I am reading the grammar book - A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language - these days. I am confused about the meanings of definite and indefinite in Past Tense and Present Perfect.

I know that Past Tense means an action or state started and ended before now. For example:

He died.

From what I think, He died is the event die that happened at some point in the past. So what does the definite time mean here? And I think He died yesterday/last week is a definite time, which I know the exact time He died.

I know I am wrong, please help to point it out.

And Present Perfect has the meaning of INDEFINITE EVENT(S) IN A PERIOD LEADING UP TO THE PRESENT. For example:

He has died recently.

Which means, from an unspecified time(not too long from now) to now, in this period of time, the event die happened.

I think this is an indefinite event since I don't know the exact time when it happened.

  • The thing is, you can't make distinctions like that in English, except by providing context. He died sounds pretty final but then there's His job was so soul-crushing, he died a little every day.
    – Spencer
    Aug 8, 2018 at 11:03
  • @Spencer Yes, I agree that context is the king. What is want to say is that this is just an example to show that without explicit temporal adverbial, e.g yesterday/last week in He died yesterday/last week, how can I know the definite time of the event?
    – kevin4fly
    Aug 8, 2018 at 12:43
  • You can't know without a temporal adverbial unless the context gives the time. For instance "He stepped in front of a bus last Thursday and the bus ran over him. He died." Note that I have deliberately separated the sentence "He died" from the rest of the statement, this is done quite frequently for dramatic effect but more normally one would say something like "He died last Thursday after stepping in front of a bus"
    – BoldBen
    Aug 9, 2018 at 7:01
  • @BoldBen So you mean for sure that the context gives the definite time by means of a temporal adverbial in the Past Tense, right? That will make sense. I'm not a native speaker. I just read the examples of Past Tense from grammar book. Such as: Byron died in Greece. The eruption of Vesuvius destroyed Pompeii.. You know there is no context in such situation.
    – kevin4fly
    Aug 9, 2018 at 8:00
  • @kevin4fly Yes, you could look up the date of the death of Byron, it is well recorded, but the time is not given in the sentence. If the sentence said "On the 19th of April 1824 Byron died in Greece" both time and place are given: the first part of the sentence is a temporal adverbial phrase and "in Greece" is an adverbial phrase giving the location. However, if you were in Missolonghi you might find a timeline board of the history of Missolonghi with an entry headed "19 Apr 1824" which just read "Lord Byron died". The board would give the context but the sentence would be similar to "He died"
    – BoldBen
    Aug 10, 2018 at 16:10

2 Answers 2


A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (p184) expands its discussion of the use of the simple past in the following extract:

It is not necessary for the past tense to be accompanied by an overt indicator of time. All that is required is that the speaker should be able to count on the hearer's assumption that he has a specific time in mind. In this respect, the past tense meaning of DEFINITE PAST time is an equivalent, in the verb phrase, of the definite article in the noun phrase. Just as with the definite article, so with the verb phrase, an element of definite meaning may be recoverable from (a) knowledge of the immediate or local situation; (b) the larger situation of 'general knowledge'; (c) what has been said earlier in the sentence or text; or (d) what comes later on in the same sentence or text.

So this answers the question in your comment: Without explicit temporal adverbial, e.g yesterday/last week in He died yesterday/last week, how can I know the definite time of the event? Namely, the definite date or time when the event occurred will normally be recoverable in one or more of the four ways (a-d) outlined above. So, the utterance Byron died in Greece contains the implicit definite past reference: in the time that Byron was living in Greece.

As to your statement:


I'd be interested in where you have read this, since to me it is the time period that is indefinite, not the events themselves. Nevertheless, you are right that recently is an indefinite time expression which is often accompanied by the present perfect.

That said, the past tense is also used with recently. In fact, Google returns about six times more results for He died recently than He has died recently.

The choice between simple past and present perfect is very complex. For a full account of this grammar issue I recommend the excellent canonical post by StoneyB on the English Language Learners site:


  • Thanks for your reply. Please refer to Page 192 4.20 The present perfective of the book for the quotation: (b)INDEFINITE EVENT(S) IN A PERIOD LEADING UP TO THE PRESENT.
    – kevin4fly
    Aug 9, 2018 at 9:56
  • It is from an unspecified time in the past to now, in this period of time, the event(s) happened. Your indefinite time is at some point in this period, too. I think it is the same thing.
    – kevin4fly
    Aug 9, 2018 at 10:10
  • @Kevin. Thanks, I can understand the term indefinite event in the context of the first example that CGEL gives : Have you ever been to Florence? In other words you may or may not have visited Florence. But I see no indefinite event in the sentence All our children have had measles. The event has definitely happened - but the time when it happened can be regarded as indefinite (i.e., not stated).
    – Shoe
    Aug 9, 2018 at 10:13
  • I think the indefinite event(s) here simply means event(s) occurred at an indefinite time in the past. It doesn't mean whether or not the event(s) existed. Have you ever been to Florence? means were you ever in Florence in the past? And Yes means you were there at an indefinite time in the past. No means you weren't there at an indefinite time in the past. The speaker doesn't care the exact time of the event.
    – kevin4fly
    Aug 9, 2018 at 12:16
  • @Kevin. I don't think that indefinite event is a particularly good term to refer to an event that occurred at an indefinite time in the past . But what matters of course is not terminology but an understanding of contexts when the past is more usual than the present perfect - or indeed if both are possible.
    – Shoe
    Aug 9, 2018 at 14:17

Present/past indefinite tense is used to mean the actions which are not definite ( when its not clear whether action is in progess or perfect/complete). Hence present/past progressive/perfect tense verbs are definite tense verbs.

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