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My understanding is that the sentence

I will have played tennis.

is future perfect.

But, what happens if I substitute the word "will" with a modal such as "could" or "ought to"? Does that change the tense? If so, what tense is it?

For example, what tense is the sentence

I could have played tennis.

2 Answers 2

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A tense is a verb form.

The reason for calling will have played in the 'future perfect tense' is because the time referred to in a. is the future. But the problem is, the same form will have played in b. refers to not a future time but a past time.

a. I will have played tennis for thirty years by the end of this year.

b. He will have played tennis for thirty years by the end of last year.

Then, should you be calling the same form will have played in b. the "past" perfect tense??

No, you shouldn't. Since a tense by definition is a verb form, you can't have different tenses for the same verb form.

What this shows us is that there is no way of knowing what tense will have played really is under such a definition of 'tense' as:

A set of forms taken by a verb to indicate the time (and sometimes also the continuance or completeness) of the action in relation to the time of the utterance.

(as defined in this Oxford Dictionary)

The reason for this problem, I think, is because we're trying to think of will have played as a single verb when it comprises three verbs. As shown in the Oxford definition, a tense is not a set of forms taken by one or more verbs in combination, but a set of forms taken by a single verb.

Interestingly, the Oxford definition is somewhat self-contradicting in that it tries to encompass "the continuance or completeness" as well as the time, when you'd definitely need more than one verb to indicate either "the continuance or completeness".

This goes to show that the traditional definition of the term 'tense' is problematic at best, if you're to stay logical in applying the term to real sentences.

Likewise, determining the tense of could have played is problematic:

c. I/He could have played tennis for thirty years by the end of this year.

d. I/He could have played tennis for thirty years by the end of last year.

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  • English has only two true tenses: past and non-past (often called ‘present’, though that’s somewhat of a misnomer). Everything else is just all manner of constructions used to express aspect, modality and other things. Some would say that could (and all other modal verbs) have no tense at all, though I’d call that baloney; could have played is the past-tense form of can have played. (Also, you can absolutely have different tenses for the same surface form: I let is both present and past, for example.) Commented Apr 17, 2019 at 16:03
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would have and could have are used to form the perfect conditional tense. See Type 3 Conditionals:

The perfect conditional of any verb is composed of three elements:
would + have + past participle

could have is similar, it's just a modal form that expresses less certainty.

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    Sorry, but -1 for using an EF website. :( (An incorrect one too) Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 21:13
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    @Araucaria All the other sites I could find just gave examples and talked about modals, they never named the tense. If there's a better one, I'll be happy to link to it.
    – Barmar
    Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 21:21
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    Alas, there is no such thing as "the perfect conditional tense" in English. English only has two tenses -- present and past. As to the tense of would have, modal auxiliaries are not inflected for tense (would is not past tense), so you have a choice of saying it's no tense at all or that it's present tense because that's the default tense. BTW, teachers or textbooks that ask silly questions like this are defective, too, and should be distrusted on other grammatical matters as well. Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 22:35
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    @JohnLawler Or you have the choice of saying it’s past tense, because despite your repeated claims to the opposite, there is no consensus that modals do not inflect for tense – I can state just as categorically that they do inflect for tense. Claiming that tense is not involved in “I could hear it five minutes ago, but I can’t hear it now” is preposterous. Commented Mar 16, 2019 at 17:43
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    The mood is more likely something like "irrealis", because it's speaking of an unreal situation, not something that is possible. Incidentally, there's no official list of "moods" or "aspects" in English; linguists name things as they please, so you need to get examples instead of names. You have to be very careful with names -- you never know where they've been. Commented Mar 16, 2019 at 20:25

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