Grammatical tense

Present tense Future tense Grammatical aspect
Infinite Construction - STEAM

In grammar, tense is a category that expresses time reference with reference to the moment of speaking.[1][2] Tenses are usually manifested by the use of specific forms of verbs, particularly in their conjugation patterns.

The main tenses found in many languages include the past, present, and future. Some languages have only two distinct tenses, such as past and nonpast, or future and nonfuture. There are also tenseless languages, like most of the Chinese languages, though they can possess a future and nonfuture system, which is typical of Sino-Tibetan languages.[3] Recent work by Bittner[4], Tonnhauser[5] has described the different ways in which tenseless languages nonetheless mark time. On the other hand, some languages make finer tense distinctions, such as remote vs recent past, or near vs remote future.

Tenses generally express time relative to the moment of speaking. In some contexts, however, their meaning may be relativized to a point in the past or future which is established in the discourse (the moment being spoken about). This is called relative (as opposed to absolute) tense. Some languages have different verb forms or constructions which manifest relative tense, such as pluperfect ("past-in-the-past") and "future-in-the-past".

Expressions of tense are often closely connected with expressions of the category of aspect; sometimes what are traditionally called tenses (in languages such as Latin) may in modern analysis be regarded as combinations of tense with aspect. Verbs are also often conjugated for mood, and since in many cases the four categories are not manifested separately, some languages may be described in terms of a combined tense–aspect–mood (TAM) system.


The English noun tense comes from Old French tens "time" (spelled temps in modern French through deliberate archaisation), from Latin tempus "time".[6] It is not related to the adjective tense, which comes from Latin tensus, the perfect passive participle of tendere "stretch".[7]

Uses of the term

In modern linguistic theory, tense is understood as a category that expresses (grammaticalizes) time reference; namely one which, using grammatical means, places a state or action in time.[1][2] Nonetheless, in many descriptions of languages, particularly in traditional European grammar, the term "tense" is applied to verb forms or constructions that express not merely position in time, but also additional properties of the state or action – particularly aspectual or modal properties.

The category of aspect expresses how a state or action relates to time – whether it is seen as a complete event, an ongoing or repeated situation, etc. Many languages make a distinction between perfective aspect (denoting complete events) and imperfective aspect (denoting ongoing or repeated situations); some also have other aspects, such as a perfect aspect, denoting a state following a prior event. Some of the traditional "tenses" express time reference together with aspectual information. In Latin and French, for example, the imperfect denotes past time in combination with imperfective aspect, while other verb forms (the Latin perfect, and the French passé composé or passé simple) are used for past time reference with perfective aspect.

The category of mood is used to express modality, which includes such properties as uncertainty, evidentiality, and obligation. Commonly encountered moods include the indicative, subjunctive, and conditional. Mood can be bound up with tense, aspect, or both, in particular verb forms. Hence certain languages are sometimes analysed as having a single tense–aspect–mood (TAM) system, without separate manifestation of the three categories.

The term tense, then, particularly in less formal contexts, is sometimes used to denote any combination of tense proper, aspect, and mood. As regards English, there are many verb forms and constructions which combine time reference with continuous and/or perfect aspect, and with indicative, subjunctive or conditional mood. Particularly in some English language teaching materials, some or all of these forms can be referred to simply as tenses (see below).

Particular tense forms need not always carry their basic time-referential meaning in every case. For instance, the historical present is a use of the present tense to refer to past events. The phenomenon of fake tense is common crosslinguistically as a means of marking counterfactuality in conditionals and wishes.[8][9]

Possible tenses

Not all languages have tense: tenseless languages include Chinese and Dyirbal.[10] Some languages have all three basic tenses (the past, present, and future), while others have only two: some have past and nonpast tenses, the latter covering both present and future times (as in Arabic, Japanese, and in English in some analyses), whereas others such as Greenlandic and Quechua have future and nonfuture.[11] Some languages have four or more tenses, making finer distinctions either in the past (e.g. remote vs. recent past) or in the future (e.g. near vs. remote future). The six-tense language Kalaw Lagaw Ya of Australia has the remote past, the recent past, the today past, the present, the today/near future and the remote future. The Amazonian Cubeo language[12] has a historical past tense, used for events perceived as historical.

Tenses that refer specifically to "today" are called hodiernal tenses; these can be either past or future. Apart from Kalaw Lagaw Ya, another language which features such tenses is Mwera, a Bantu language of Tanzania. It is also suggested that in 17th-century French, the passé composé served as a hodiernal past.[13] Tenses which contrast with hodiernals, by referring to the past before today or the future after today, are called pre-hodiernal and post-hodiernal respectively. Some languages also have a crastinal tense, a future tense referring specifically to tomorrow (found in some Bantu languages); or a hesternal tense, a past tense referring specifically to yesterday[14] (although this name is also sometimes used to mean pre-hodiernal[15]). A tense for after tomorrow is thus called post-crastinal, and one for before yesterday is called pre-hesternal.

Another tense found in some languages, including Luganda, is the persistive tense, used to indicate that a state or ongoing action is still the case (or, in the negative, is no longer the case). Luganda also has tenses meaning "so far" and "not yet".

Some languages have special tense forms that are used to express relative tense. Tenses that refer to the past relative to the time under consideration are called anterior; these include the pluperfect (for the past relative to a past time) and the future perfect (for the past relative to a future time). Similarly, posterior tenses refer to the future relative to the time under consideration, as with the English "future-in-the-past": (he said that) he would go. Relative tense forms are also sometimes analysed as combinations of tense with aspect: the perfect aspect in the anterior case, or the prospective aspect in the posterior case.

Some languages have cyclic tense systems. This is a form of temporal marking where tense is given relative to a reference point or reference span. In Burarra language, for example, events that occurred earlier on the day of speaking are marked with the same verb forms as events that happened in the far past, while events that happened yesterday (compared to the moment of speech) are marked with the same forms as events in the present. This can be thought of as a system where events are marked as prior or contemporaneous to points of reference on a time line.[16]

Tense marking

Tense is normally indicated by the use of a particular verb form – either an inflected form of the main verb, or a multi-word construction, or both in combination. Inflection may involve the use of affixes, such as the -ed ending that marks the past tense of English regular verbs, but can also entail stem modifications, such as ablaut, as found as in the strong verbs in English and other Germanic languages, or reduplication. Multi-word tense constructions often involve auxiliary verbs or clitics. Examples which combine both types of tense marking include the French passé composé, which has an auxiliary verb together with the inflected past participle form of the main verb; and the Irish past tense, where the proclitic do (in various surface forms) appears in conjunction with the affixed or ablaut-modified past tense form of the main verb.

As has already been mentioned, indications of tense are often bound up with indications of other verbal categories, such as aspect and mood. The conjugation patterns of verbs often also reflect agreement with categories pertaining to the subject, such as person, number and gender. It is consequently not always possible to identify elements that mark any specific category, such as tense, separately from the others.

A few languages have been shown to mark tense information (as well as aspect and mood) on nouns. This may be called nominal TAM.[17]

Languages that do not have grammatical tense, such as Chinese, express time reference chiefly by lexical means – through adverbials, time phrases, and so on. (The same is done in tensed languages, to supplement or reinforce the time information conveyed by the choice of tense.) Time information is also sometimes conveyed as a secondary feature by markers of other categories, as with the Chinese aspect markers le and guo, which in most cases place an action in past time. However, much time information is conveyed implicitly by context – it is therefore not always necessary, when translating from a tensed to a tenseless language, say, to express explicitly in the target language all of the information conveyed by the tenses in the source.

In particular languages

Latin and Ancient Greek

Latin is traditionally described as having six tenses (the Latin for "tense" being tempus, plural tempora):

Of these, the imperfect and perfect can be considered to represent a past tense combined with imperfective and perfective aspect respectively (the first is used for habitual or ongoing past actions or states, and the second for completed actions). The pluperfect and future perfect are relative tenses, referring to the past relative to a past time or relative to a future time.

Latin verbs are conjugated for tense (and aspect) together with mood (indicative, subjunctive, and sometimes imperative) and voice (active or passive). Most forms are produced by inflecting the verb stem, with endings that also depend on the person and number of the subject. Some of the passive forms are produced using a participle together with a conjugated auxiliary verb. For details of the forms, see Latin conjugation.

The tenses of Ancient Greek are similar, but with a three-way aspect contrast in the past: the aorist, the perfect and the imperfect. The aorist was the "simple past", while the imperfective denoted uncompleted action in the past, and the perfect was used for past events having relevance to the present.

The study of modern languages has been greatly influenced by the grammar of the Classical languages, since early grammarians, often monks, had no other reference point to describe their language. Latin terminology is often used to describe modern languages, sometimes with a change of meaning, as with the application of "perfect" to forms in English that do not necessarily have perfective meaning, or the words Imperfekt and Perfekt to German past tense forms that mostly lack any relationship to the aspects implied by those terms.


English has only two morphological tenses: the present (or non-past), as in he goes, and the past (or preterite), as in he went.[18] The non-past usually references the present, but sometimes references the future (as in the bus leaves tomorrow). (It also sometimes references the past, however, in what is called the historical present.)

Constructions with the modal auxiliary verbs will and shall also frequently refer the future (although they have other uses as well); these are often described as the English future tense. Less commonly, forms with the auxiliaries ' would ' and (rarely) ' should ' are described as a relative tense, the future-in-the-past. (The same forms are used for the conditional mood, and for various other meanings.[example needed])

The present and past are distinguished by verb form, using either ablaut (sing(s) ~ sang) or suffix (walk(s) ~ walked). (For details, see English verbs).

English also has continuous (progressive) aspect and perfect aspect; these together produce four aspectual types: simple, continuous, perfect, and perfect continuous. Each of these can combine with the tenses to produce a large set of different constructions, mostly involving one or more auxiliary verbs together with a participle or infinitive:

Morphological With auxiliaries
Present Past Future Future-in-the-past
Aspects Simple go(es) went will go would go
Continuous am/is/are going was/were going will be going would be going
Perfect have/has gone had gone will have gone would have gone
Perfect continuous have/has been going had been going will have been going would have been going

In some contexts, particularly in English language teaching, the tense–aspect combinations in the above table may be referred to simply as tenses.[19] For details of the uses of these constructions, as well as additional verb forms representing different grammatical moods, see Uses of English verb forms.

Other Indo-European languages

Proto-Indo-European verbs had present, perfect (stative), imperfect and aorist forms – these can be considered as representing two tenses (present and past) with different aspects. Most languages in the Indo-European family have developed systems either with two morphological tenses (present or "non-past", and past) or with three (present, past and future). The tenses often form part of entangled tense–aspect–mood conjugation systems. Additional tenses, tense–aspect combinations, etc. can be provided by compound constructions containing auxiliary verbs.

The Germanic languages (which include English) have present (non-past) and past tenses formed morphologically, with future and other additional forms made using auxiliaries. In standard German, the compound past (Perfekt) has replaced the simple morphological past in most contexts.

The Romance languages (descendants of Latin) have past, present and future morphological tenses, with additional aspectual distinction in the past. French is an example of a language where, as in German, the simple morphological perfective past (passé simple) has mostly given way to a compound form (passé composé).

Irish, a Celtic language, has past, present and future tenses (see Irish conjugation). The past contrasts perfective and imperfective aspect, and some verbs retain such a contrast in the present. Classical Irish had a three-way aspectual contrast of simple–perfective–imperfective in the past and present tenses.

Persian, an Indo-Iranian language, has past and non-past forms, with additional aspectual distinctions. Future can be expressed using an auxiliary, but almost never in non-formal context.

In the Slavic languages, verbs are intrinsically perfective or imperfective. In Russian and some other languages in the group, perfective verbs have past and future tenses, while imperfective verbs have past, present and future, the imperfective future being a compound tense in most cases. The future tense of perfective verbs is formed in the same way as the present tense of imperfective verbs. However, in South Slavic languages, there may be a greater variety of forms – Bulgarian, for example, has present, past (both "imperfect" and "aorist") and future tenses, for both perfective and imperfective verbs, as well as perfect forms made with an auxiliary (see Bulgarian verbs).

Other languages

Finnish and Hungarian, both members of the Uralic language family, have morphological present (non-past) and past tenses. The Hungarian verb van ("to be") also has a future form.

Turkish verbs conjugate for past, present and future, with a variety of aspects and moods.

Arabic verbs have past and non-past; future can be indicated by a prefix.

Korean verbs have a variety of affixed forms which can be described as representing present, past and future tenses, although they can alternatively be considered to be aspectual. Similarly, Japanese verbs are described as having present and past tenses, although they may be analysed as aspects. Chinese and many other East Asian languages generally lack inflection and are considered to be tenseless languages, although they may have aspect markers which convey certain information about time reference.

For examples of languages with a greater variety of tenses, see the section on possible tenses, above. Fuller information on tense formation and usage in particular languages can be found in the articles on those languages and their grammars.

Austronesian languages


Rapa is the French Polynesian language of the island of Rapa Iti.[20] Verbs in the indigenous Old Rapa occur with a marker known as TAM which stands for tense, aspect, or mood which can be followed by directional particles or deictic particles. Of the markers there are three tense markers called: Imperfective, Progressive, and Perfective. Which simply mean, Before, Currently, and After.[20] However, specific TAM markers and the type of deictic or directional particle that follows determine and denote different types of meanings in terms of tenses.

Imperfective: denotes actions that have not occurred yet but will occur and expressed by TAM e.[20]


e naku mai te 'āikete anana'i

IPFV come DIR INDEF teacher tomorrow

'The teacher is coming tomorrow.'

e mānea tō pē'ā ra

IPFV pretty DEF woman DEIC

'That woman is beautiful.'


Progressive: Also expressed by TAM e and denotes actions that are currently happening when used with deictic na, and denotes actions that was just witnessed but still currently happening when used with deictic ra.[20]


e 'āikete na 'ōna i te tamariki

IPFV learn DEIC 3S ACC INDEFchild/children

'He is teaching some children.'

e kai na ou i kota'i kororio eika

IPFV eat DEIC 1S ACC one small fish

'I am eating a small fish.'

e tunu na ou i te mīkaka tonga te pōpongi

IPFV cook DEIC 1S ACC INDEFtaro all INDEF morning

'I cook taro every morning.'

e kaikai ra te kurī i te moa

IPFV eat.continuously DEIC INDEFdog ACC INDEFchicken

'The dog is eating a chicken.'

e mate atu ra 'ōna


'She has just died.'


Perfective: denotes actions that have already occurred or have finished and is marked by TAM ka.[20]


ka ngurunguru te kurī

PFV growl INDEFdog

'A dog growled.'

ka tākave tō tangata i te mango

PFV kill DEF man ACC INDEFshark

'The man killed the shark.'

ka tunu na ou i te mīkaka tonga te pōpongi

PFV cook DEIC 1S ACC INDEFtaro all INDEF morning

'I used to cook taro every morning'


In Old Rapa there are also other types of tense markers known as Past, Imperative, and Subjunctive.


TAM i marks past action. It is rarely used as a matrix TAM and is more frequently observed in past embedded clauses[20]

i komo mātou

PST sleep 1PlExcl

'We slept.'

e a'a koe i 'aka-ineine

IPFV what 2S PST CAUS-ready

'What did you prepare?'


The imperative is marked in Old Rapa by TAM a. A second person subject is implied by the direct command of the imperative.[20]

a naku mai

IMP come DIR

'Come here.'

a kai tā-koe eika

IMP eat INDEF.PossA-2S fish

'Eat your fish.'

For a more polite form rather than a straightforward command imperative TAM a is used with adverbial kānei. Kānei is only shown to be used in imperative structures and was translated by the french as “please”.

a rave mai kānei tō mea

IMP take DIR PREC DEF thing

'Please take the thing.'

a omono kānei koe tō ka'u ra

IMP dress PREC 2S DEF clothing DEIC

'Please dress yourself in those clothes.'

It is also used in a more impersonal form. For example, how you would speak toward a pesky neighbor.

a naku kānei


'Please leave now!'


The subjunctive in Old Rapa is marked by kia and can also be used in expressions of desire[20]

kia naku ou i te 'are e kaikai ou

SBJV come 1S PREP INDEFhouse IPFV eat.continuously 1S

'When I get to the house, I will eat.'

kia rekareka kōrua

SBJV happy 2Du

'May you two be happy.'


The Tokelauan language is a tenseless language. The language uses the same words for all three tenses; the phrase E liliu mai au i te Aho Tōnai literally translates to Come back / me / on Saturday, but the translation becomes ‘I am coming back on Saturday’.[21]


Wuvulu-Aua does not have an explicit tense, but rather tense is conveyed by mood, aspect markers, and time phrases. Wuvulu speakers use a realis mood to convey past tense as speakers can be certain about events that have occurred.[22] In some cases, realis mood is used to convey present tense — often to indicate a state of being. Wuvulu speakers use an irrealis mood to convey future tense.[23]
Tense in Wuvulu-Aua may also be implied by using time adverbials and aspectual markings. Wuvulu contains three verbal markers to indicate sequence of events. The preverbal adverbial loʔo 'first' indicates the verb occurs before any other. The postverbal morpheme liai and linia are the respective intransitive and transitive suffixes indicating a repeated action. The postverbal morpheme li and liria are the respective intransitive and transitive suffixes indicating a completed action.[24]


Mortlockese uses tense markers such as mii and to denote the present tense state of a subject, aa to denote a present tense state that an object has changed to from a different, past state, to describe something that has already been completed, and to denote future tense, pʷapʷ to denote a possible action or state in future tense, and sæn/mwo for something that has not happened yet. Each of these markers is used in conjunction with the subject proclitics except for the markers aa and mii. Additionally, the marker mii can be used with any type of intransitive verb.[25]

See also


  1. ^ a b Fabricius-Hansen, "Tense", in the Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, 2nd ed., 2006
  2. ^ a b Bernard Comrie, Aspect, 1976:6: "the semantic concept of time reference (absolute or relative), ... may be grammaticalized in a language, i.e. a language may have a grammatical category that expresses time reference, in which case we say that the language has tenses. Some languages lack tense, i.e. do not have grammatical time reference, though probably all languages can lexicalize time reference, i.e. have temporal adverbials that locate situations in time."
  3. ^ Nick Huang, "On syntactic tense in Mandarin Chinese" "Proceedings of the 27th North American Conference on Chinese Linguistics", Los Angeles, 2015.
  4. ^ Maria Bittner, 2014. _Temporality_. Wiley
  5. ^ Judith Judith Tonnhauser. 2015.
  6. ^ tempus. Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short. A Latin Dictionary on Perseus Project.
  7. ^ Harper, Douglas. "tense". Online Etymology Dictionary.
  8. ^ Iatridou, Sabine (2000). "The grammatical ingredients of counterfactuality" (PDF). Linguistic Inquiry. 31 (2): 231–270. doi:10.1162/002438900554352.
  9. ^ von Fintel, Kai; Iatridou, Sabine (2020). Prolegomena to a Theory of X-Marking. Manuscript.
  10. ^ Comrie 1985, pp. 50-53.
  11. ^ Maria Bittner, 2015. _Temporality_
  12. ^ Nancy L. Morse, Michael B. Maxwell, Cubeo Grammar, Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1999, p. 45.
  13. ^ Joan Bybee, Revere Perkins, William Pagliuca, The Evolution of Grammar: Tense, Aspect, and Modality in the Languages of the World, University of Chicago Press, 1994, p. 101.
  14. ^ Daniel Nettle, The Fyem Language of Northern Nigeria, LINCOM Europa 1998
  15. ^ Earl W. Stevick, Adapting and writing language lessons, U.S. Foreign Service Institute, 1971, p. 302.
  16. ^ Rebecca Green. 1987. A sketch grammar of Burarra. Honours thesis, Australian National University, Canberra.
  17. ^ Rachel Nordlinger and Louisa Sadler, "Tense as a Nominal Category" Archived 2012-08-16 at the Wayback Machine, Proceedings of the LFG00 Conference, Berkeley, 2000.
  18. ^ Huddleston & Pullum 2002, p. 51.
  19. ^ See e.g. Tony Penston, A Concise Grammar for English Language Teachers, TP Publications, 2005, p. 17.
  20. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Walworth, Mary E. The Language of Rapa Iti: Description of a Language In Change. Diss. U of Hawaii at Manoa, 2015. Honolulu: U of Hawaii at Manoa, 2015. Print.
  21. ^ Tau Gana Tokelau. 1st ed. Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs, 2017. Web.[1]
  22. ^ Hafford, James A (2014). Wuvulu Grammar and Vocabulary (PDF). p. 89. Retrieved 6 March 2017.
  23. ^ Hafford, James A (2014). Wuvulu Grammar and Vocabulary (PDF). p. 90. Retrieved 6 March 2017.
  24. ^ Hafford, James A (2014). Wuvulu Grammar and Vocabulary (PDF). p. 91. Retrieved 6 March 2017.
  25. ^ Odango, Emerson Lopez (May 2015). Afféú Fangani ‘Join Together’: A Morphophonemic Analysis of Possessive Suffix Paradigms and A Discourse-Based Ethnography of the Elicitation Session in Pakin Lukunosh Mortlockese (PDF). University of Hawaii at Manoa Dissertation.