Grammatical tense

From Academic Kids

Grammatical tense is a way languages express the time at which an event described by a sentence occurs. In English, this is a property of a verb form, and expresses only time-related information.

Tense, along with mood, voice and person, are three ways in which verb forms are frequently characterized, in languages where those categories apply. There are languages (mostly isolating languages, like Chinese) where tense is not expressed anywhere in the verb or any auxiliaries, but only as adverbs of time, when needed for comprehension; and there are also languages (such as Russian) where tense is not deemed very important and emphasis is instead placed on aspect.

The exact number of tenses in a language is often a matter of some debate, since many languages include the state of certainty of the information, the frequency of the event, whether it is ongoing or finished, and even whether the information was directly experienced or gleaned from hearsay, as moods or tenses of a verb. Some grammarians consider these to be separate tenses, and some do not.

Tenses cannot be easily mapped from one language into another. While all languages have a "default" tense with a name usually translated as "present tense" (or "simple present"), the actual meaning of this tense may vary considerably. For example, the simple present tense in Spanish is often employed for continuous actions, where English would use a continuous phrase ("be doing"), and the Japanese present tense is actually best described as "non-past tense" because it's used also for future events.


Compound tenses

The more complex tenses in Indo-European languages are formed by combining a particular tense of the verb with certain verbal auxiliaries, the most common of which are various forms of "be", various forms of "have", and modal auxiliaries such as English will. Romance and Germanic languages often add "to hold", "to stand", "to go", or "to come" as auxiliary verbs. For example, Italian uses stare ("stand") with the present participle to indicate the present continuous. Portuguese uses ter ("have") with the past participle for the perfect tense. Swedish uses kommer att ("come to") for the simple future, and Spanish ir a ("go to") for the same. These constructions are often known as complex tenses or compound tenses (a more accurate technical term is periphrastic tenses).

Examples of some generally-recognized Indo-European and Finnish tenses using the verb "to go" are shown in the table below.

tense Germanic: English:
to go
Romance: Italian:
Germanic: Swedish:
att gå
Finno-ugric: Finnish:
simple present I go. Vado. Jag går. Menen. In most languages this is used for most present indicative uses. In English, it's used mainly to express habit or ability ("I play the guitar").
present continuous I am going. Sto andando. Jag går. Olen menossa. This form is prevalent in English to express current action, but is absent or rarer in other Indo-European languages, which prefer the simple present tense. Continuous is more an aspect than a tense and is included here only because of its prevalence in English to substitute for the Simple Present.
simple past (preterite) I went. Andai. Jag gick. Menin. In English (unlike in some languages with aorist aspects), this implies that the action took place in the past and that it is not taking place now.
simple future I will go. Andrò. Jag ska gå. Menen. This can be used to express intention, prediction, and other senses. In Finnish, the future tense is identical to the present tense.
present perfect I have gone. Sono andato. Jag har gått. Olen mennyt. Common past composite tense. In some languages indicates recent past, in others indicates an unknown past time.
past perfect (pluperfect) I had gone. Ero andato. Jag hade gått. Olin mennyt. This expresses that an action was completed before some other event.
future perfect I will have gone. Sarò andato. Jag kommer att ha gått. (none) This expresses a past action in a hypothetical future.

Tense, aspect, voice and mood

The distinction between grammatical tense and grammatical aspect, voice, and mood is fuzzy and at times controversial. The English continuous temporal constructions express an aspect as well as a tense, and some therefore consider that aspect to be separate from tense in English. In Spanish the traditional verb tenses are also combinations of aspectual and temporal information.

Going even further, there's an ongoing dispute among modern English grammarians (see English grammar) regarding whether tense can only refer to inflected forms. In Germanic languages there are very few tenses (often only two) formed strictly by inflection, and one school contends that all complex or periphrastic time-formations are aspects rather than tenses.

The abbreviation TAM or T/A/M is sometimes found when dealing with verbal morphemes that combine tense, aspect and mood information.

Classification of tenses

Tenses can be broadly classified as:

  • absolute: indicates time in relationship to the time of the utterance (i.e. "now"). For example, "I am sitting down", the tense is indicated in relation to the present moment.
  • relative: in relationship to some other time, other than the time of utterance, e.g. "Strolling through the shops, she saw a nice dress in the window". Here, the "saw" is relative to the time of the "strolling". The relationship between the time of "strolling" and the time of utterance is not clearly specified.
  • absolute-relative: indicates time in relationship to some other event, whose time in turn is relative to the time of utterance. (Thus, in absolute-relative tense, the time of the verb is indirectly related to the time of the utterance; in absolute tense, it is directly related; in relative tense, its relationship to the time of utterance is left unspecified.) For example, "When I walked through the park, I saw a bird." Here, "saw" is present relative to the "walked", and "walked" is past relative to the time of the utterance, thus "saw" is in absolute-relative tense.

Moving on from this, tenses can be quite finely distinguished from one another, although no language will express simply all of these distinctions. As we will see, some of these tenses in fact involve elements of modality (e.g. predictive and not-yet tenses), but they are difficult to classify clearly as either tenses or moods.

Many langauges define tense not just in terms of past/future/present, but also in terms of how far into the past or future they are. Thus they introduce concepts of closeness or remoteness, or tenses that are relevant to the measurement of time into days (hodiernal or hesternal tenses).

Some languages also distinguish not just between past, present, and future, but also nonpast, nonpresent, nonfuture. Each of these latter tenses incorporates two of the former, without specifying which.

Some tenses:

See also

External link

fi:Aikamuoto hu:Igeidő ja:時制 pt:Tempo verbal ru:Время (грамматика) zh:时态


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