Tenses for Dummies

If you’ve struggled to understand tenses, this post will make the concept clearer.

Tenses help to express when an action happened/is happening/will happen and whether it was/is/will be over at a particular time.

Confused? Worry not. Let’s delve deeper into the topic.

A Tense is Made up of Two Concepts

A tense is made up of two concepts: time and aspect. Time refers to whether an action happened in the past, is happening at present or will happen in the future. Aspect helps to locate an action more closely in time. It pertains to whether an action has been completed or is continuing at a particular time.

There are four aspects in English: simple, perfect, progressive and perfect progressive.

Let’s understand time and aspect better with the help of a timeline.

A timeline of the various tenses with emphasis on aspect

Zoom into the image if required.

The Simple Aspect

The simple past tense is in the simple aspect. This aspect is ambiguous in that it does not state whether the action in question has over or still continuing.

‘Abu danced’ tells us that Abu danced in the past, but it does not look at the act of dancing from a viewpoint in the past. It is not particularly specific.

‘Abu dances’ is in the simple present. We know that Abu dances, but we don’t know if he is still dancing now. This is because the simple aspect is ambiguous by nature and does not give such details.

‘Abu will dance’ is in the simple future tense. It tells us that he will dance some time in the future. It gives no further information.

The Perfect Aspect

The perfect aspect goes into greater detail than the simple aspect. It tells us that an action was completed by the time something else happened. In the perfect aspect, ‘had’, ‘has’ or ‘will have’ precede the verb.

‘Abu had danced’ is in the past perfect tense.It tells us that Abu had danced at some time in the past and had completed the action.

‘Abu has danced’ tells us that Abu has completed dancing sometime recently. It is in the present perfect tense.

‘Abu will have danced’ is in the future perfect tense. It tells us that Abu will have completed dancing by a particular time in the future. It is more exact in time than the mere statement ‘Abu will dance’, which is in the simple future tense.

The Progressive Aspect

‘Abu was dancing’ is in the past progressive tense. It tells us that Abu was dancing at a particular point in the past. The act of dancing wasn’t completed by then. It was still happening. The progressive aspect usually uses the -ing form of a verb regardless of whether the action happens in the past, the present or the future.

‘Abu is dancing’ tells us that Abu is dancing now. He is still dancing. He hasn’t completed dancing. This is an example of a sentence in the present progressive tense.

‘Abu will be dancing’ is in the future progressive tense. It tells us that Abu will be dancing at a particular point in the future. He will not have completed dancing by that time. He will be in the middle of dancing (or maybe just starting) when that time comes.

There are 12 tenses in all. Four aspects to every time (past, present and future)… Three more tenses to go, all in the scarily named perfect progressive aspect which works like the perfect and progressive aspects combined.

The Perfect Progressive Aspect

‘Abu had been dancing’ is in the past perfect progressive tense. It tells us that Abu had been dancing when a particular time in the past came. He had started dancing earlier and was still dancing at that time.

‘Abu has been dancing’ is in the present perfect progressive tense. It tells us that Abu has been dancing for a while, having started before the present time.

‘Abu will have been dancing’ is in the future perfect progressive tense. It tells us that when we look at Abu at a particular time in the future, he will have been dancing for a while by then.

Fear Not the Tenses

The tenses often seem like a group of bullies, but they are actually lovable little tyrants who just want to allow us to do more with language (more in a way that’s hard to understand at first!).

 

A girl hugging a lion
Tenses are our friends!

 

Practice Makes Perfect

Truly understanding the relationship between tense and aspect requires looking at as many examples as possible and doing a few quizzes to challenge yourself. Expect more tense- and aspect-related posts on this blog.

If you found this post useful, please share the link with a friend in need. Also, do check back often for more such content.

 

Disclaimer: All images used in my posts are either licensed Creative Commons 0, in the public domain or self created.

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