Verb tenses

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A verb tense is a grammatical category that refers to a particular time relative to the speaker and the moment of discourse (i.e., writing or speaking). Tenses are usually reflected in specific verb forms in the conjugated verb form or with function words to indicate tense. English and other Germanic languages tend to use verbal morphemes such as -ed for past tenses, function words like will for future, and combinations of morphemes and function words for more complex tenses, e.g., the pluperfect had gone or the future perfect will have gone. Other languages like Latin, Greek, and Romance languages use more complex sets of verbal inflections to indicate tense. However, not all languages indicate tense in the verbs, most notably, Chinese languages and Hebrew. Mandarin Chinese does not have a tense system, and will rely on context or the use of temporal adverbs to express relative time. Instead, such languages only indicate aspect in their verbs, such as whether the action is ongoing / continuous, or completed, but this is not necessarily relative to the moment of speaking or the speaker's point of view, so these do not qualify as tense.

The most common tenses in various languages are the past, present, and future, while some languages may only distinguish two, such as past versus nonpast, or future versus nonfuture. Some languages make finer or more complex tense distinctions, such as remote versus recent past (like the English perfect, simple past, and pluperfect); or near future versus more remote future (e.g., the English future and the quasi-tense or informal immediate future, I am going to go); or the future perfect. However, some complex tenses like the English perfect and future perfect are more like tense+aspect combinations, rather than pure tenses. The same holds true for complex tenses in other Western languages such as German and Latin.

Discourse refers to use of language in a context beyond the individual sentence, in writing and in speaking. Many grammatical features such as articles and verb tenses depend on context and cannot be explained well at just the sentence level[1]. In discourse in any language, we often begin in a certain tense, and then we may shift to other tenses depending on how other verbs relate to that tense. For example, in writing a paragraph or a whole essay may begin in a certain tense, depending on the writer’s purpose. This is usually a simple tense, such as simple present, which sets the basic time frame for what is to follow. We can call this the main tense or orientation tense[2].

1 English tenses

The following is a summary of the English tenses and their discourse functions.

Time frame Main tense Purpose Example
Future simple future prediction, plan, intention Laundry detergent will freeze in an Illinois winter.
Present simple present reporting facts; description H20 freezes at 0°C, or at anytime in a Minnesota winter.
Past simple past history, chronology, reporting facts as past background The river froze in a Canadian snowstorm.

1.1 Sequence of tenses

After establishing a main tense, a writer may shift tenses, depending on the relationship of a particular item to the main tense. ‘Event’ refers to event, action, or state – the time of a fact or event relative to the main tense; ‘main time’ refers to the main time frame or main time orientation. The main discourse time is often expressed in a main clause, with the time of another event in a dependent (subordinate) clause. Below are the tenses that are preferred for such minor tense shifts.

Main time frame
(discourse reference time or main clause time)
Time of event referred to
(e.g., dependent clause)
Verb tense / form Examples
Past Past
Prior event:
In informal style, or when it is not necessary to emphasize that one event was finished before another event or before the reference time
Simple past Before we tried to do the laundry, the detergent froze.
Prior event:
Formal and/or clearly emphasizing that one event is completed before another (before the main time frame)
Pluperfect (past perfect) Before we tried to do the laundry, the detergent had frozen.
Present (same time)
Present (simultaneous or nearly simultaneous events) Past She entered the room and knocked the vase over with the door.
Present: Expressing general truths or concepts Present The group’s founders believed that all people are equal.
Future Past conditional He said that it would freeze.
Present Past
Past, completed before reference time Past I know that the car didn’t start.
This study continues the work that we began last year on freezing detergent.
Past, but continuing to or still relevant to present Perfect (present perfect) This research is justified by the damage that has been caused by recent cold winters.
Present Present This is a problem because the winter storms invariably come and freeze our detergent.
Continuous Present progressive This is a problem because the winter storms are freezing our detergent.
Future plan, intention, certain event Simple future The senator indicated that he will vote for the bill.
We know that a cold storm with temperatures of -10C will freeze the detergent.
Future hypothetical or possibile event Conditional The senator indicated that he would vote for the bill.
Future ongoing action Future progressive We can’t do the laundry because the storms will be constantly freezing the detergent.
Future completed event Future perfect Before we do the laundry, the water will have frozen.
Future Past
Past (completed event) Simple past We will be able to drive there, if the workers have cleared the road.
Past (recent, or still relevant to the reference time) Perfect We will do the laundry if the detergent has not frozen.
Past (emphasizing that one future action occurs prior to another) Perfect We will go if they have not raised their prices.
Present (same time) Present I will be pleased if you buy me a kilogram of coffe beans.
Future Future He will claim that he will vote for it (but he really won’t).
Future (emphasizing completed action) Future perfect We will find out if the water pipes will have frozen.

  1. Hence, many questions on such grammar features on grammar tests, the TOEFL, etc., are not valid because they include insufficient or no context.
  2. This handout is inspired by: M. Celce-Murcia & D. Larsen-Freeman (1983), The Grammar Book, and references therein, namely: W. Bull (1960), W. Chafe (1972).