Tense and aspect



Ask a teacher or learner to list the different tenses in English, and most will come up with something like this: present simple, present progressive, present perfect, past simple, past progressive, past perfect, future simple, future perfect, future continuous.

This is one way of looking at tense, and can be very handy when it comes to categorising and sequencing language points that we want to teach. Indeed, many course books deal with tense in this way.

Strictly speaking, though, English only has two tenses, present and past, as in the following sentences:

Present tense – I work
Past tense – I worked

In this way, tense refers to the location of an event in time, relative to some other time (usually the time of speaking). We use the present or past tense to indicate, quite simply, when a situation happens. The difference between present and past tense is indicated simply by a morphological change:

Present tense – talk
Past tense – talked

Present tense – speak
Past tense – spoke

Unlike in some other languages, there is no future tense in English. Instead, we use the modal auxiliaries will and shall, the present tense, and a few other forms to express the future.

With our definition of tense above – the location of an event in time – we may run into the danger of thinking that we always use the present tense to talk about a present time, and the past tense to talk about a past time. But think about these sentences:

“Politician hits out at protesters!”
“Hurry up ! The train leaves in 10 minutes.”
“If I won the lottery, I would buy a big house.”

The first sentence (a newspaper headline) uses the present tense, but to describe a past event. The second sentence uses the present tense to describe a future event. In the third sentence, we’re using the past tense to describe a future event, but only a hypothetical one – we use the past tense here to distance ourselves from the reality of the event. So we must be careful to guard against thinking that there is just one fixed relationship between time and tense.


So, given that there are just two tenses, how do we refer to all the different items in the list at the beginning?

We refer to these as aspects. While tense tells us when a situation occurs, aspect tells us how it occurs, or how it is viewed by the speaker, in terms of its frequency, its duration, and whether or not it is completed.

The examples above (I work and I worked) have a simple aspect (the present simple and past simple, respectively). Or, you could say that they have no aspect – if you prefer to see it this way, then these are examples of the present and past tense without any aspect.

There are two other aspects in English :

  1. Progressive aspect – used by the speaker to indicate that a situation is in progress:
    Present progressive – I am working
    Past progressive – I was working
  2. Perfect aspect – used by the speaker to look back on an action from the perspective of the present:
    Present perfect – I have worked
    Past perfect – I had worked

These two aspects can be combined, as in the present perfect progressive (I have been working) and the past perfect progressive (I had been working).

We said above that aspect is used by the speaker to show how he or she views a situation, in terms of frequency, duration and completion. Another way to put this is that a speaker uses aspect to convey his or her interpretation of what he or she is saying – his or her attitude to time. This can be something very personal – it doesn’t have to be based on fact, but can instead be based on the speaker’s perception of the event.

In this way, we might use the simple aspect (or no aspect, if you prefer) when the action needs no interpretation from the speaker. Consider this situation:

The best man at a wedding stands up during the meal at the reception, knocks his fork against a champagne glass to call for silence, and says:

“I propose a toast.”

In this situation, the proposing of the toast is happening now. So if it’s happening now, why doesn’t he use the progressive aspect? The answer is that it doesn’t need any interpretation from the speaker – it’s obvious that it is happening now, because he is the best man, he has just stood up and called for silence, it is clear to everyone present that now is the moment of the toast.

Now consider this exchange:

“Where do you live?”
“I’m living in Spain.”

Why doesn’t the second speaker reply in the same aspect as the first speaker? The second speaker chooses the progressive aspect to convey her personal interpretation of the situation – she sees her situation as more temporary – something that’s in progress at the moment, but may not be forever. The two sentences “I live in Spain” and “I’m living in Spain” are factually identical, but the situation requires some interpretation from the speaker – she wants to convey that this situation is in progress but is not permanent.

Here’s another example. Compare these two sentences :

“I sit here.”
“I’m sitting here.”

With the first sentence, no interpretation is needed. The listener can be left in no doubt as to the meaning of the speaker. With the second one, the speaker has added her interpretation to the sentence with the progressive aspect to show that it’s her seat at the moment, but (we can imagine from a likely context) she is not claiming ownership of the seat for now and all time!

Finally, consider these sentences :

“I steal pens.”
“I’m stealing your pens.”
“I’ve stolen your pens.”

Again, the first sentence requires no interpretation and so the simple aspect is used. In the second sentence, the speaker wants to convey that the action is in progress at the moment (we can imagine various scenarios and reasons why the speaker may choose to share this information with the listener, ranging from humour to spite!).

In the final sentence, the speaker chooses the perfect aspect because he wants to relate the action to the present time. His interpretation of the event is that it is finished, but has some relevance in the present. He could have chosen to use the simple aspect and say “I stole your pens”, but this would have conveyed a different interpretation, one which he presumably (because he chose the perfect aspect) doesn’t want to convey.

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