English sometimes has several different ways of expressing the same thing. For example, it can form a possessive either by using an old case inflection:

  • The dog’s tail was always wagging.

Or it can do so periphrastically:

  • The tail of the dog was always wagging.

Those are both possessives, the one an inflectional possessive and the other a periphrastic possessive. The same appears to be possible with tenses, too, not just with possessives. In Jeremy Butterfield’s The Arguments of Time (OUP 2006), he writes:

A tense is inflectional if it is realized as an affix on a head (in English, a verb), periphrastic if it is realized as an independent word. Thus the English past is inflectional, but the future is periphrastic, co-opting the modal will.

This accords with the OED’s definition of tense:

Gram. Any one of the different forms or modifications (or word-groups) in the conjugation of a verb which indicate the different times (past, present, or future) at which the action or state denoted by it is viewed as happening or existing, and also (by extension) the different nature of such action or state, as continuing (imperfect) or completed (perfect); also abstr. that quality of a verb which depends on the expression of such differences.

Indeed, one of the citations under that sense draws attention to this:

  • The tenses of the English verb are made partly by inflection, partly by the use of auxiliary verbs.

As far as I can tell, tense cannot be just an alias for “inflection” as some here have been saying. At least, not if the sources cited above are to be believed.

And my question is. . .

Aren’t these all tenses, both the inflectional1 tenses and the periphrastic2 tenses alike?

1. Inflectional tenses are sometimes also known as synthetic tenses.
2. Periphrastic tenses are sometimes also known as analytic tenses, or analytical tenses — or sometimes, compound tenses.

When did compound tenses stop being tenses? Or have they? Isn’t that what these people who pretend that ‘English has no future tense’ are actually saying, that periphrastic tenses are not tenses?

If so, then the OED does not support the notion. Under their definition of periphrastic. . .

Of the nature of, characterized by, or involving periphrasis; circumlocutory; roundabout.

. . . they have a note, which covers both verbs and possessives:

  • periphrastic conjugation (in Grammar), a conjugation formed by the combination of a simple verb and an auxiliary, as distinct from a simple formation from the verb-stem.
  • periphrastic genitive, an equivalent of the genitive case, formed by aid of a preposition, as of in Eng., de in Fr.

So periphrastic forms seem real, whether as tenses or genitives. I do not see how periphrastic started to mean ersatz or bogus or fake. So why have some people begun to treat periphrastic tenses as fake tenses? No, they aren’t inflectional tenses, but why does this matter? Other languages have plenty of kinds of periphrastic tenses, and nobody discounts them there. So why have they started trying to discount them in English?

Other Tongues

If one were allowed to bring Romance into the picture, then it might be useful to point out that sometimes both inflectional and periphrastic versions of the same tense exist, and that nobody there ever pretends one is a tense and the other is not.

  • In Latin, periphrastic conjugations existed, allowing you to use portātūrus sum for “I’m going to carry”, which coëxists with the purely inflectional future, portābō. This is like how in modern Romance you can have both an inflectional future tense (FR je porterai; ES portaré) and a periphrastic future tense (FR je vais porter; ES voy a portar).

  • In French, for example, you can put a present-tense sentence like je porte into the past in either of two equivalent ways: via the passé composé with j’ai porté or via the passé simple with je portai. No one calls the first one present tense there, because it is not perceived as such. Similarly, the pluperfect exists only as a compound/periphrastic tense in French, but j’avais porté is not called the past tense (even though avais itself is in the imparfait), but rather the pluperfect, the plus-que-parfait.

  • In Spanish, there are two versions of the pluperfect tense, a rare inflectional one and a common periphrastic one. The compound version of the pluperfect indicative is había portado, whereas the purely inflectional version is portara (which is normally one of the two imperfect subjunctives). Those are both considered to be in the pluperfect. Nobody calls había portado as being in the imperfect just because había is; that would be wrong: it is in the pluperfect.

  • In modern Romance, the inflectional future and the inflectional conditional were once periphrastic tenses but are now inflectional ones. The present-tense auxiliary was used for the then-compound future, and the imperfect-tense auxiliary was used for the then-compound conditional. Specifically, they used either a present-tense or past-tense form of to have, inflected for person and number, appended to the infinitive. Eventually this became fused in writing — completely fused in most of them but only partially fused in Portuguese, where mesoclitics are still permitted. The compound tense did not suddenly become a “real” tense just when people stopped writing it with a space, nor does it cease to be one when in Portuguese a mesoclitic intervenes.

See also

  • 11
    Can't you do a little research before asking a question here? ¬_¬
    – Robusto
    Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 21:18
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    It is caviling when people say that English only has two tenses, present and past, they are really saying two inflected tense forms.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 22:09
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    @Mitch Oh noes! You’ve called in the cavilry! :) Correct me if I’m wrong, but you appear to be saying that those who claim such things are engaging in “captious and frivolous objections; to object, dispute, or find fault unfairly or without good reason” — that their objections are “fitted to ensnare or perplex in argument; designed to entrap or entangle by subtlety; fallacious, sophistical.” Is that right?
    – tchrist
    Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 22:17
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    @tchrist: I've been slapped down before for taking issue with obscure titles - but that's not really the issue, no. In practice we are able to indicate reference to future actions (and we will still be able to do that tomorrow! :) So all I can really see here is pointless peeving about what exactly "verb tense" means in the context of English. Some people think "tense" implies "marked by inflection", but it's just terminology - there's nothing truly meaningful about it, to my mind. Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 22:42
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    @tchrist: yes that is exactly what I'm saying. English has three tenses, past present future, the latter marked periphrastically. To deny a future tense in English is a pedantic misreading of underspecified rules.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 23:33

3 Answers 3


You raise a valid concern. On the one hand, we often talk of periphrastic tenses (and other constructions); on the other, some insist that a tense should be confined to a single word. Others, again, hold that tense is a property of a sentence or clause, not of a word or phrase. Can this problem be solved at all?

The short answer is: there are different models; some models are incompatible with certain other models; and we are free to choose whichever model we prefer. The term periphrastic tense is useful in a model that allows for tenses that consist of more than one word, but not in a model that doesn't. The definition of "tense" is not an objective fact that exists independent of human analysis: it is ultimately a label of convenience created by the observer. Both kinds of models have merit.

Most language users happen to think of will do as the future tense. Some linguists use other models. There is no consensus, not even among linguists, about what constitutes a tense.

Even word boundaries are not objective facts

Perhaps the most fundamental issue you raise is that of word boundaries. What were once considered two separate words may fuse into a single, new word, as in cantare habeo => chanterai. At some point in its development, the status of this phrase-or-word must have been uncertain. This shows how relative the whole terminology is.

But in most cases, a reasonable case can be made for either one or the other, so that the fundamental issue temporarily recedes to the background; it should be noted, however, that what we consider a "word" is to some extent intrinsically subjective and a matter of convention. It is just a convenient demarcation. But let's move on.

Is tense determined by form or by function?

Let me illustrate the problem by means of Latin, where terminology has been fixed for a long time. Tense comes from Latin tempus, "time"; part of the oldest concept of tenses had to do with notions of time. However, there was never a one-to-one correspondence between tenses and temporal references. The pluperfect, for example, is normally used to refer to a time before a narrated time in the past, just as in English; and yet after postquam, "after", the perfect was used, not the pluperfect. Similarly, the imperfect and pluperfect could be used to refer to an hypothetical situation in the present, as in English if I was rich... (although subjunctives were far more common). And so on.

Si domi eram, pater me puniebat. = If at_home I_was, father me punished. "if I were at home, father would punish me."

Postquam Galliam vidi, vici. = After Gaul I_saw, I_conquered_it. "After I had seen Gaul, I conquered it."

And yet we still call the verbs in these examples imperfect and perfect, respectively, even though they do not have their usual temporal references. The reason we do this is that the form is named after its most common function, even though it can indeed have other functions. Latin and English do this and are by no means the only languages.

Do we then look only at the form of the verb, not at its function, when defining tenses in Latin? No. What we call the passive perfect is periphrastic/analytic/compound, just as in English:

Canis sum. = Dog I_am. "I am a dog."

Visus sum. = Seen I_am. "I am/was seen."

You could say this is not a special tense, but two words, one being a past particple, the other a present verb; and yet this is called the passive perfect. The reason is that it functions just as the perfect does—except that it is passive. Here function determines what we call it. This happens in English too when we say I will do it is in the future tense.

Humans like symmetrical systems

So then what constitutes a tense, if we can count neither on form, nor on function, at least not reliably so? The answer is probably symmetry. If there is a present active (video "I see"), a present passive (videor, "I am (being) seen"), and a perfect active (vidi "I saw"), we would like there to be a perfect passive. Because there was no such verbal form, a phrase was made to be equivalent, (visus sum "I was/am seen in the past"). We humans like our systems neat and symmetrical if possible:

           Active   Passive    
Present    video    videor
Imperfect  videbam  videbar
Perfect    vidi     [visus sum]
Future     videbo   videbor

Now is this label "passive perfect" merely a convention? It may have been once, but, as people start believing in it, they start using it in ways that neatly fit the system, even if the meaning of visus sum was once somewhat different. It is in some ways a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whenever a sentence in the active perfect was passivated, instead of saying "oh, I can't do that", people started thinking, "this is the passive perfect; I will use it". The same applies to I will do it in English.

All three approaches have advantages and disadvantages

Is this a perfect system of terminology? No. There are serious disadvantages. But it has been in use for a long while, and most people think of "I will do it" as fitting within a neat system of past, present, and future, because that is the most convenient and obvious partition of our verb tenses, or so we feel.

Various branches of linguistics have proposed different systems and different terminologies in the past. This is a productive and beneficial approach. Some chose to focus on form and consider the English periphrastic future not a tense at all; they will only count affixes and endings as capable of forming tenses. This system certainly has merit.

Others have emphasised function; they have gone so far as to declare that, since many forms can be used for more than one function, as with si eram... / "if I was...", only foregoing form altogether leads to a consistent approach. Hence they treat tense as a property of a clause or sentence, not of a word or phrase. That way, only combined with a word like yesterday does was acquire a past tense; in if I was at work today, you wouldn't see me here, it is a present tense, because it refers to a situation in the present, be it an hypothetical one. This approach, too, has merit.

One could use several systems at once

As an alternative, we could invent new words for these two new approaches, such as *single-word tenses for the English simple present and simple past, and time-reference or temporality for the time-reference of a clause or sentence. Many different models are possible. Insisting on one model without considering the benefits of other models seems unwise. And saying "x is A" when you mean "I find the model in which x is called A most useful" is a simplification.

Suppletion as an illustration of a convenient choice

Some systems are uncontested, even though at some point in the past a fairly arbitrary choice must have been made.

I go.

I went.

Do these two forms belong to the same verb? Yes, you will say, because that is what you were taught, and because they "feel" like the same verb, only with odd forms. But, in the past, there were two verbs, both meaning something like going (although there were no doubt some differences between them). At some point the present form of a verb resembling go was taken, its past forms discarded (or not, if such never existed), and the past form of a verb resembling went was combined with it.

We could say, "there are two defective verbs in modern English, one lacking a past form, the other a present form"; but we choose not to do so. That is to some degree arbitrary, but in this case it is just very convenient. If certain linguists would prefer to treat them as two different verbs, then let them do so, if this is somehow more convenient in a certain linguistic analysis. Or they could just say "this verb consists of two different roots", as they no doubt do.

  • Upvoting blind: tl;dr, but this has to be the longest question-and-answer combination on the site. ^_^
    – Robusto
    Commented Jan 8, 2013 at 2:10
  • 3
    @Robusto: And with one arm behind your back (or under the table)? Thanks. I am prepared to add a couple more paragraphs should contenders announce themselves. Commented Jan 8, 2013 at 2:16
  • Contenders? Nay, pretenders they would be!
    – Robusto
    Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 3:50
  • @Robusto: Does that mean I can bite them? Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 17:57
  • You may indeed.
    – Robusto
    Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 18:39

On a minor point of fact, Latin portaturus sum and portabo are not simple alternatives. While the second is the straightforward future tense, the first has a variety of meanings depending on context. They include ‘about to carry’, ‘going to carry’, ‘intending to carry’, ‘determined to carry’ and ‘on the point of carrying’. However, I doubt if any of us are sufficiently knowledgeable to comment on how linguists analyse the verb forms of languages other than English. I certainly am not.

As far as English goes, I know of no serious linguist who recognises an English future tense. If you claim that I will carry is the future tense, how do you describe the other devices English uses to express the future? And if I will carry is the future tense, what is I would carry or I might carry, both of which have the same structure?

Most linguists that I have read recognise only two English tenses at all, present and past. Huddleston and Pullum are exceptions. They identify a primary tense system, and under that general heading they discuss the use of the present tense to indicate present time, future time and past time (the historic present), and the use of the preterite to indicate past time, ‘modal remoteness’, and ‘backshift’. They then go on to consider the ‘perfect’, which they call ‘a past tense that is marked by means of an auxiliary verb rather than by inflection' (my emphasis).

By contrast, in ‘The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language’, David Crystal states the rather more orthodox position. He asks the reader ‘How many tenses of the verb are there in English?’ His answer is worth quoting at length:

If your automatic reaction is to say ‘three, at least’ – past, present, and future – you are showing the influence of the Latinate grammar tradition. If you go for a larger number, adding such labels as perfect and pluperfect, this tradition is even more deep-rooted within you. [In traditional grammar] tense was thought of as the grammatical expression of time, and identified by a particular set of endings on the verb . . . English, by contrast, has only one inflectional form to express time: the past tense marker . . . English has no future tense ending, but uses a wide range of other techniques to express future time . . . However, people find it extremely difficult to drop the notion of ‘future tense’ (and related notions, such as imperfect, future perfect and pluperfect tenses) from their mental vocabulary, and to look for other ways of talking about the grammatical realities of the English verb.

One such alternative is the approach of functional linguistics, with its concept of Mood (Subject + Finite) and Residue (Predicator + (optional) Complement + (optional) Adjunct). In a clause such as ‘He was lying on his back’, for example, He was is the Mood and consists of He (Subject) and was (Finite). Lying on his back is the Residue and consists of lying (Predicator) and on his back (Adjunct). In a clause expressing the future, such as ‘I will see you tomorrow’, the Mood consists of I (Subject) and will (Finite). The Residue is see (Predicator) and tomorrow (Adjunct).

For more on my own reflections on the matter, see here.

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    I people prefer a system different from conventional terminology, that is absolutely fine. But if you use tense and mood in such unusual ways, you lose mutual comprehensibility with most laymen, and also with palaeography, philology, and a host of others. Why not pick new terms, then? Because, if you exclude periphrastic tenses, then you are basically talking about a whole new concept, not really what most people understand by tense. The same applies to this use of mood: the concept may be extremely useful and interesting, but it's just not the same thing. Commented Jan 8, 2013 at 16:45
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    As to portaturus esse, it does not have this sense of immediacy in the infinitive, the (oblique) subjunctive, or the past future: 1. dixit me victurum esse, "he said that I would be victorious"; 2. deplorat naturam filiae suae, quae multos viros corruptura sit, "he deplores the character of his daughter, who (is such that she) will corrupt many men". The subjunctive is required here, and there is no other way to express a future subjunctive. This is the equivalent of corrumpet multos viros, "she will corrupt many men", in the indicative. 3. Nata est et multos corruptura erat. Commented Jan 8, 2013 at 17:22
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    ... Spanish, or even English! Those are the standard approaches to teaching conjugation, which as you see includes both simple and compound tenses in all languages from Latin to English and beyond. No Frenchman will accept the idea that j’ai parlé is a present-tense conjugation merely because ai is in the present tense. It is in the passé composé, not the present. This is how people talk about these things, so it interferes with discussion to use “tense” to mean something else.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jan 10, 2013 at 5:49
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    @tchrist. As David Crystal says, it's because we're all prisoners of the Latinate tradition, and none are more so than the French. Commented Jan 10, 2013 at 7:52
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    @BarrieEngland: Guests. We prefer to call the inmates guests. In any case, synchronic and diachronic compatibility with other (phases of) languages should be pro-arguments. Commented Jan 11, 2013 at 19:29

It's a matter of semantics not syntax!

If the question is whether a verb, a single word, can show future tense in English, the answer is clearly no.

If the question is whether English can express the future, whether in word or phrase, then the answer is of course yes.

If the question is whether English works the same way as Latin, the answer is no.

If the question is whether it makes sense to make statements about the future, the answer is yes - even though we can not be certain about the future any more than we can the past, or even much of the present.

When talking about English sentences, clauses, phrases or other constructions I would be happy to use "future tense", even though BOTH the "going to" and the "will" forms (and other ways of discussing expectations or intentions about the future such as "plan to" and "shall") are periphrastic (round about phrases). When talking about words, I would be talking about the auxiliaries and modals as having tense, and the infinitives and participles as not having tense (but rather aspect).

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