Abaddon Books

Word Nerd: It’s All Getting a Bit Tense

3 years ago

Hola nerds!

Sorry I’m a bit late this month; been on crunch time for a bunch of stuff. But here I am!

Anyway, this one’s another request, from Twitter use @thiefree (hi Anna!). I’m going to break with form* for this one: rather than tackle a bit of pedantry, I’ve been asked to do a bit of a breakdown on terminology. Specifically, the thorny issue of English tenses.

“Tenses?” I hear you cry. “What’s the big deal? There’s still only like three of them, right? That’s not going to make much of a column.”

Oh, if only.

Of course, English isn’t an unusually or extravagantly tensed language – other languages have tenses, like the French compound past, the Swahili perfect of present state, the Swedish perfect inferential and the Alicante perfect of very-recent-past, that we just don’t – but in turn we have tenses other languages don’t, and actually it seems tense is a complicated subject all round; there are generally a dozen or more tenses in any language. Human beings have a complex and powerful relationship with time, and have sought ways to make their languages jump and leap around, conveying to each other that (for example) something has already happened, has been happening for a while, was happening for a while but stopped when something else happened, will have been happening for a while at some point in the future when something else might happen but might not unless something else happens,† and endless other varieties.

Grammarians entertain themselves by trying to tease these constructions out and coining terms for them, and it’s possibly an endless task, as it turns out we’re still up to it (more below).

And it turns out that tense isn’t really best described as a list of time frames, but a sort of matrix‡ of time-relative ideas, or perhaps a toolbox for building relations with time; a toolbox we’re still learning about.

So let’s unpack how we construct tense.

Fair warning: this is a blog, in part, about terminology, and if there’s one thing grammarians suck at, it’s agreeing on terminology. There’s a fair amount of “also known as” in grammatical terminology, and some of you will disagree with the terms I prefer. And I can’t really help you with that.

What’s in a Tense?

First of all, it’s worth understanding that conjugating a verb for tense isn’t necessarily done just by tweaking the word;** just as often, we combine it with one or more auxiliary verbs or copulas to complete the tense (hence how verb tense is a toolbox). The whole thing together is called a predicate or verb phrase (although the latter can also encompass adverbs and other modifiers).

The usual forms of the verb itself are the infinitive (eg. [toeat), an uninflected form of the verb used in a range of constructions (sometimes inflected for person and number, eg. he eats); the preterite (eg. ate), denoting a completed act; the participle (eg. eating¶), denoting a continuous act; and the past participle (eg. eaten§), a sort of metapreterite denoting something already completed before something else.

Auxiliary verbs include the perfect auxiliary (ie. have) and the copula (ie. be§), along with the modal verbs (will, shall, can, would, should, could and must, on which more below), although other verbs can be – and frequently are – pressed into service. Note that, in more complex tenses, one of the auxiliaries is inflected into the preterite or participle, rather than the primary verb.

Got all that? So these are the tools, the parts-of-verbs we use to build tenses. Let’s start using them.

Using the Toolbox

So the sixteen standard English tenses are grouped into four categories (confusingly also called tenses) – past, present, future and conditional – describing the frame of reference for the whole clause (that is, not every past tense is necessarily in the past and not every present tense is necessarily in the present, but those verbs are built around a point of reference in the past or present, respectively; think of it as a sort of flagpole you drive into the timeline before starting work).

Past, present and future tenses obviously mean the clause is anchored in the “before now,” “now” and “after now,” relative to the speaker, while conditional tenses describe something achored in the “never” (or “maybe”); something that is possible (could), desirable (would), or expected (should), but uncertain.

Within each tense are four aspectssimple, progressive, perfect, and progressive perfect – describing how the verb extends over time, relative to the clause. A simple verb happens all at once, at the flagpole; a progressive†† verb started before the flagpole and continues past it; a perfect verb is done and dusted somewhere before the flagpole; and a progressive perfect verb was ongoing for a while, but ended at or before the flagpole (or was interrupted by it).

Following me so far?

Putting it together is down to a sort of pic-n-mix of verb forms and auxiliaries (from the section above). The simple tenses, ironically, are the most variable:

  • Simple present verbs use the infinitive of the primary verb on its own, inflected for person and number if necessary.
  • Simple past verbs use the preterite of the primary verb on its own.
  • Simple future verbs use the infinitive with the modal can/will/shall,‡‡ inflecting the modal per the simple present tense.
  • Simple conditional verbs use the infinitive with the modal could/should/would.

Then the other tenses follow a standard pattern:

  • Progressive verbs use the participle of the primary verb with the copula be, inflecting the copula for tense per simple verbs above.
  • Perfect verbs use the past participle of the primary verb after the auxiliary have, inflecting the auxiliary for tense per simple verbs.
  • Progressive perfect verbs use the participle of the primary verb after the auxiliary have and the past participle of the copula be (ie. been), inflecting the auxiliary have for tense per simple verbs (which, altogether, means that the future progressive perfect opens with will have been, for a total of three auxiliary verbs).

Need a moment? There’s no easy way to make this less dry, but if you want to take a moment to grab a cup of tea and read it again, I’ll be right here (or on Twitter if you want to prod me).

Putting it Together

Okay, this is probably the best way to absorb all this; let’s show them in use. (Cut out and keep, etc.) Note particularly that this isn’t really a list of sixteen, but four matching lists of four. Think of it as a grid (actually I might make up a grid and post it up):

  • A simple present verb (eg. I eat) happens all at once, now.
  • A present progressive verb (eg. I am eating) is ongoing now.
  • A present perfect verb (eg. I have eaten) has just finished now.
  • A present perfect progressive verb (eg. I have been eating) was ongoing, but has stopped now.
  • A simple past verb (eg. I ate) happened all at once, at some point before now.
  • A past progressive verb (eg. I was eating) was ongoing, at some point before now.
  • A past perfect verb (eg. I had eaten) had finished before some point before now.
  • A past perfect progressive verb (eg. I had been eating) had been ongoing, but stopped before some point before now.
  • A simple future verb (eg. I will eat) is going to happen all at once, at some point after now.
  • A future progressive verb (eg. I will be eating) is going to be ongoing, at some point after now.
  • A future perfect verb (eg. I will have eaten) is going to have finished, before some point after now.
  • A future perfect progressive verb (eg. I will have been eating) had been ongoing, but stopped before some point before now.
  • A simple conditional verb (eg. I would eat) would happen right now, if not for some other factor.
  • A conditional progressive verb (eg. I would be eating) would be ongoing, if not for some other factor.
  • A conditional perfect verb (eg. I would have eaten) would have finished before now, if not for some other factor.
  • A conditional perfect progressive verb (eg. I would have been eating) would have been ongoing at some point before now, if not for some other factor.

Note that, while there formally isn’t such a thing as a conditional past or conditional future per se, the perfect and imperfect forms convey past and present tense anyway.

The Odd Stuff

Well, that’s us completely sorted for English tenses with absolutely nothing else that needs looking at, because of course English is a neat, logical language that never has confusing inconsistencies.

No? [Sigh.] It was worth a try.


So there are all sorts of oddities. First off, there’s the peculiar must. The Old English mōtan was a verb meaning roughly “to be allowed” or “to be compelled,” which a long, long time ago had withered away to this one usage (today it’s charmingly called a “defective” verb) as a modal verb similar to but much stronger than will and shall. It’s uninflected – it’s always must, whether in the future, present or (rarely) past – and serves as the sort of opposite of a conditional.

Anterior Future

Next there are anterior tenses – tenses relative not to the speaker’s absolute “now,” but the relative “now” of a past-tense narration. Since most prose is written in the past tense, these are extremely useful for writers, and some languages, like French, have a full set. English mostly doesn’t use them at all, but we do have one – the anterior future tense – for when a past-tense narrator talks about an event in the story’s relative future, but in the absolute past. It’s formed like the conditional simple tense (eg. “he would eventually pay me back with a delicious cake”), although it may even predate it, since would was originally the past tense of will.

Historical Present

Past-tense narration also gives us the historical present tense, in which a past-tense event is described in the present tense, as in, “I’m at Uncle Bernie’s funeral yesterday when a man comes up to me and says, ‘And how did you know Bernard?’” Although not a formal tense in Standard English (by which I mean, your primary school English teacher would have told you it was “wrong”), it’s widely and deliberately used, in historical accounts, newspaper headlines and prose. Some novels (like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale) are written entirely in the historical present, and some switch between past simple and historical present to create immediacy.

Historical Past?

A similar device is used when a past-tense narrative recounts an event further in the past for a long passage; formal English demands the past perfect tense be used, but this quickly becomes a repetitive, ungainly tangle of hads, had beens and had hads, so it’s common to stick to the past perfect for a paragraph and then slip back into the past simple having established the new frame of reference. This isn’t, as far as I know, formally called the historical past tense, but fuck it, that’s what I’m calling it.

Going-to Future

One of the most interesting irregular tenses is what I swear to God is actually, formally called the Going-to future tense,¶¶ where go to (in the progressive form be going to) is used as a sort of auxiliary verb similar to will or shall (eg. “I [will/am going to] eat”).

Originally, this was an example of a straightforward present progressive (ie. “I am going”) with what’s called a to-infinitive phrase, where a full infinitive (with the “to” still attached) is used as an object or modifier (ie. “to eat”). It was presumably meant in the present tense and described a motion towards something; ie. “Look, I’m going, I’m going to the kitchen right now to eat, stop hassling me, Mom.” But at some point we subtly migrated the to from the beginning of the infinitive phrase to the end of the primary verb go, and go to became an alternative auxiliary tense, with similar phrases planning to, fixing to, trying to etc. starting to follow the same rule. This has further evolved in contemporary African-American Vernacular English, with the contraction I’ma/Imma for “I’m going to” (and finna for “I’m fixing to”), and is no doubt going to evolve more in years to come.

The Odder Stuff

Is more irregularity heading our way? Who knows? I’ve spoken before about the innovations coming out of social media; how about “that time when,” prefacing a clause in the past simple tense, ironically describing a current or very recent event as though it were in the remote past? Is this a new tense? Could it become the basis of a new tense, in years to come? Who knows? It’s an amazing time to be a grammarian...

The Really Odd Stuff

Okay, I couldn’t really let this column go without mentioning time travel tenses. Why does time travel need its own tenses? Well, it doesn’t, necessarily; most time travel narratives stick to the personal chronology of the narrator (ie. if they’ve seen or done it, it’s in the past tense, and if they haven’t seen or done it yet, it’s in the future tense, regardless of when the events occur in absolute time). But there are questions to be asked: not just how to tackle an event that’s in the narrator’s subjective past but the absolute future, but how to describe an event that’s in both the narrator’s past and future? Or an event that would be in the narrator’s subjective future, but is now never going to happen thanks to events in the narrator’s subjective past?

Well, it seems the nerds are on it. Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe tackles the idea briefly (tongue very firmly in cheek) in the Guide’s write-up of Milliways, for instance. The Technobabble Wiki has proposed this (very) slightly more serious write up of possible rules. In the unlikely event you have to deal with this issue, you’ll most likely find you get on fine with subjective frames of reference and a certain degree of frantic hand-waving, but if you are interested, this is exactly where to look if you need to distinguish you willn’t from your cain’t.

Cheers all!


As always, if you want to argue with me, or to chat about this shit, or to propose a topic for a future blog, let me know! Tweet us; Facebook us; let’s have an argument/chat.


*Who am I kidding; I just fuck about on this blog anyway.

†Seriously, this fucking language...

‡”Do you know what I hate about this language, Mr. Anderson...?”

**But not in every language; in Mandarin, for instance, the verb is always uninflected, and tense construction depends entirely on context, sometimes aided with particles like le 了 and guò 過.

¶But here be monsters: the –ing ending can also denote a gerund, a verb inflected to turn it into an adjective or noun, as in “an interesting book” or “a running club.” Be aware of these.

§But here be further monsters: the past participle form and the auxiliary verb be can also be used in the passive voice (eg. “I ate the apple pie” and “The apple pie was eaten” are in different voices, but are both in the simple past tense). Be aware of these too!

††Also known as continuous in English, although other languages have separate progressive and continuous cases, indicating ongoing actions and ongoing conditions respectively.

‡‡Can as a future tense is a bit of a weird one; “I can eat,” on first examination, seems to be referring to the present (ie. I’m ready to eat right now). But it always refers to a potential future act; I may be about to eat imminently, but I’m not actually eating now. Consider the simple future “I can be ready at eight.”

And I guess for completeness’ sake I should point out that formal Standard English grammar, as laid out by our old chums the eighteenth century grammarians, required you to use will in the second or third person and shall in the first person (ie. “I shall” vs “he will”), which is very boring. What’s more interesting is where this rule comes from (for once it’s not just an invention of a random school teacher!). The Old English willan meant “to wish, or want,” while sculan meant “to be obliged”; the rule reflected the assumption that predictions about your own actions are presumably more reliable than predictions about other people’s!

¶¶Like, seriously? They couldn’t think of a fancy Latin name for it? Even a bit Latin? Latinish?