Grammar for Teachers

One might find that modern grammar approaches English tenses with different terminological conventions and restricts English language tenses to a minimal tense system with a two-way contrast between past and non-past forms (Palmer, 19). This paper, however, follows Huddleston’s (2005) perspective in which English tenses are categorised into primary tenses, present and preterite; and secondary tense, the perfect tense. The grammatical and semantic functions of these tenses will be highlighted in their main and subordinate clauses. A further attention will be given to the progressive aspect as a means of drawing a clearer picture of what English tenses are and what they are not. The paper starts with offering a terminological background of what tenses are, and shed a light upon some relevant terms which help lead in to the different categories of English tenses.

Also Read: 8 Parts of Speech

There is a general consensus that time is the central conception that encapsulates tense. According to Angela Downing & Philip Locke (2002), tense is the linguistic expression of time relations when these are realised by verb forms. John Seely (2007) gives a slightly broader definition and states that a tense is a form of the verb phrase which gives information about aspect and time”. This definition brings the notion of aspect to surface and suggests that aspect is part of the tense system. However, many argue that tense and aspect should be considered apart. According to James R (1994) tense is used when referring to ‘when’ something happened or was the case. Aspect is used to refer to factors such as the ‘duration’ or ‘completeness’ of events and states affairs (James R, 1994). Huddleston suggests that the term aspect is used to indicate how the speaker views the situation described in the clause with respect not to its location in time but to its temporal structure or properties. This suggests that time is still the central focus in the aspectual system and, thus, implies the possibility of encountering overlapping interpretations in defining the tense system.

It is very important to differentiate between the two concepts Perfective and Perfect. Perfective tense is more concerned with semantic realization of the verb whereas perfect is seen as a grammatical category and one type of the past tense (Huddleston & Geoffrey, 2005). Though the two terms are originally linked to the same concept of ‘completeness’, it is best to consider them independent of each other. The key distinction is that of past time. The perfect is a matter of allocating the whole situation or part of it in the past time. The perfective is viewing the situation as a complete whole that does not necessarily addresses the past time. In He will read the book, for instance, the book-reading situation is perfective though the time is in the future. This distinction can be of great significance in defining and describing the uses of the primary tenses: the present and the preterite, in both main and subordinate clauses.

The present tense is basically used to talk about situations that include the present time references. The simple present is used for commentary and demonstration, where the action or event is viewed as occupying the present moment (Howard Jackson, 1990). The use of the simple present is described by Geoffrey as whether it is unrestrictive, instantaneous or habitual (Geoffrey n.leech, 1987). The unrestrictive use is so called because it places no limitation on the extension of the state into past and future time. This includes talking about facts and general truths, and this can be seen examples like, ‘Honesty is the best policy’, ‘Hydrogen is the lightest element’, and ‘He gets up early’ . Howard Jackson (1990) believes that this is the most extensive use of such reference and he refers to them as ‘timeless’ states, events or actions.

The instantaneous use of the simple present contrasts with the unrestrictive use in that it occurs with verbs expressing ‘events’, not ‘states;. The state/event distinction is semantically fundamental in contrasting between the function of the instantaneous and the unrestrictive uses. According to Howard Jackson, a state is undifferentiated and lacking in defined limits. An event, on the other hand, has a beginning and an end(Howard, 1990). Therefore the instantaneous use is restricted to events rather than states. In sport commentaries, for example, the commentator says: Napier passes the ball to Attwater. In this case the event probably does not take place exactly at the instant when it is mentioned. The Habitual, or the iterative use, combines the unrestrictive and instantaneous uses of the simple present as it represents a series of individual events which as a whole make up a state stretching back into the past and forward into the future, as in the example, She walks to work.

More usually actions and events taking place in present time are expressed by the present progressive, where the action or event is viewed as taking place over a period of time which includes the present moment, or being in progress at the moment of speaking. As it takes only few seconds to utter a sentence, the use of the present tense is naturally restricted to the perfective interpretation of the time reference. Imperfective interpretation is seen as a progressive aspect of the present time. The present progressive aspect, in relation to the present tense, is generally used when we talk about actions that are happening at the moment of speech. It can be used, also, in describing habitual actions like: ‘You are drinking too much’; in situations when we want to emphasise the present moment as in ‘I am working at the moment as a police officer’; and in describing trends or developments that include a progressive change as in ‘The village is improving’ (Collins Cobuild, 1990).

Beside the present time, the use present tense can be extended to the past time reference and to future time reference. In certain types of narrative, especially in informal style, the present tense is used instead of the preterite for past time events, even in discourses that have begun in the preterite. The use traditionally known by the term ‘historic present’ is best apparent in story-telling where the audience or the reader of the story tend to imagine as if the events of the story are happening at the present time, for example: …at that moment comes a messenger from the Head Office, telling me the boss wants to see me in a hurry…” (Geoffrey, 1987).

Using the present tense to talk about the future can be described through being either in a main or a subordinate clause. In main clauses we use the present tense to refer to the future only on the cases where it can be assumed that we have present knowledge of a future event” (Huddleston, 2005:45), as in: Exams start next week. The most common cases for such construction involve two central interpretations. One is when events are arranged or scheduled in advance as in the previous example. The second is apparent when frequent or recurrent events whose time can be calculated scientifically, for example The Sun rises tomorrow at 5:50. In both cases the future time is specified by an adjunct which is ‘next week’ in the first example and at 5:50″ in the second one. On the other hand, the present tense with future time reference is used in certain types of subordinate clause representing certain grammatical functions. If we consider the following examples:

Please bring the washing in if it rains.

I’ll give it to you before I leave.

I hope you are feeling better soon.

In (i) the subordinate clause is complement within a conditional adjunct, in (ii) it is complement within a temporal adjunct and in (iii) it is complement of the verb hope.


The second primary tense, the preterite, is mainly used to locate the situation, or part of it, in past time. Unlike the present tense, the preterite does not apply the perfective/imperfective interpretations. It perfectively denotes a single act of action located as a whole in past time (Huddleston, 2005). With the preterite, moreover, the difference between ‘state’ and ‘event’ is less significant than it is with the present tense. The past tense applies only to completed events and there is nothing in the past corresponding to an indefinitely extensive present state” (Geoffrey, 1987:13). There is, however, a distinction to be drawn between the unitary past and the habitual past. The unitary past describes an event in a single point in the past as in He was born in 1985, whereas the habitual past describes a repeated event in the past as in In those days I enjoyed a game of tennis.

Although making a reference to past time is the central use of the preterite, a preterite does not always signal past time (Huddleston, 2005). This is obvious when the preterite form is used in the subordinate clauses. The semantic function of the preterite in the dependent clauses is ‘hypothetical’. In a the complex construction It would be better if I took them to school next week the preterite form took but the time is future.

States, events and actions in the past which are viewed as having no connection with the present but are located at a definite point in past time, are expressed by the simple past verb form. To say that a situation is located at a point in past does not imply that it had no duration, but that the period of time is not under focus. If it is under focus, then the past progressive is used (Jackson, 1990).


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