taught those terms. Terminological squabbles rarely solve anything. :-) – user21497 Oct 15 '12 at 4:38
You also present an interesting & persuasive functional argument for the existence of a future tense: "If the sentence talks about the future, it's future tense" regardless of the verb form. That's consistent with popular practice. I have no problem with that POV: It makes sense to me. John goes to New York tomorrow talks about the future but does so with a verb that has present-tense form (goes) instead of one of the usual modal forms used for future (is going, will go, will be going). The sentence is in the future tense, then. Do you agree, or is my analysis wrong? – user21497 Oct 15 '12 at 4:53
Yep, you're right. The only thing to be careful of is calling "goes" a 'present tense form' because it's really just the unmarked certain form. That's part of the point I wanted to make, there really is no present tense form so to speak. That unmarked certain gets most often used for the present but that's likely just because stating general truths and such (things you are certain of) tend to be something that's done in the present. – Drew Ward Oct 15 '12 at 6:01
Thank you for this confirmation. I'm not familiar with the term unmarked certain form, and neither are EFL students, so I use the terms I'd use in the EFL classroom. I tell EFL students that the simple present is used to express general truths -- that's what the grammar books say -- & they understand that. I know that many of the terms that English teachers use aren't technically correct, but EFL students & most of the people who read & post to ELU understand what they want to express, except when they want to argue. – user21497 Oct 15 '12 at 6:10
It's funny ALL of our names like these are problematic because even saying non-modal doesn't work if you call the indicative a mood. Same thing with non-past, because even that form isn't necessarily 'past'. What we're basically dealing with is trying to figure out a way to sort out the ridiculous mess the 'structuralists' have left us with via all the various generative approaches. They try to analyse structures (forms) with no regard to function or meaning which makes about as much sense as trying to describe the engineering of the pyramids by kicking around a couple of bricks. – Drew Ward Oct 15 '12 at 17:13

Here's an interesting discussion from the CALLE blog

The word tense is often mistakenly used to refer to time in general or for anything related to time within language. Tense is not time. It is merely a contrast between temporal references as explained above. A verb cannot have tense. Verbs alone are just words. Tense is an attribute of an utterance, and a verb outside of an utterance cannot express tense because there is nothing to compare it to. [My emphasis]

The professional linguists who write Language Log are not shy about using the word tense. It's common parlance in Linguistics at every level. What it means and how it's used, however, like some commonly used linguistic terms, is a matter of convention or adherence to a specific linguistic theory.

My understanding of tense from my MA courses in linguistics (also 30 years old and somewhat dated) is that tense is carried by the verb, which means that the morphemes that tell the reader/listener what tense the utterance is in are part of the verb or verb phrase. Prof John Lawler had no trouble talking about tense here a couple of weeks ago when he said that there were "only two tenses in English, past and present".

A. Is the term tense today only properly used in the restricted sense, in formal discourse about English grammar?

No. We (linguists, English teachers, and non-linguists -- i.e., most humans who talk about language) who talk about language usage use it all the time in informal discussions.

B. Does this restriction similarly apply to 1) such terms of tense-distinction as past, present and future, and 2) the parallel categories aspect and mood and their corresponding terms of distinction?

Even though many people use future as a name for one of the English tenses, there is no future tense in English, but it's still common parlance. These words are being used to describe the temporality of the action in the utterance. Aspect and mood are too technical for most people to use, but most of the high-level commentators here understand very well how to use those terms. Students of English are taught the meanings of those terms in their grammar books. They often (in Japan and Taiwan, at least) want to be talked to on that level.

While it's technically incorrect to say that, e.g., I will go to Japan tomorrow is in the future tense [will is a present tense verb form and go is an infinitive and so a tense-less form], that's what most people will say, and most will understand that it talks about the future. Some languages have one or more future tenses that are indicated by inflections attached to the verb or by other changes in the verb form.

C. In cases where such restrictions apply, what terms should be used to name the categories and distinctions when they are expressed through some means other than inflection of a verb?

I see no reason to avoid these common, traditional, and everday terms in our discussions on ELU. That's the way we talk about these questions. When you start writing theoretical papers for linguistics journals, you'll have to be careful about your terminology and will need to stipulate what you mean by every technical term. But anyone can look up the terms tense, aspect, mood, voice, etc., and have them reasonably well defined. It's not an issue for our discussions, I think, but strictly one for theoretical linguists.

share|improve this answer
Thank you. This discussion is, so far, reassuring. —Except for this: "They often (in Japan and Taiwan, at least) want to be talked to on that level." I profoundly wish that attitude obtained in my country. – StoneyB Oct 15 '12 at 16:12
A verb cannot have a tense, but it does have something that's still related to time: aktionsart (its three categories are: 1 - states vs eventives; 2 - telic vs atelic; 3 - punctual vs durative). Tense, Aspect and Aktionsart – Talia Ford Oct 27 '13 at 12:44

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.