Status Update: Upon discussion with an experienced member of the community who is currently teaching English, I have come to the conclusion that it may not be possible to present any single system of classifying the tenses as being a "basic" or "standard" model.

There seems to be a lack of consensus on having a definitive system even at the elementary school/new ESL learner level, not just among linguistics scholars. Supporting this observation: http://random-idea-english.blogspot.com/2014/01/a-brief-history-of-tense.html

Given this consideration, I'm considering abandoning this topic for a Canonical Post as "inherently opinion based," and closing this Meta question.I have voted to close this question as "Opinion-Based."

Reason: It wouldn't be correct to present any one model as being definitive/universal if it isn't, but the alternative would be a discussion and comparison among many different models (along the lines of the original CP proposal before editing). This was considered to be not a good fit for this site.

I'm only waiting for a final verdict from one of the other contributors before close-voting this.

Thank you to everyone who has invested their time and attention in this discussion. I would be open to contributing to the CP project on a different topic if an alternative is proposed by the community.

Edit: This has been significantly revised - see the edit history and the discussion in the comments. Instead of an overview and comparison of the different models in use to describe the tense system in English, the focus has been shifted to explaining the details of the most basic model. In its original form, this CP proposal was thought to be too opinion-based or likely to generate off-topic discussion.



  • What tenses exist in English? How many are there?

That depends on how you define tense! For now, let's stick with the simplest definition. This is the one most native speakers learn in school, and also the one you are most likely to see if you're new to learning English. Tense is defined by the Merriam-Webster online dictionary as "a distinction of form in a verb to express distinctions of time or duration of the action or state it denotes."

First, let's look at the "distinctions of form" which "express distinctions of time." Using "categorize" as an example, here are each of the 6 distinct tenses that exist in English:

Present They categorize
Past They categorized
Future They will categorize*
(Present) Perfect They have categorized
Past Perfect [also called Pluperfect] They had categorized
Future Perfect They will have categorized

This post on ELU has a helpful chart showing how the different tenses fit into the timeline.

*Adding the helping verb "will" is the most basic way of indicating the future tense. In actual conversation, however, you're as likely or more likely to hear future actions described with a construction like "going to categorize" or "about to categorize" instead of "will categorize." Sometimes, just the present continuous on its own can be used to refer to the future, when the meaning is clear from the context. You can see some examples of this here: How to say that you have plans to go to the movies tonight? and here: When to use "be going to" / present continuous in future?

  • What is "aspect"?

Each tense has 2 variants--the Simple and the Progressive/Continuous--which are called aspects.

The characteristic of aspect adds more detail to the time information given by the tense: information about "the duration of the action or state" the verb "denotes."

The word "tense" is sometimes used to describe the combination of a tense plus an aspect. For example, you might hear about the "Simple Present Tense" or the "Past Continuous Tense."

Combining the two aspects with the six tenses listed above gives a total of 12 different possibilities.** This time, we'll demonstrate these with the verb "sit," because it has fewer letters:

Simple Continuous
Present They sit They are sitting
Past They sat They were sitting
Future They will sit They will be sitting
Perfect They have sat They have been sitting
Past Perfect They had sat They had been sitting
Future Perfect They will have sat They will have been sitting

**Sometimes you'll hear about there being 12 tenses in English, instead of 6. If your teacher or textbook talks about the 12 tenses, they are most likely referring to the 12 combinations of tense and aspect.

  • What about tense and aspect for non-finite forms?

Non-finite forms (the infinitive, participle, and gerund) also have tense and aspect, but they only have two different possibilities for tense (present and perfect) instead of the six that finite verbs have.

Simple Present Present Continuous Simple Perfect Perfect Continuous
Infinitive to sit to be sitting to have sat to have been sitting
Participle N/A sitting having sat having been sitting
Gerund N/A sitting having sat having been sitting

What tense to use for the non-finite forms is determined by their time reference relative to the main verb in the sentence.

  • If the action of the non-finite form happens at the same time as that of the main verb, use a present form:

    • "Alice is known to like apples and oranges." The time reference of the action described by the infinitive "to like" is the same as that of the main verb "is known": both present.
    • "Sitting on the bench, Bob saw a seagull." Bob's seeing the seagull happens at the same time as his sitting - both in the past.
    • "Rover's barking at a squirrel startled the seagull." The main verb "startled" is in the simple past tense. The dog's barking coincides with the seagull being startled (i.e. the two actions happen in the same timeframe), so even though the sentence describes cause and effect, the tense of "barking" should be present, not perfect.
  • If the action of the non-finite form happens before that of the main verb, use a perfect form:

    • "Carol is known to have been baking cupcakes all morning for the fundraiser." The time reference of the action described by the infinitive "to have been baking" is earlier than that of the main verb "is known": the action of "baking" happened in the past, while "is known" refers to the present. Note the use of a continuous aspect for the perfect infinitive, as it describes an action occurring over a period of time.
    • "Having sat on the bench, Dan knows it's uncomfortable." The action indicated by "having sat" happened sometime in the past, while the main verb "knows" refers to the present time.
    • "Evan will arrive at school late due to having overslept." "Having overslept" refers to an action in the past, while "will arrive" refers to the future, so the gerund is perfect tense in this sentence.
  • 1
    I'll keep on adding links to the Potentially Helpful Questions section as I find them. The intent is to have a gallery of good reference Q/A pairs, like the one in Part 5 of StoneyB's canonical post here: ell.stackexchange.com/questions/13255/… Jul 28 at 4:13
  • Also currently unsure as to whether I should add a section on Sequence under the Non-Finite Forms section. Any opinions on whether this would be relevant here, or an unnecessary tangent? By "sequence," I'm referring to the rule for determining the non-finite form's tense relative to the main verb. Jul 28 at 15:55
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    We already have a CP about perfect. Would this supersede that one? Would it greatly overlap it? Why not continue the pattern we already have and create a separate CP about each individual tense and aspect?
    – gotube Mod
    Jul 29 at 22:55
  • @gotube The primary intent behind this post was to have a "disambiguation" page that would give an overview of each of the (two?) main models for understanding tense and aspect. In order to avoid confusion from askers getting answers which appear to contradict each other - this would clarify that there are different approaches with different pros and cons. Following the model of the CP about the Perfect (which I have read; it's a truly impressive project by StoneyB :D), I thought it might be helpful to also include a list of good Qs and As for each of the different tenses. Jul 30 at 2:28
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    How long do you intend this CP to be relative to the material you already have there? Is this about it, or double or 10x the length? If your intent was to stay closer to the current length rather than, say, 10x as long, then disregard my question about a separate CP for each individual thing. As this was just a proposal, I couldn't tell the scope of your intent, but I've probably gleaned it from your answer here.
    – gotube Mod
    Jul 30 at 3:30
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    Am I right about your intent of EFL-based answers vs Linguistics-based answers?
    – gotube Mod
    Jul 30 at 4:07
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    If your main intent is to have a "disambiguation" page that would give an overview of each of the (two?) main models for understanding tense and aspect, then I think that this is too long and detailed. I recommend starting small, since it can always be expanded if needed. (Keep in mind that if it gains traction, then others may also want to contribute, and it can quickly spiral into something big and unwieldy.) Jul 30 at 4:13
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    I don't know because, like @gotube, I'm unsure of the main purpose: What are "the (two?) main models for understanding tense and aspect"? Jul 30 at 4:15
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    Oh, I see what you mean. Yes, system #2 claims that English has only two tenses, present and past, since those are the only finite forms that verbs take. In that case, you don't need to describe things like future perfect continuous, for example. Just mention the two systems, describe them briefly, and save the "implementation details" for other canonical posts (like StoneyB's). Jul 30 at 4:21
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    Getting into different models opens the floodgates for proponents of any model to insist theirs gets representation. Linguistically speaking, I think the 2-tense model is the most robust, but for English learners, it makes no sense to me to name fewer than seven -- I always include "be going to" as a basic tense, in addition to the six you already have.
    – gotube Mod
    Jul 30 at 4:30
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    "Do you have any ideas for how to avoid this issue?" As I said in my comment above, I don't recommend presenting any modern academic Linguistic model as on equal footing with standard EFL models. IMO, they're no more valid in EFL than EFL models are valid in academic Linguistics, and they can only serve to confuse learners. So the simple way to avoid the issue is only to present EFL tense models, like the six-or-seven tenses.
    – gotube Mod
    Jul 30 at 21:57
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    "Be going to"-future is not an "alternate form of the future tense". It's not a form of "will" at all. It's a present progressive structure, which by convention indicates the future, just as "will"-future is a present modal verb, which by convention indicates the future. "Be going to" is the default future tense of English, not "will". The two have no more in common with each other than simple past and present perfect do.
    – gotube Mod
    Jul 30 at 22:02
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    Sorry, 'emphatic tense'! What would a google ngram for 'present perfect tense' and 'present emphatic tense' look like? [I've never heard of the latter] Aug 1 at 23:10
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    @QuackE.Duck Well, it's really a construction rather than a tense, I think. For example, the same type of stress is used in the same way with any auxiliary verb, for example the modal verbs. I'd remove it, if it were up to me :) Aug 2 at 5:09
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    @QuackE.Duck Shall we discuss this in chat? Aug 2 at 13:18


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