Strictly speaking, English only has two tenses: the present tense and the past tense. Of course English speakers can talk about the future, too, but there is no single, fixed, future tense. Instead, English has a variety of ways to talk about the future, which the following examples show:
- I’m in Chicago all next week, and so I won’t be able to join the English lesson.”
- “I’m taking my summer vacation at the end of August. We’re going to go to the North Sea.”
As you can see in the examples, in addition to will, which is a type of help verb (a modal auxiliary actually), we also use the present simple and present progressive to talk about the future. But the focus of this article is not on how to talk about the future in English, but rather English’s two tenses, and two aspects. We’ll discuss tenses first.
What exactly are tenses?
One thing that tends to confuse learners is what tenses really are, in a grammatical sense. No doubt you are aware that tenses are connected with time, but the present and past tenses differ in a grammatical way, and this is shown on the verb. Compare the following:
- I see a bird.
- I saw a bird.
In sentence 2, the verb “see” is inflected, in other words changed, to its simple-past form. This is the only difference between the two sentences, but it is a meaningful one.
Now, besides the present and the past tenses, you have probably heard of the present progressive, past progressive, present perfect, and some other “tenses,” as well. What I would like to suggest is that, if after many years of learning English, you are still struggling to understand the tenses, you might find it easier if we break them down into smaller components, and look separately at what each component does. This is why I think it’s a good idea to separate tenses from aspects. So, let’s take a look at aspects.
What are aspects?
Aspects are not tenses, in a technical sense, but they are used, or rather combined, with tenses; in fact they cannot be used without a tense. For this reason, many grammar books simply refer to them as tenses. Again, I am of the opinion that you will ultimately reach a better level of understanding if we discuss tenses and aspects separately. Let’s first consider the role that aspects play in English grammar.
One could say that tenses refer to places, or points, on the timeline: the past comes before the present, which comes before the future. So, if tense is a grammatical representation of where we are on the timeline, aspect represents how the time flows.
English has two aspects: the progressive and the perfect. Aspects, like tenses, have particular meanings, and unique grammatical features. Let’s start by looking at the progressive, which some grammar books refer to as the continuous: the progressive and continuous are the same thing, in other words.
The progressive aspect is formed by combining the verb to be (in an appropriately inflected form, i.e., am, are, is, was, were, been) with the present participle. The present participle is formed by adding -ing to the end of the base verb. Here is an example of a sentence in the present (tense) progressive (aspect): We are discussing English tenses.
As far as what the progressive means, all of the following are expressed by the progressive: actions in progress; repeated actions or events; changes (to states or situations); temporary or short-term situations.
Now, as I mentioned above, aspects must be combined with tenses; but tenses do not need to be combined with aspects. When a sentence does not have an aspect, we call it simple.
Sentences that are simple, i.e., without an aspect, denote the following: facts; beliefs; states; instantaneous events (an event that takes no measurable time); sensory perception (taste, smell, etc.); permanent or long-term situations.
So, if you are talking about an action in progress, use the progressive. If you’re describing a fact, your sentence should be simple. If you are talking about a short-term or temporary situation, use the progressive. And if you want or need to communicate that a situation is long-term or permanent, use the the simple.
At this point, if you are wondering when, or how, you should use the progressive in the past tense, let me say as clearly as I can that the meanings of the progressive do not change, regardless of the tense you use. Therefore, if you need to refer to an action in the past AS IT WAS IN PROGRESS, use the past-progressive. For instance, “Yesterday, when I was shopping for running shoes, I ran into an old friend of mine.”
The past progressive is normally used when more than one thing is happening, in the past. Specifically, something is happing that takes a certain amount of time, e.g., shopping; and during that time, some other thing happens, e.g., running into an old friend. If it is not necessary to emphasize the duration (the passage of time), you can use the simple-past, e.g., “Yesterday I went shopping and bought a new pair of running shoes. I also ran into an old friend of mine.”
Whereas the progressive is concerned with actions and other durative events, the perfect you might say functions like a time bridge, connecting two points on the timeline.
The perfect is not a tense, but you could say that it acts like one. There are four ways that we use the perfect; you could think of these as the four meanings of the perfect:
- Continuative meaning: “I have worked here for 5 years.” (This is the meaning that probably causes you the most frustration.)
- Life experience meaning: “I’ve been to Milan once; it was many years ago.”
- Resultative meaning: “My car has broken down; would you give me a lift to the train station?”
- Hot news meaning: “Have you heard who just won the lottery?”
The form of the present-perfect is have (has) + the past participle, e.g., “Someone has drunk all the coffee,” or “Where have I left my glasses?”
When the perfect aspect is used in the present tense, one of the connecting points is the present, and the other is in the past.
A very common problem for learners of English is using the present perfect when the simple past would be considered more correct, e.g., “I
have received the news last January.”
When referring to a time that is in the past, e.g., “last January,” the past-simple tense is what you should use. This is because the past-simple tense denotes one event, action, situation, or state that was completed in the past. Words such as yesterday, ago, and last, e.g., last week/month/year, etc., are good indicators that you should use the past-simple tense.
Using the progressive and perfect aspects together
Here is an example of a present-perfect-progressive sentence: “I have been reading in English a lot the past few months; it’s getting easier and easier” Hopefully, the meaning is clear to you: reading, a repeated action, is expressed in the progressive; because the speaker feels that her English has improved as a result, she uses the perfect aspect, as well.
Here’s another example of a present-perfect-progressive sentence, this time with continuative meaning: “I have been learning English since I was 12 years old.”
See if you can you tell what this tense is: “Prior to the pandemic, I had been trying out all of the Vietnamese restaurants in my area.”
If you think it’s the past-perfect-progressive, you are correct! As for which of the four meanings it is, I would say that it is the hot news meaning because the speaker probably just wants to tell the listener about what she was doing before the start of the pandemic.
Examining the roles of tenses and aspects separately may be a different way to explore English tenses than you are used to, however, I would like to stress that this way does not contradict, nor in any way conflict with how popular grammar books, such as Cambridge University Press’ English Grammar in Use, describe the meanings and uses of English tenses. To my way of thinking, however, when a student asks me to explain the difference between sentences such as, “I live in Germany” (a long-term situation) vs. “I’m living in Germany” (a temporary situation), the best answer that I can think of is to compare the different aspectual meanings. Likewise, when comparing two sentences that are both grammatically correct, e.g., “I cleaned my shoes” (a completed action) and “I have cleaned my shoes” (Hot news!), I think it makes perfect sense to highlight the different meanings due to the different aspects.
Lastly, I have one very simple reason why I think focusing on aspectual differences makes sense: learners don’t have problems with tenses. Even speakers of languages that are effectively tenseless, e.g., Chinese, Vietnamese, or Thai, don’t have trouble differentiating between time periods (past – present – future), nor verb inflection that denote different periods of time. In other words, English learners have no trouble understanding the difference between I see/I saw, I am/I was, I do/I did; yet understanding when to use I do/I’m doing, I did/I have done, I did/I was doing, etc., is much harder.
I hope that you have found this article helpful in developing your knowledge of, and more importantly, your ability to use tenses with greater accuracy, and confidence.
If you have any questions or comments, I’d love to hear from you!