Tense (grammar)

In grammar, tense is a category that locates a situation in time, to indicate when the situation takes place.[1][note 1] Tense is the grammaticalisation of time reference, often using three basic categories of "before now", i.e. the past; "now", i.e. the present; and "after now", i.e. the future. The "unmarked" reference for tense is the temporal distance from the time of utterance, the "here-and-now", this being absolute-tense. Relative-tense indicates temporal distance from a point of time established in the discourse that is not the present, i.e. reference to a point in the past or future, such as the future-in-future, or the future of the future (at some time in the future after the reference point, which is in the future) and future-in-past or future of the past (at some time after a point in the past, with the reference point being a point in the past).

Not all languages grammaticalise tense, and those that do differ in their grammaticalisation thereof. Languages without tense are called tenseless languages and include Burmese, Dyirbal and Chinese.[2] Not all grammaticalise the three-way system of past–present–future. For example, some two-tense languages such as English and Japanese express past and non-past, this latter covering both present and future in one verb form, whereas others such as Greenlandic and Quechua have future and non-future. Four-tense languages make finer distinctions either in the past (e.g. remote vs. recent past), or 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 differences between such finer distinctions are the distance on the timeline between the temporal reference points from the present.


Tense comes from Old French tens "time" (now spelled temps through deliberate archaisation), from Latin tempus "time".[3] The adjective "tense" is unrelated, being a Latin loan from tensus, the perfect passive participle of tendere "stretch".[4]

Tense marking

Tense is normally indicated by a verb form, either on the main verb or on an auxiliary verb. The tense markers are normally affixes, but also stem modification such as ablaut or reduplication can express tense reference, and in some languages tense can be shown by clitics. Often combinations of these can interact, such as in Irish, where there is a proclitic past tense marker do (various surface forms) used in conjunction with the affixed or ablaut-modified past tense form of the verb. Languages that do not have grammatical tense, such as Chinese, express time reference through adverbials, time phrases, and so on.

Other uses of the term tense: tense, aspect, and mood

In many language descriptions, particularly those of traditional European linguistics, the term tense is erroneously used to refer to categories that do not have time reference as their prototypical use, but rather are grammaticalisations of mood/modality (e.g. uncertainty, possibility, evidentiality) or aspect (e.g. frequency, completion, duration). Tense differs from aspect in showing the time reference, while aspect shows how the action/state is "envisaged" or "seen" as happening/occurring. The most common aspectual distinction in languages of the world is that between perfective (complete, permanent, simple, etc.) and imperfective (incomplete, temporary, continuous, etc.).

The term tense is therefore at times used in language descriptions to represent any combination of tense proper, aspect, and mood, as many languages include more than one such reference in portmanteau TAM (tense–aspect–mood) affixes or verb forms. Conversely, languages that grammaticalise aspect can have tense as a secondary use of an aspect. In many languages, such as the Latin, Celtic and Slavic languages, a verb may be inflected for both tense and aspect together, as in the passé composé/passé simple (historique) and imparfait of French. Verbs can also be marked for both mood and tense together, such as the present subjunctive (So be it) and the past subjunctive (Were it so), or all three, such as the past perfect subjunctive (Had it been so).

Tense in languages of the world

Latin and Ancient Greek

The word tempus was used in the grammar of Latin to describe the six "tenses" of Latin. Four are absolute tenses, of which two are combined tense–aspect categories, marking aspect in the past, while two are relative tenses, in showing time reference to another point of time:

  • Praesens ( present)
  • Praeteritum imperfectum (= imperfective past, i.e. a combined tense–aspect)
  • Praeteritum perfectum (= perfective past, i.e. a combined tense–aspect)
  • Futurus (= future)
  • Plus quam perfectum (= relative past, i.e. a past that refers to the past of a reference in the past)
  • Anterior Futurus (= relative future, i.e. a past that refers to the past of a future point)

The tenses of Ancient Greek are similar, though having a three-way aspect contrast in the past, the aorist, the perfect and the imperfect. The aorist was the simple past which contrasted with the imperfective (uncompleted action in the past) and the perfect, the past form that had relevance to the present.

The study of modern languages has been greatly influenced by the grammar of these languages, seeing that the early grammarians, often monks, had no other reference point to describe their language. Latin terminology is often used to describe modern languages, at times erroneously, as in the application of the term "pluperfect" to the English "past perfect", the application of "perfect" to what in English more often than not is not "perfective", or where the German simple and perfect pasts are called respectively "Imperfektum" and "Perfektum", despite the fact that neither has any real relationship to the aspects implied by the use of the Latin terms.


English, like the other Germanic languages, Japanese, Persian, and so on, has only two morphological tenses, past and non-past (alt. present–future). These are distinguished by verb form, by either ablaut or suffix (sings ~ sang, walks ~ walked). The non-past may be used to reference the future ("The bus leaves tomorrow").

Tense and aspect in English
Tense Simple Perfect Continuous/Progressive
-ed, -t, ablaut, etc.
has/have -en, -ed, ablaut, etc.
had -en, -ed, ablaut, etc.
am/is/are -ing
was/were -ing
go, goes
have/has gone
had gone
am/is/are going
was/were going

Other languages

In general Indo-European languages have either two-tense systems like English (e.g. the German languages, Persian, etc.) or three-tense systems of past–present–future (e.g. the Latin, Slavic and Celtic languages), with finer categorisations made by the use of "compound tenses" using auxiliary verbs, as with English be going to, French venir de, and so on. Such compound tenses often have a combined aspectual or modal meaning, as in be going to, which focuses on the modalilty of intended/obvious future based on present evidence.

Other tensed languages of the world are similar, or mark tense in a variety of ways, often with TAM affixes where tense, aspect and mood are expressed by portmanteau affixes - as is often the case also in Indo-European languages.

Many languages, such as Irish, also mark person and number as part of the TAM suffix, such as the first, second and third person singular marking of Munster Irish. Examples of tense systems in languages of the world are the following:

Germanic Languages:
German: Past – Non-Past : In many dialects the former perfect form has replaced the preterite as the marker of the past tense, except for "fossilised forms".
Dutch: Past – Non-Past
Danish: Past – Non-Past

Celtic Languages:
Irish: Past – Present – Future
The past contrasts perfective and imperfective aspect, and some verbs retain a perfective-imperfective contrast in the present. In Classical Irish/Gaelic, a three-way aspectual contrast of simple-perfective-imperfective in the past and present existed.

Latin Languages:
Italian: Past – Present – Future
The present covers definite non-past, while the Future covers the probable non-past.

Indo-Iranian Languages:
Persian: imperfective vs perfective past - non-past
Some verbs retain the imperfective-perfective contrast in the non-past.

Slavic Languages:
Bulgarian: perfective vs imperfective past – perfective vs imperfective present – future
Macedonian: perfective vs imperfective past – present – future
Russian: past (perfectness shown through grammatical aspect) - present - future
Serbian: perfective vs imperfective past vs aorist vs pluperfect - present - future

Uralic Languages:
Finnish: past – non-past
Hungarian: past – present – future

Korean Languages:
Korean: past – present – future

Japanese Languages:
Japanese: past – non-past

Turkic Languages:
Turkish: pluperfect – perfective vs imperfective past – present – future

Papuan Languages:
Meriam Mìr: remote past – recent past – present – near future – remote future
All tenses contrast imperfective and perfective aspect.

Pama-Nyungan Languages:
Kalaw Lagaw Ya: remote past – recent past – today past – present – near future – remote future; one dialect also has a "last night" tense
All tenses contrast imperfective and perfective aspect.

Grammaticalisation of tenses

Many languages do not grammaticalise all three categories. For instance, English has past and non-past ("present"); other languages may have future and non-future. In some languages, there is not a single past or future tense, but finer divisions of time, such as proximal vs. distant future, experienced vs. ancestral past, or past and present today vs. before and after today.

Some attested tenses:

  • Future tenses.
    • Immediate future: right now
    • Near future: soon
    • Hodiernal future: later today
    • Vespertine future: this evening
    • Post-hodiernal: after today
    • Crastinal: tomorrow
    • Remote future, distant future
    • Posterior tense (relative future tense)
  • Nonfuture tense: refers to either the present or the past, but does not clearly specify which. Contrasts with future.
  • Present tense
    • Still tense: indicates a situation held to be the case, at or immediately before the utterance
  • Nonpast tense: refers to either the present or the future, but does not clearly specify which. Contrasts with past.
  • Past tenses. Some languages have different past tenses to indicate how far into the past we are talking about.
    • Immediate past: very recent past, just now
    • Recent past: in the last few days/weeks/months (conception varies)
      • Nonrecent past: contrasts with recent past
    • Hodiernal past: earlier today
    • Matutinal past: this morning
    • Prehodiernal: before today
    • Hesternal: yesterday or early, but not remote
    • Prehesternal: before yesterday
    • Remote past: more than a few days/weeks/months ago (conception varies)
      • Nonremote past: contrasts with remote past
    • Historical Past: shows that the action/state was part of an event in the past
    • Ancestral past, legendary past
    • General past: the entire past conceived as a whole
    • Anterior tense (relative past tense)

See also




  • Bybee, Joan L., Revere Perkins, and William Pagliuca (1994) The Evolution of Grammar: Tense, Aspect, and Modality in the Languages of the World. University of Chicago Press.
  • Guillaume, Gustave (1929) Temps et verbe. Paris: Champion.
  • Hopper, Paul J., ed. (1982) Tense–Aspect: Between Semantics and Pragmatics. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
  • Smith, Carlota (1997). The Parameter of Aspect. Dordrecht: Kluwer.
  • Tedeschi, Philip, and Anne Zaenen, eds. (1981) Tense and Aspect. (Syntax and Semantics 14). New York: Academic Press.

External links

  • Tense Explained (with diagrams)
  • English Aspectual forms in Various Tenses
  • Combinations of Tense, Aspect, and Mood in Greek
  • English Grammar Overview - Tenses with Exercises