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A verb form like "went" is called a "past tense". However, it is not only used to talk about past events (e.g. We went to Morocco last January), but also about unreal or uncertain present or future events (e.g. It would be better if we went home now).

The verb form which is called the "present tense" can also refer to another time than the present time. For example, in the sentence "When he sees his car, he will be surprised" the verb form "sees" in the subordinate clause refers to a future time. But this verb form is called a "present tense" even though it can refer to a future time.

A structure like "I'm going" is called a "present progressive". It can refer to a present time like in "I'm going to work now" or to a future time like in "I'm going to London tomorrow".

Even though there is no "future tense" in English, a structure like "will be" is called a "(simple) future". It can refer to a future time like in "It will be cold in the winter" or to a presen time like in "That will be the postman".

I know that there is no one-to-one-relationship between tense and time in English, i.e. a verb form like "went", which is called a "past tense", does not always refer to a past time. In other words, time and tense don't correlate exactly in English.

So what was the reason for naming a verb form like "went" "past tense" even though it can refer to another time than a past time? Or more general, were the verb forms / structures named after their most typical / common use?

Naming a verb form / structure after what it is most often used for is a good reason. So my guess is that the verb forms were named after their most typical / common use, which is the past time for the "past tense", the present time for the "present tense" and so on. Would you agree?

  • The tense of went has been called the past tense for several centuries now. Were it to be renamed today, it would cause massive confusion. – Peter Shor Nov 17 '17 at 21:42
  • And even two centuries ago, people were asking the same question you are. From an 1820 book (via Google books): But the question recurs, why should the past tense be preferred for this uncertain mode of speaking of futurity ? – Peter Shor Nov 17 '17 at 21:47
  • At least one linguist proposed that all past tense uses spoke about irrealis. (Anyway, today some call it the past tense form, in acknowledgement that it doesn't always refer to past time.) – AmE speaker Nov 18 '17 at 1:34
  • In answer to your final question: Yes, I would agree. – Kate Bunting Nov 18 '17 at 9:08
  • This might be more of a linguistics question than specifically about English. – Barmar Nov 20 '17 at 17:23

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