Why aren't the 'progressive' verbal constructions (such as 'I am talking') regarded as tenses in traditional grammar?

"There is no consensus, not even among linguists, about what constitutes a tense."--yeah, okay, fair enough, but that is hardly an answer.

"I have worked"--a tense, apparently. "I am working"--not a tense, apparently. There is no aspect of this that I understand. Why is the line drawn here?

Okay, further edit for clarification--I am referring specifically to the McGraw-Hill Handbook of English Grammar and Usage, which describes six tenses--3 simple and 3 perfect. I can see no justification whatsoever for this classification.

Furthermore, I can see no practical use for the concept of tense, in any of its varied applications. So why even bother with it? (In English, at least. I'm willing to accept that it may be a very useful concept in other languages.)

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    @Lawrence That's not a tense any more so than should have been going to be eaten is a tense.
    – tchrist
    Commented May 28, 2016 at 14:55
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    @tchrist It would seem that continuous tense is informal, even though it's used widely. I stand corrected.
    – Lawrence
    Commented May 28, 2016 at 15:08
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    @tchrist Thank you kindly, but after searching, I found this. It touches on the lack of a future tense in English as well as the difference between tense and aspect, among other things. Voting to close this as duplicate of that.
    – Lawrence
    Commented May 28, 2016 at 15:21
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    There is no sense in it. The whole idea was invented by people who thought that if it wasn't Latin, it wasn't language. There is no reasonable analysis which makes "I will go" a tense, but "I may go" not one.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented May 28, 2016 at 15:56
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    @ColinFine: That depends entirely on your definition of tense. @ everyone and Dunsanist (nice name, btw.): it only makes sense to have any opinion at all on whether something should be considered a tense if you pick a definition of tense. I feel that most people debating tenses fail to do so and are 'talking in the air'. There are many definitions to pick from, and several have some merit. Commented May 28, 2016 at 16:08

1 Answer 1


In English linguistics, we tend to use "tense" and "aspect" in a way that is not so much oriented to language universals as it is convenient for describing some superficial details of English morphology. Tense is expressed with verb endings or irregular stems; aspect is expressed by choice of auxiliary verb. This follows the description proposed in Chomsky's Syntactic Structures. This makes "perfect" an aspect rather than a tense, though in other languages where perfect is part of verbal morphology, it might make more sense to call it a tense.

  • I'm willing to accept that 'tense' might be a useful term where it indicates that the time frame depends purely upon the morphology of the word (I walk, I walked). In which case I'd have to agree that there are only two tenses in English. But as a statement it doesn't seem particularly significant, except by contrast with some other language.
    – Dunsanist
    Commented May 29, 2016 at 13:25
  • The perfect may be described as a tense, but the progressive/continuous is always called an aspect. Commented Jun 2, 2016 at 11:25

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