I know that "tense" indicates time. If that is true, then not every sentence can be indicated of its tense.

Please review these sentences:

"If I could go to the market , I must have taken breakfast (by now)."
"If this great mountain was given my secret, it would have broken."
"If she were tall like you, she would never have asked you to pick those clothes for her."

Here all these sentences have main clauses in past, but I don't know whether past indefinite or not.

Still, these are imaginary conditions, supported by “if”; so can we say that these sentences have no tense?

Some people told me that their roots are in the present as we are indicating the absence of the mentioned conditions implies that the sentence indicates the present continuous, or some other sort of present.

But that sounds strange, as the sentence itself does not narrate the absence of that condition but only the supposition of “if” that were true... so what is the tense. Thnx for all responses. Now i can safely say that this sentence is making use of auxiliary modals in subjunctive mood. Still according to my perspective, it indicates towards a timeless phenomenon( Though no one knows about the future) still its pointing towards a timeless phenomenon, still if someone wants to refer it to a tense, i think its is present indefinite because it indicates that i am not a bird. "If I were" suggests that I am not.Otherwise the sentence itself does not refer to time. And as i have understood English language does not make use of tense only to indicate time, the total sentence structure depends on many thing sand also the mood of sentence changes the total outlook of any sentence. So tense and/ or mood can be understood if they indicate real things rather imaginary ones.

I failed to understand any better through these answers.

  • It will help if we know what languages you are familiar with, since different languages deal with tense, mood, and aspect differently. English tenses often do not indicate time, and this is one occasion where they don't. Some people call it Subjunctive, though that's just a name and doesn't explain anything. Dec 28, 2012 at 18:24
  • Welcome to ELU, Aleena. This is an excellent question. May I ask whether you have studied the subjunctive in English yet? Dec 28, 2012 at 18:27
  • (See, someone has already called it "subjunctive" :-) Dec 28, 2012 at 19:15
  • How is this question different from your previous one, What tense is “If I were a bird, I could fly”? More to the point, how does @JohnLawler's answer there not answer this question as well? Lastly, what makes you think that a sentence must have a tense? Here are some sentences for you: "Yes." "Hello." "Oops." "Next week". "C." "O ye of little faith!"
    – RegDwigнt
    Dec 28, 2012 at 19:27
  • @JohnLawler Just a ranging shot. :) If she's studied it it's probably under that name. ... And I see now you already answered this yesterday. Dec 28, 2012 at 19:27

1 Answer 1


To answer the official question, in every sentence (not every clause, but every sentence) the first verb in the main verb phrase must be one of

  • a Present tense form (am, is, are, have, has, does, do, or Verb + -Z₃, the 3SgPr inflection)
  • a Past tense form (was, were, had, did, or Verb + -ED, the Past inflection)
  • a Modal auxiliary verb (can, could, may, might, will, would, shall, should, must)

English modal auxiliaries are not inflected for tense, so they are either not in any tense or they are always present tense, depending on what kind of theory of tense you're applying. So either all English sentences are in a tense, or there are some that aren't. But that's just how one describes the language -- it doesn't affect the grammar.

Time in English is frequently indicated by tense, but often enough it's also -- or even only -- a matter of the words or constructions used. See the Deixis Lectures for more on expressions of Time.

English tensed verb forms, however, often specifically don't refer to time. For instance, the Present tense, when used with an active verb, is most likely to refer to an habitual occurrence than to the present time. E.g,

  • Bill walks to school means he walks (almost) every time he goes to school.
  • That dog bites means that the dog has been known to bite people on some occasion(s).
  • Mary drives a Toyota means that Mary usually drives (and probably owns) a Toyota.

None of these refer to what Bill, the dog, or Mary are doing at the present time -- neither the time of speaking nor the "present" of a narrative. This is called a generic construction.

The particular use in the original question licenses the use of a past verb form to indicate an unreal supposition, much the way certain regular subjunctive verb endings do in European languages; but only sporadically -- not regularly. This counterfactual conditional construction, like most archaic remnants, is idiomatic, and governed by only a few constructions and verbs. So one finds

  • I wish I were home now.
  • If I were you, ...
  • If I had the money now, I'd give it to you.
  • 1
    English modal auxiliaries are not inflected for tense - yet yesterday you wrote of "certain uses of modals that retain some of their original preterite morphology, e.g, present can and preterite could in When I was 25, I could do 100 pullups; now I can only do 99." Isn't the problem that they are inflected for tense, but you can't count on the inflection to mark tense? Dec 28, 2012 at 20:05
  • 2
    @JohnLawler: Ahhh not "caveant"! You're killing me. How do you always find my weak spot? At any rate, you might consider using "nearly every" instead of "ever" in your answer to silence nit-pickers. // She couldn't find her son and lost him. You really don't think treating could as a past form here is acceptable or useful at all? Dec 29, 2012 at 4:11
  • 2
    @JohnLawler If “everyone thinks” a word means something, how can you say it does not? What is meaning? // Separately, Pullum does many things that many find unjustifiable, so you seem to be in good company there.
    – tchrist
    Dec 31, 2012 at 20:43
  • 1
    I sometimes annoy my more traditionlist friends by asserting that there is no future tense in English. But I think that what John means by "everybody thinks it's time" is not principally about the meaning of the word "tense", it's about an incomplete understanding of a concept, that is widespread.
    – Colin Fine
    Jan 1, 2013 at 0:43
  • 1
    Erm, +1 but one small niggle: "Be sensible!" <--What tense is be there? ;-) Oct 20, 2019 at 19:25

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.