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Do we have 16 tenses in English?

With

  1. future
  2. present
  3. past
  4. future in the past

in these forms

  1. simple
  2. continuous
  3. perfect
  4. perfect continuous

Can we manipulate these together to create English tenses? For example, "present perfect" or "future perfect continuous"?

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The answer to this depends on how you define "tense". I will put together a more complete response as an answer. –  JSBձոգչ Nov 13 '12 at 18:17
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It also depends on how you define "English". The African American Vernacular English (AAVE) dialect has four different degrees of past tenses, and three of future tenses. Also an alternate present tense which indicates sort of a habitual activity (Which personally I find so damn handy that its really tough not to slip it into in non-AAVE conversation). You can get a far better sense of the timing of events in AAVE than you can in most other English dialects. –  T.E.D. Nov 13 '12 at 18:44
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Also, the time-travel tenses! –  Izkata Nov 13 '12 at 21:58
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In fiction: Dinosaur Comics' T-Rex claims to have invented the "future perfect continuous passive." qwantz.com/index.php?comic=2300 (I suppose an example would be "I will have been being here two hours by then.") Also, in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Adams suggests that the Future Semiconditionally Modified Subinverted Plagal Past Subjunctive Intentional is needed by time travelers. –  Nathan Long Nov 16 '12 at 3:11

10 Answers 10

up vote 93 down vote accepted

What is a tense?

In linguistic terminology, "tense" is a part of verbal paradigm that refers specifically to the time of an utterance. It is impossible for any language to have more than three tenses in this sense, since any action is either past, present, or future.

In English, we do the basic tenses this way:

  • Present: I walk to the store.
  • Past: I walked to the store.
  • Future: I will walk to the store.

But what is that with the word will there in the future tense example? It turns out that while English can refer to present and past time using inflections on the verb itself, the future tense always requires another word. Furthermore, there are multiple ways of doing this:

  • I will walk to the store.
  • I'm going to walk to the store.
  • I'm walking to the store in five minutes.
  • I'm about to walk to the store.

So while English has plenty of ways to refer to future actions, in terms of base verbal morphology there are only two tenses in English: present and past.

So what about perfect, progressive, and the rest of that stuff?

Linguists refer to these as aspect. A verb's aspect refers to its duration, frequency, or completeness. English has three core aspects:

  • Simple: I walk to the store.
  • Progressive: I am walking to the store.
  • Perfect: I have walked to the store.

Plus, we can combine progressive and perfect together as follows:

  • Perfect progressive: I have been walking to the store.

Unfortunately, the way that these forms interact with meaning is very complex. In particular, we often use the simple present ("I walk to the store") to refer to habitual actions, and the simple progressive ("I am walking to the store") to refer to currently ongoing actions.

Now you've made me upset

That's because of mood, the other major component of the English verbal complex. Mood refers to the speaker's attitude towards the action, whether the speaker thinks the action is necessary, obligatory, inevitable, hypothetical, etc. We have a lot of moods in English, indicated by our modal verbs:

  • I shall walk to the store.
  • I will walk to the store.
  • I should walk to the store.
  • I would walk to the store.
  • I may walk to the store.
  • I might walk to the store.
  • I must walk to the store.
  • I can walk to the store.
  • I could walk to the store.

Here, again, the form interacts with the meaning in a complicated way. The modal verbs will and shall tend to indicate future time more than anything really "moody", and there are constraints on which moods can be used in which tenses. Just to keep you on your toes.

Really we have 4 modal verbs which occur in present/past tense pairs: will/would, shall/should, can/could, may/might, and then must which can only be present-tense.

And don't forget about voice

Because we also have active voice and passive voice in English, which refer to the subject and the object are assigned to the verb.

  • Active: I hit a dog with my car.
  • Passive: A dog was hit by a car.

These have nothing to do with tense, but they are still part of the verbal paradigm.

Putting it all together

If you multiply all of those together you get eighty-eight possible combinations.

((5 moods × 2 tenses) + (1 defective mood)) × (4 aspects × 2 voices)

Don't try to memorize them all. Just try to remember the way the pieces interact, and you should be able to construct and interpret any combination that you come across. And remember that many verbs, like the past debitive perfect passive about to appear in this sentence, should rarely have ever been used by anyone.

But it's not that simple

It never is. The preceding elements are the core verbal paradigm, but there are a lot of other things that English does with its verbs to indicate elements of mood, aspect, or tense. Just to name two, we have:

  • Past habitual: I used to walk to the store.
  • Immediate future: I'm about to walk to the store.

There are lots of other combinations of helping verbs, adverbs, and prepositions which are sometimes used to express tense-like or aspect-like things in English. Merely knowing how the core verbal paradigm fits together doesn't necessarily help you interpret these kinds of utterances. Rather, these idiomatic verbal constructions have to be learned one at a time.

Also, please do read the comments on this answer, as the commenters have brought up numerous other subtleties and distinctions which I didn't get into the main post. The final takeaway of all this discussion is that English verbs are complex and you probably can't count how many forms they have.

Have fun!

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I especially like the quote from this answer: “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.” Note that “this view” is meant meant to be yours in the quote above. –  tchrist Nov 13 '12 at 19:01
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This is not the first time it's come up, of course. More interesting is why anyone would want to know any answer to that question, since none of them are useful without many qualifications in an almost tense-free language like English. –  John Lawler Nov 13 '12 at 19:07
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I don't think "tense" is necessarily restricted to "past"/"present"/"future". In principle, I think you could have other dichotomies that you may end up as analysing as tense e.g. "remote past"/"near past"/"non-past", or "past-and-present" vs "past-but-not-present". (Of course, these may also reflect dichotomies other than tense, depending on exactly what contrasts/combines with what in the language in question.) –  Neil Coffey Nov 13 '12 at 20:23
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I don't agree with "what is tense". Semantically, there are many nuances in time. These are all tenses. The idea that something hasn't yet happened, but happens in a past relative to some future time, is a distinct tense. A hypothetical future related to some past is also a distinct tense. English has special dedicated syntactic structures to handle tenses like these. –  Kaz Nov 13 '12 at 21:10
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+1, just for this gem: "And remember that many verbs, like the past debitive perfect passive about to appear in this sentence..." Nice breakdown! –  J.R. Nov 14 '12 at 0:56

The appropriate answer to this question depends a little on your purpose, and in any case there's no single, consensually agreed upon answer.

If you don't mean "tense" to have a very strict theoretical interpretation, and just want "a list of the combinations of auxiliaries/verb forms", then pretty much all logical combinations that you can make from [will/would] - [have] - [simple tense / be + ...ing] are possible, allowing for the regular grammar of how these elements are combined (so you can have a modal with the infinitive 'have', or else a conjugated form of 'have'), and also for the slight cyclicity in that you can form a passive with 'be' + past participle, where 'be' itself can have (pretty much) any of the compound forms permitted by this formula.

That said, and perhaps most interestingly, not all speakers appear to allow exactly the same set of combinations. So for example, some, but not all speakers, appear to allow sentences such as:

The road has not been being built for several days.

Therefore, I wouldn't get too bogged down in trying to memorise a "definitive list"-- there's not really such a thing.

From a more theoretical perspective, it's common to take the view that English has only two tenses: present and past. Other periphrastic constructions that are loosely "time-related" would be analysed as containing markers of other phenomena such as aspect or modality. However, there isn't a consensus on this analysis.

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Absolutely agree there's no clear-cut answer to how many "acceptable" tense-related forms there are. If I'd've been caught off-guard, I might have said had have was a valid "hypothetical past tense" marker. So the only bulletproof answer is "two" - present and past. –  FumbleFingers Mar 30 '12 at 23:27
    
Your structure of "[will/would] - [have] - [simple tense / be + ...ing]" is neat but might require simple tense to include the naked infinitive and the past participle. –  Henry Nov 13 '12 at 22:50

Almost all grammarians recognize only two tenses in English, present and past. That is because only they require a change in the finite form of the verb. Constructions such as the present progressive or past perfect are analysed in terms of aspect, although the present and past tenses express aspect too.

For example, regular verbs have four forms. In the case of walk they are walk, walks, walking, walked. In the third person singular, the present tense is walks and the past tense is walked. A clause such as he is walking is made up of the present tense of be and the present participle of walk and expresses progressive aspect.

EDIT:

This is a view held by at least three reputable professional linguists. R L Trask, formerly Professor of Linguistics at the University of Sussex) in ‘Language and Linguistics: The Key Concepts’:

English has only two tenses.

David Crystal in ‘The Cambridge Encylopedia of the English Language’:

There is . . a two-way tense contrast in English: I walk vs I walked - present tense vs past tense.

Bas Aarts, Professor of English Linguistics at University College London in ‘Oxford Modern English Grammar’:

English has only two grammatically encoded tenses, the present tense and the past tense.

Whoever downvoted my answer is downvoting these three as well.

Functional grammar gets round these difficulties to some extent with its concepts of Finite and Predicator. In a clause such as:

He was lying on his back

the Finite is was and the Predicator lying. In a clause such as:

It occurred to me . . .

the Finite is [past] and the Predicator occurred.

But these are deep waters.

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I did not understand would you please give me a little more description on it? –  Mohammad Rafiee Nov 13 '12 at 18:13
    
@Mohammad Rafiee I have expanded my answer a little, but aspect is a fairly complex topic, and not really suited to discussion here. All finite verb forms have a present or past tense with or without other elements to express the way in which the speaker views the timing of the action, state or condition described. –  Barrie England Nov 13 '12 at 18:21
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Grammarians? Really? Good thing we have linguists around to chime in. This has gotten out of hand. –  tchrist Nov 13 '12 at 19:00
    
If the the third-person singular present tense of walk is walks, then what "tense" do we have in "I insist that he walk barefoot through the glowing embers." :) It certainly isn't past tense. Yes, of course I know the answer, but it is just one more illustration of how awkward trying to fit these terms to English can be. –  tchrist Nov 13 '12 at 20:43
    
@ tchrist. It isn’t a tense at all, but the plain form of the verb. However, I suspect we have tried the OP's patience long enough. –  Barrie England Nov 13 '12 at 20:55

Once upon a time I found a nice map of English tenses. enter image description here

See also this variation.

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" on c e upon a time ", or is that a tense I didn't know? –  Kris Nov 14 '12 at 6:42

English has present and past tense.

Forms of the verb be, in either tense, can be used with an -ing verb. This is the progressive aspect.

I [see / saw / am seeing / was seeing] that.

The verb have can be combined with any of those. This is the perfect.

I [have seen / had seen / have been seeing / had been seeing] that.

And any of those eight combinations can be combined with a modal verb: may/might, can/could, shall/should, will/would, and must. (The past tense of must is must.)

I [may see / might see / may be seeing / might be seeing / may have seen / might have seen / may have been seeing / might have been seeing] that.

This gives sixteen combinations in all.

Conditionals complicate the choice of which combination to use, but they don’t add new combinations.

In case it is not clear: only the first verb in the chain is ever marked for past tense. The verb immediately after the perfect have is always the past participle. The verb immediately after the progressive be is marked with -ing.

These cover the ways verbs are most often used in main clauses. From here it gets more complicated, because there are also many other things to know about how verbs are used—the imperative, subjunctive, infinitive, gerund, passive, and so on.

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The past of must (because it is a modal verb) is had to. –  Mari-Lou A Dec 15 '13 at 7:34

As you might expect, the answer to this question really depends on your definition of "tense".

If you take a very strict definition of tense as being something like the "grammaticalisation of location in time", then you generally end up concluding that English has two tenses, which you might call "past" vs "non-past" (or "past" vs "present" or... well, it doesn't particularly matter, they're just labels: the point is there's two of them). Other components of verbal constructions are then grammaticalisations of other phenomena: aspect, voice, phase, mood etc, which themselves may even get broken down into further categories. This view has the advantage that you're "calling a spade a spade": you have a fairly clear phenomenon that you're attaching fairly consistent label to. You have a "1:1 match" between label and phenomenon, if you like.

Another, more informal, view is to consider "tenses" as being the full range of structures, affixes etc that you can "build around" a verb without altering the range of possible subjects, objects etc that can be associated with the verb (i.e. items that don't have their own argument structure, to use the technical term).

Informally, especially in informal foreign language classes, it's common to use the latter definition. That then leaves two problems:

  • where do you draw the line between what actually consitutes encoding of "time" as opposed to other things?
  • is there actually a "fixed list" of all the combinations?

In the first case, you might say that "will" marks "future tense". But on the other hand, when you actually look at how "will" is used, it isn't really encoding just "futureness" but a hots of other things. And other modals like "should", "would", "could", "must" etc also encode a host of things-- in other words, there's not necessarily anything particularly special or "uniquely tense-related" about "will" compared to other modal verbs. (This does arguably happen with "past tense" too, incidentally: at the end of a game show when the host says "Let's look at what was behind the curtain", the car/toaster in question is actually still there-- the "past" tense is encoding something other than simple "pastness" here.)

Then there is the problem that in English unlike, say, French, the range of possibilities of 'syntactic real estate' that you can put around the verb without changing its argument structure is quite large and not precisely delimited. (It's actually not 100% delimited even in French, but close enough for practical purposes.) Speakers will probably agree that "was built" and "was building" are fine. But, for example, if you ask a number of speakers whether in the 'range of possibilities' they would include cases such as "was been being built", you will get different answers. So it isn't really possible to give a precise number. (It's also not really clear why a precise number matters :)

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I don't agree with this theory, because the rules by which certain verbs are combined to create tenses are in fact entrenched in the English grammar. Although a sentence like "By this time tomorrow I will have arrived in London" only uses the nonpast tenses of verbs (will and have) and a past participle (arrived), they are not used arbitrarily. The will verb has a special role which is part of the grammar, and have has a special role with past participles. The meaning of will have arrived must be learned as a rule: it doesn't follow in a straightforward way from the combination. –  Kaz Nov 13 '12 at 20:48
    
There are two verbs in "She always insists that he call her from work" Are those two verbs in the same "tense"? Certainly both are in the 3rd-person singular. And yet they are inflectionally distinct, which certainly smells funny if they are supposed to be the same "tense". –  tchrist Nov 13 '12 at 20:49
    
Well, in my analysis, "call" would be an infinitive, if that's what's bothering you-- I'm not sure it warrants positing an extra tense (in a binary tense system, it wouldn't be marked for "past tense"-- in principle, you could have infinitives marked for tense, but I don't think this is an example of such a phenomenon). –  Neil Coffey Nov 13 '12 at 22:22
    
@Kaz - even if what you say is true, I'm not sure how it really contradicts my answer. –  Neil Coffey Nov 13 '12 at 22:27
    
@neil coffey: thanks for you descriptive answer actually the number doe not matter I just need an over view over english tenses. –  Mohammad Rafiee Nov 14 '12 at 18:10

There are only two tenses in English, past and present.

  • jump, jumped.
  • sing, sang.
  • go, went.

The "number of grammatical tenses" you refer to are compound-tenses and modals, not tenses in their own right.

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So, the future doesn't exist? –  ssakl Apr 9 '11 at 4:25
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It's not a 'tense', it is a mode. Compare English and Pali: I go, I went, I will go; kamami, akamami, kamissami. Or Latin if you prefer: ambulo, ambulabit, ambulavi (Latin experts correct me if I am wrong). –  trideceth12 Apr 9 '11 at 6:02
    
@FractalizeR en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grammatical_tense#English –  trideceth12 Apr 10 '11 at 2:43
    
@trideceth12: Latin has six indicative tenses and four subjunctive tenses and all can occur in both active and passive forms. –  Barrie England Nov 13 '12 at 21:32
    
@trideceth: I id not get my answer from your response , I am not interested in wo4d composition i just need an over view over english tenses, anyway thanks for your attention –  Mohammad Rafiee Nov 14 '12 at 18:03

There are 16, I believe: Past, Present, Future, and Future-in-the-Past, and each of those can be Indefinite (called Simple now), Continuous, Perfect and Perfect Continuous.

4x4 = 16 different combinations.

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I think this answer best matches the question; I expanded on it in mine. +1. –  Jason Orendorff Apr 9 '11 at 15:51

You can find a list of tenses at http://www.ego4u.com/en/cram-up/grammar/tenses. This page seems to cover everything except the imperative mood. If you need practice in actual tense use, try http://www.ego4u.com/en/cram-up/grammar/tenses.

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Since the question mentions tense and aspect, I think the link you have provided is not clear enough because it doesn't separate the two. –  Karl Apr 9 '11 at 5:32
    
Hi @ssakl, thanks your link! I'm from Hungary, Europe(I'm studying British English for 8-9 school years); I have some problems with using these tenses(listed in the table) - so I don't really know, when or where may I use different tenses. (Mainly the Perfect & the Perfect Progressive make me problems.) Can you or someone else give me examples/teach me the usage for these things for the Use section (maybe in separated question)? –  B. Roland May 9 '11 at 12:08

There is a difference between tense in the loose sense it is used by language teachers, and the strict definition relating to time alone that is agreed in linguistics. Teachers will typically give a list of around 16 as suggested in the question and some of the answers.

In addition there is the infinitive form, which is noun-like, and the active and passive participles, which are like nouns and adjectives, and don't strictly have tense (notwithstanding them also being known as present and past participles, it is actually aspect that is in focus, continuing versus completed, and the rest of the construction can locate the -ing progress or -ed completion in the past, present or future in both cases): I was working all night and will have finished by lunchtime.

There is also a difference between words being marked morphologically for tense or periphrastically for tense, that is through the use of a phrase with additional words. Linguists would thus say there are just 2 morphologically marked tenses in English. Of course in general we can divide any dimension, even time, into more than two parts. However only the present and past are real (observed fact) and other constructions allow us to express the irreal (intentions, plans, possibilities or alternatives - beyond fact).

These differences are a bit arbitrary, and there are additional dimensions as discussed in great detail (but still incompletely) by JSB and others: aspect, voice and mood/mode. What has been neglected in particular is the indicative, imperative and interrogative moods.

In English all these possible combinations (over 100 by my count) are mediated by the infinitive (bare or preceded by "to"), two morphological tenses (marked for past by -ed as a rules, unmarked for present except for the -s marker of 3rd person singular) and the two participles (marked by -ed and -ing) in combination with auxiliary and modal verbs.

It is a bit arbitrary to say that some verbs are auxiliary verbs and some are modal verbs and there are many other constructions other than those traditional auxiliaries and modals. The use of "be/is/are" and "have/has" as auxiliaries with participles is really/originally just the standard predicative construction (it is finishing/finished/finite) and the standard possessive construction (it has finished; it has a nice finish/style; it has style).

The modal constructions listed by JSB have the distinctive property that their roots don't act as infinitives (although future marker "will" does in its primary sense relating to acts of the will), and the main verb that follows is bare (without "to"). But there are many other constructions that affect mood/intention/likelihood/definiteness:

naked infinitive with implicit/explicit +that+: insisted, suggested, mandated, ordered...

with requisite +to+: to have to, to be supposed to, to want to, to intend to, to desire to, ...

without infinitive form but requiring +to+: ought to, ...

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