*Is there a correct answer to the number of tenses in the English Languages? How can a mark be given in an examination to the question," How many tenses are there in English?" It seems that highly educated people can't come to an agreement on this issue. Can we stop debating and give an acceptable answer? Some of us are trying to learn.

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    This question appears to be off-topic because it looks like a peeve – FumbleFingers Nov 19 '14 at 14:41
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    Perhaps it's something nobody really needs to know. I know I have been speaking English my whole life and have never even stopped to try and count. – Jim Nov 19 '14 at 14:51
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    @Yvonne, the quickest and easiest way to answer your student would be to say "Your question is ill-posed, it contains false premises, here's what they are [viz answer I just linked to]", as a math tutor would when asked by his student "Yeah yeah, but what is 1/0?". Neither question can be answered by supplying a simple, single integer, and setting the expectation that it can be [but you simply don't know which] is doing a disservice to your student. Don't do that. – Dan Bron Nov 19 '14 at 14:56
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    There's no debate. The answer is 2. Past and non-past. – curiousdannii Nov 19 '14 at 15:06
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    @curiousdannii. Your answer is correct only if you accept one particular definition of the word tense. Declerck (2006) argues ... there is no a priori reason for assuming that tense can only be expresses morphologically, and not also by the use of auxiliaries. Huddleston & Pullum (2002) say that tense can be marked inflectionaly and analytically, and treat the perfect forms as secondary tenses. – tunny Nov 19 '14 at 19:13

It can appear that there is no 'acceptable answer' to this question.

The reason is that a sentence has tense, aspect, and mood (remembered as TAM) but a lot of educated people, including a lot of English teachers, lump aspect and mood under a generic 'tense' umbrella and come up with answers like "There are 16 tenses!"

In simple terms, tense situates an event in time, aspect is how it relates to the flow of time in terms of being bounded or not, and mood reflects the speakers attitude to the event - often how certain we are of the truth. In that light, there are only two tenses: the past and not-past. All the other 'tenses' are aspect or mood.

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  • Thank you Roaring Fish. I can understand your points. Perhaps it's a question best avoided, especially in a multiple choice question scenario, as two tenses were not offered as an option. – Yvonne. Nov 19 '14 at 16:14
  • Additionally, from the answer to the canonical version of this question, some speakers (native and foreign) lump voice under "tense", and even when that is accounted for various prepositions, fixed phrases, idioms, etc which affect the temporality, aspect, mood, etc, and in general these effects are unpredictable and must be memorized one-by-one. – Dan Bron Nov 19 '14 at 16:40

It depends on what you want to mean by "tense".

If, as highly educated people have always agreed, "tense" is a precise term for a finite inflected verb form, then there are precisely two tenses in Modern English:

  1. Present (goes, has, is, makes, wants)
  2. Past (went, had, was, made, wanted)

On the other hand, people who vaguely recall grammar-school catechism, and people who fell in love with Strunk and White in college, as well as many uneducated people and peevers, have always disagreed about what kinds of constructions should receive the accolade of being called a "tense".

Some people say there's a future tense (will go); they don't have a tense name for the more popular gonna go, though, nor any tense for may/might/should/can/could go. Dunno why. Then there's present, past, and future perfect tenses. And present past and future conditional, continuous, subjunctive, middle, passive, and whatever tenses. It's confusing; everybody uses their own interpretations and descriptions. That's why it feels like a matter of opinion. But in fact it's a fact.
That's why English language experts all agree that there are two tenses in Modern English.

But if you prefer to believe Mrs. Abbott in the third grade, there are 18, or any number you please.
Like the fictional Eskimo words for snow, people can say absolutely anything about language,
and somebody will believe them.

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