Thursday, December 9, 2010

Tenses And Aspect

The following are notes which answer the three most important learning outcomes as contained in the module.

Please type in your questions or queries in the comment section at the end of this post.

1. Describe the paradigm of the tense aspect system in the English Language

Tense: Tense is defined as grammatically expressed assignment to situations of "location in time" and can be illustrated, for example by the use of inflections [-s], the speaker instructs the listener to identify a situation that applies at the moment the utterance is made, and in using the inflection [-ed] in the second to identify a situation that applies before this moment (Past action).

Aspect: Aspect is defined as grammatically expressed assignment of "situational focus" and can be illustrated for examples by using the auxiliary was and the inflectional ending [-ing].
In English, tense and aspect are tightly interwoven, we therefore, treat them together and operate with a fused tense and aspect system. It focuses on such contrasts as durative (duration) or extending in time or non-durative, whether the event is seen in its initial stage or its final stage, whether it is completed or uncompleted. In other words - beginning stage, in progress, uncompleted and completed.

Celce-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman do this in Table 8.1 by listing the two tenses, present and past, along the vertical axis. They include the future on this list of tenses as well, for although there is no verb inflection for future time, any description of the English tense- aspect system needs to account for what form-meaning combinations do exist that relate to future time. The four aspects -simple (sometimes called zero aspect), perfect, progressive, and their combination, perfect progressive- are arrayed along the horizontal axis. The tense-aspect is illustrated by the combinations of the irregular verb write and the regular verb walk. 

Table 8.1: Celce-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman (1999), the 12 combinations of tense and aspect

Perfect have + -en
Progressive be + -ing
Perfect Progressive have + -en be + -ing

write/writeshas/have writtenam/is/are writing
has/have been writing
walk/walkshas/have walkedam/is/are walking
has/have been walking


wrotehad writtenwas/were writinghad been writing
walkedhad walkedwas/were walkinghad been walking


will writewill have writtenwill have writing
will have been writing
will walkwill have walkedwill have walking
will have been walking

Tense: Present, Past, Future
Aspect: Simple, Perfect, Progressive and Perfect progressive.


1. Joe walks to school everyday. [Tense: Present | Aspect: Simple]
2. Gunsirit will have written the letter by the time I arrived home tomorrow. [Tense: Future | Aspect: Perfect have + en]

For the future time in our matrix, we use the modal will, since there is no future tense that appears as a marking on the verb in English. However, English uses a number of ways in addition to the use of will to indicate that an action or event is to take place in the future. The future adheres to the same patterns as the present and past in terms of its combination of aspect markers: will with the base form for the simple future, will have -{-en} for the future perfect, will with be + {-ing} for the future progressive, and will have + {-en} + be + {-ing} for the future perfect progressive.

2. Describe the formal characteristics of the tense and aspect system

Bache (1997) provides 16 tense-aspect forms in English, as applied to the verb happen such as the following. It is important to remember that this list contains instructions reflecting the basic semantics of the tense-aspect system. As we have seen, specific constructions may express derived meanings and/or have special uses, depending on actional and aspectual properties.

  1. The present
  2. [Present. [ situation]] Tag a situation of ‘happening’ on to world-now.

  1. The past                                                                                                       
    [Past [situation]]
    Tag a situation of ‘happening’ on to world-before-now.

  1. The present future
    [Present [future [situation]]]
    Tag on to world-now and then look ahead to a situation of ‘happening’.
will happen

  1. The past future                                                                                   
    [Past [future [situation]]]
    Tag on to world-before-now and then look ahead to a situation of ‘happening’
would happen

  1. The present perfect                                                                 
    [Present [anterior [situation]]]
    Tag on to world-now and then look back at a situation of ‘happening’.
has happened

  1. The past perfect                                                                                   
    [Past [anterior [situation]]] Tag on to world-before-now and then look back at a situation of ‘happening’.
had happened

  1. The present future perfect                                            
    [Present [future [anterior [situation]]]]
    Tag on to world-now, then look ahead to a future time and finally look back at a situation of ‘happening’.
will have happened

  1. The past future perfect                                                        
    [Past [future [anterior [situation]]]]
    Tag on to world-before-now, then look ahead to a posterior time and finally look ack at a situation of ‘happening’.
would have happened

  1. The present progressive                                                             
    [Present [progressing [situation]]]
    Tag on to world-now, and then look here at a simultaneously progressing situation f ‘happening’
is happening

  1. The past progressive                                                           
    [Past [progressing [situation]]]
    Tag on to world-before-now and then look here at a simultaneously progressing situation of ‘happening’.
was happening

  1. The present future progressive                                                  
    [Present [future [progressing [situation]]]]
    Tag on to world-now, then look ahead to a future time and finally look here at asimultaneously progressing situation of ‘happening’.
will be happening

  1. The past future progressive                                       
    [Past [future [progressing [situation]]]]
    Tag on to world-before-now, then look ahead to a posterior time and finally lookhere at a simultaneously progressing situation of ‘happening’.
would be happening

  1. The present perfect progressive                               
    [Present [anterior [progressing [situation]]]]
    Tag on to world-now, then look back at an anterior time and finally look at a situation f ‘happening’ progressing simultaneously with the anterior-present period (i.e. towards resent time).
has been happening

  1. The past perfect progressive                                     
    [Past [anterior [progressing [situation]]]]
    Tag on to world-before-now, then look back at an anterior time and finally look at a situation of ‘happening’ progressing simultaneously with the anterior-past period i.e. towards the past time).
had been happening

  1. The present future perfect progressive                       
    [Present [future [anterior [progressing [ situation]]]]]
    Tag on to world-now, then look ahead to a future time, then look back at an anteriorime and finally look at a situation of ‘happening’ progressing simultaneously ith the future-anterior period (i.e. towards the future time).
will have been happening

  1. The past future perfect progressive           
    [Past [future [anterior [progressing [situation]]]]]
    Tag on to world-before-now, then look ahead to a posterior time, then look back at an anterior time and finally look at a situation of ‘happening’ progressing imultaneously with the posterior-anterior period (i.e. towards the posterior time).
would have been happening

3. Explain the meanings expressed by tense and aspects system such as present, past future, non-future, perfect, non-perfect, progressive and non-progressive.

Basic meanings of the four forms

Most students know that “will” and “going to” are used to talk about future time in English. However, we also use the present progressive (“be” + {ing}) and the present simple tense. Here are the basic rules.

Table 8.2: Basic Rules of the Four Forms

Meaning / Usage
to volunteer to do something deciding at the time of speaking to do somethingAli: I need a pencil.
Siti: I'll lend you mine.
"Going to"
to talk about something that is already decidedAli: Have you registered for tha class yet?
Siti: Not yet. I'm going to register tomorrow.
Present Continuous
to talk about something that is already arrangedAli: Do you want to go the movies tonight?
Siti: Sorry, I can't. I'm playing soccer.
Present simple
to talk about a schedule, timetable or programAli: What time does the next bus leave?
Siti: It leaves at six


Tense is defined as the linguistic expression of time relations realised by verb forms. Time is independent of language and is common to all human beings. Most grammarians conceptualise it, as being divided into past time, present time and future time. Tense systems are language specific and vary from one language to another as you have seen in Malay and English. Tenses distinguish in the ways that reflect temporal (chronological) reference. In English, for instance, it would be erroneous to imagine that the Past Tense reflects exclusively to events in past time, that there is a Present Tense to refer exclusively to events in present time and a Future Tense (eg. modal will/would) to refer exclusively to events in future time. 

In the following examples, the forms often thought to correspond to past and future time reference, respectively, in fact, refer to the moment of speaking, for example:

  1. I thought you were in the hall.
  2. Will you park there, please?
  3. was wondering whether you needed a drink.

On the contrary, the ‘Present Tense’ forms used in the following examples do not refer exclusively to the moment of speaking, for example: 

  1. These trees look dead in drought.
  2. We leave for Kuala Lumpur tonight.
  3. Temperatures rise to 100 degree F.

In addition to tense forms of verbs, other linguistic forms, particularly adverbs of time such as now, then, tomorrow and Prepositional Phrases such as in 2004 can make reference to time; English, in fact, relies extensively on such words to make the temporal reference clear.


Tense is how we express events that occurs at points situated along the linear flow of time. Within the linear flow, a point of reference must be established, with respect to which past events precede and future events follow. The normal, universal and therefore unmarked point of reference is the moment of speaking. This is the ‘now’, which is implicitly understood in everyday interaction. It can be diagrammed as follows:

past                               now                                future

speech time

the present moment


In everyday use, ‘at present’ and ‘at the present time’ have a wider application than simply to the present moment of speech time. Thus, the example Sun rises in the east includes in its time reference the present moment but also past and future time. It can be diagrammed in the following way:

past                               now                                future

Sun rises in the east

------------------------------------present ----------------------------------

Present time in this sense can therefore mean (a) at all times, or (b) at no particular time. The grammatical tense used in examples above is the unmarked form, having no modification, consisting of the lexical verb alone with no grammatical meaning beyond that of ‘verb’. Thus, it can cover a wide range of temporal references. We can retain the traditional term Present or non-progressive Present for convenience, rather than the term Non-pastpreferred by some grammarians, it is with the recognition that as a tense it only rarely has a direct relation to speech time.

The Non-past as an alternative term to Present tense is based on the following reasoning: while the Present tense can refer to future time as in We leave for Penang tomorrow. When do we arrive? It cannot normally be used with a time expression which refers specifically to an event in the past: *I listen to that story last week instead of He listened to that story last week. The unmarked form therefore can be used to make specific reference to a future event but not normally to a past event.

The English Past tense is the morphologically and semantically marked form. Morphologically, the vast majority of verbs have a distinctive past form, and semantically in that the Past Tense refers to an action that is visualised as remote, either in time (He listened to that story last week) or as unreality (I wish we were on the beach). We have, consequently, in English an unmarked tense, which we shall call the Present and a marked tense which is the Past.

Tense is a category realised by inflection on the verb and English language, strictly speaking, has no Future Tense. Against this view it might be argued that, in spoken English at least, the enclitic form {‘II} corresponding to shall and will is very similar to an inflection Downing et al. (1992). More important, however, are the form-meaning relationships: first, shall and will belong to a set of modal auxiliaries and can express meanings other than reference to future time, such as willingness in Will you sit here? and request for instructions as in Shall I wash you car? Furthermore, will has its own past form would; and finally, future time can be referred to by a number of grammatical and lexical forms.


Sative verbs such as be, seem, belong, or dynamic, such as kick, eat, write verbs expressed the verb in the non-progressive Present tense differently compare to the dynamic verbs. In other words, the meaning of non-progressive depends on whether the verb is being used statically or dynamically, since many verbs lend themselves to both interpretations. Stand in the hut stands on a hill, for instance, expresses a state, whereas the phrasal verb stand up is used dynamically in All the soldiers stood up.

In general, dynamic but not static meanings occur after do in pseudo-cleft sentences:

  1. What the children did was stand up.
  2. What the house does is stand on a hill.


Meanings of the Present static verb can express timeless statements, that is, statements which apply to all time, including speech time. These include scientific, mathematical and descriptive statements, as in the following examples:

  1. Cat is a mammal.
  2. Gold has a relatively low melting point.
  3. Two and two make four.
  4. Silk feels smooth to the touch.

HumanS usually engage in activities whose time span is not endless, e.g. know, seem, belong. They are nevertheless states, in which no change or limitation into the past or future is implied:

  1. He knows Penang quite well.
  2. This land belongs to the Keretapi Malaysia.
  3. Those exercises look difficult.

Here, too, the temporal reference includes speech time.


A series of events which cover an unspecified time can be expressed by dynamic verbs to show the Present. Speech time is not necessarily or even usually included; such statements are, however, valid at speech time: 

  1. He sleeps in the hall.
  2. Many families lose their homes in floods.
  3. They spend most of their time studying

Adjuncts of time, frequency, place, destination, etc., often accompany statements in the Present which express repeated or recurrent events. Indeed, many such statements as They spend most of their time are incomplete without a circumstantial specification.


In certain situations the event coincides, or is presented as coinciding, with the moment of speaking, and without having any duration beyond speech time. The Present is used in such situations, which are classified as specific types:

  1. Performatives:

    1. warn you that this knife is sharp.
  2. Exclamations with initial directional adverb:

    1. Off they fly!
  3. Commentaries:

    1. Santokh passes and Mokhtar heads the ball into the net!
  4. Demonstrations:

    1. place the coffee in the cup, stir gently, and then sip slowly.


The global meaning of the Past Tense in English is to demonstrate ‘remoteness’ or distancing from the moment of speaking, whether in time, towards the past, or with regard to potential or hypothetical events which have not yet occurred in the present or the future.

Definite Events in the Past

Non-progressive Past Tense is used to refer to a past event or state, the Past in English contains two semantic features:

  1. to visualise the event as having occurred at some specific time in the past.
  2. to show the event was completed in the past, and a gap in time separates its completion from the present.
These features are illustrated in the following examples:

  1. I bought some biscuits yesterday
  2. Tun Perak was born in Pahang.
  3. He lived in Kuala Lumpur until 1890 and spent the rest of his life in exile.

The criteria require a fairly rigid distinction in English between what can be expressed by the Past and what can be expressed by the Present Perfect. The meanings of specific occurrence, completed event and disconnectedness from present time are not normally expressed by the Present Perfect; the above examples, for instance, are unacceptable with the verb in the Perfect:

  1. *I have bought some biscuits yesterday.
  2. *He has been born in Pahang.
  3. *We have met four years ago.

Adjuncts of specific past time such as yesterday and in 2002 naturally combine well with the Past, but not with the Perfect, since their function is to signal the past moment in time explicitly.

We do not need to specify a past occurrence by means of an Adjunct, however, as long as we have a specific time in mind and can assume that the hearer understands this, from inference or from the situational context, the Past tense can be used alone, as in:

  1. Did you see that object coming down?
  2. You didn’t tell me you met Maria at the mall.
  3. Did Kamal remember to buy the books?

The events referred to in these examples are situationally definite, the definiteness of the event being in many cases confirmed by the definiteness of the participants (that object, my letters) or the circumstance (at the mall). 

The definiteness of the event expressed by the Past does not require that the time in question be specified, only that it is mentioned. For this reason even unspecific adverbs such as once, when and conjunctions such as whileand as soon as can introduce Past tense verbs:

  1. Latif knew a football from the KL club.
  2. When did you learn Swahili?
  3. While we walked along, he told me about his assignment.
  4. As soon as they saw us, they came to greet us.


English has a progressive aspect realised by verbal periphrasis: some form of be and the {–ing} participle. It combines with both Present and Past Tenses, and also with the Perfect, with modals, with lexico-modals and with the passive:

  1. He is reading
  2. He was reading
  3. He has been reading
  4. He will be reading
  5. He is bound to be reading
  6. It is being read
Present + Progressive
Past + Progressive
Perfect + Progressive
Modal + Progressive
Lexico-modal + Progressive
Present + Progressive + Passive

The fundamental purpose of the English Progressive aspect is to indicate a dynamic action in the process of happening. Attention is focused on the middle of the process, which is seen as essentially dynamic.

Unlike some languages which also have a Progressive, English makes a grammatical contrast with the non-progressive, as in What are you doing? as opposed to *What do you do? That is to say, there is an obligatory choice between viewing the action as in the process of happening (What are you doing?) and not viewing it in this way.

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