5 Misconceptions about English Tenses
The English tense system (as with many languages with complex histories) is somewhat of a patchwork of grammars from different root languages which have had an influence on its grammar over the centuries. In addition, the terminology we use to describe tenses has changed over the years, and is different for linguists working in different fields, language educators and classical language scholars. This has given rise to some misconceptions, misunderstandings and incorrect assumptions about the tenses of English. This article aims to clarify five common examples which come up for students and teachers, to help us understand the relationships between times, actions and events when we teach and learn them.
1) Tense is the same as Time
It is common to hear people talking about ‘the past tense’ or ‘the present tense’, implying that there is a single fixed grammar which we use to talk about actions which happened in the past or present. However, this is a limited way of describing events in time, as we have many ways of seeing past, present and future actions in English, not all of which relate directly to tenses.
Time is only one part of what we think of as a specific tense. Yes, we have past tenses and present tenses in English, but in order to define which of these we are looking at, we need to add another feature to a verb: aspect. Aspect relates to how we see the action we are describing as it happens/in time. English has three aspects which affect tense: simple, continuous and perfect. We use the simple aspect when we want to describe a complete action as a single, uninterruptible unit in time, for example in the sentence ‘I went to the cinema last night’. This past simple action communicates the whole process of going to the cinema, seeing a film and returning from the cinema as a single, complete unit.
Continuous actions, by contrast, are communicated as having duration, i.e. the possibility of being interrupted by other events or actions. In the sentence ‘I was playing football’, for example, we would expect to hear some other detail about the story, as this ‘incompleteness’ makes us think that something else happened during the match (unless it is said in response to a question about a specific time, such as ‘what were you doing at 4 o’clock yesterday afternoon?’. In this case, the 4pm time reference in the question serves as the point which ‘interrupts’ the action; the match was unfinished at 4pm, so the past continuous response does the job here.
The perfect aspect is a little more tricky. Perfect tenses are communicated as happening in relation to another, later event or action, requiring more background context to be fully understood. For example, ‘I had finished lunch when you called to invite me out’ relates the finishing to the later call, which is connected in some way (presumably because the call was a lunch invitation). A past perfect tense connects two past actions, the present perfect connects a past action to the present moment of speaking, and the ‘future perfect’ connects two future actions, again with one happening before another, later action.
Identifying times (present, past and future) with aspects (simple, continuous and perfect) in different ways gives us the full range of English tenses. As a result, these three times (past, present and future) and three aspects (simple, continuous and perfect) combine to form the full set of eight (or eleven to twelve, depending on how you include the future - see below) tenses of English. In short, time + aspect = tense, and time is not the same thing as tense.
2) English has ‘a future tense’
As we have seen, the future is a time, not a tense, so the statement ‘a future tense’ is quite misleading. That aside, do we use tenses to talk about actions in the future? The answer is yes… and no.
In order to explain this, we should first define what we mean by a tense. A good definition of a pure tense is the placement of an action in time by using morphological change (the addition of auxiliaries and verb endings). The auxiliaries used in the formation of English tenses are ‘do’ (for simple tenses), ‘be’ (for continuous tenses) and ‘have’ (for perfect tenses). As examples, go back to the first section of this article and find these auxiliaries in the example sentences I used to demonstrate aspect. Notice that the past simple example ‘I went to the cinema’ does not use an auxiliary before the verb. This is another reason why we call simple tenses simple - they don’t need an auxiliary in their present form. Change this sentence into a question or a negative, however, and you will find the past ‘do’ auxiliary in there.
So, going back to the future (pun intended), if a future tense existed, we should be able to form future simple, continuous and perfect tenses using the ‘do’, ‘be’ and ‘have’ auxiliaries in their future forms, as we do with their present and past forms (do//did, is/am/are//was/were, have/has//had). Unfortunately, we do not have a future form of these verbs, so we need to add another auxiliary: will, as in ‘I’ll see you later’, ‘We’ll be landing in a minute’ or ‘He won’t have finished yet’.
But wait - there are some problems with our definition of future tenses here: firstly, ‘will’ can just as easily be replaced with ‘be going to’, ‘might’, ‘could’ or other modal auxiliaries, meaning that the use of ‘will’ is not a clearly defined morphological change as we would expect to find in a pure tense. Secondly, thinking about the ‘future perfect’ example ‘He won’t have finished yet’, this sentence isn’t actually talking about the future at all; it is using a modal ‘present probability’ function about a state of events now. In fact, more often than not, the modal meanings of will reside more strongly in the present, based on how the speaker is feeling about the future from the perspective of now, rather than simply placing an action in a future time. Again, there is no clear cut relationship between one ‘future tense’ and a specific future concept.
Finally, the nail in the coffin of the future tense concept is the fact that we can use a whole host of structures which usually have nothing to do with the future, to communicate future meaning. As an example, identify the tenses used in the following sentences:
1) Let’s go! The play starts in ten minutes.
2) Some friends are coming over for dinner tomorrow.
3) Tell me when you’ve finished and we’ll call a cab.
All of these examples use present tenses with future meaning, and are as frequent (more frequent in many cases) than the so-called ‘future tenses’ outlined above.
If you are still not convinced, compare the range of future forms we’ve looked at to their counterparts in a language which does have a future tense: French. In French, verb endings (morphological change) are directly applied to verbs to give future meaning, as in the examples:
1) Je regarderai le film demain (I’ll see the film tomorrow / I’m seeing the film tomorrow)
2) Ils viendront chez moi la semaine prochaine (They’re coming to my house next week)
3) Tu n’aimeras pas le chateau (you won’t like the castle)
This is a true future tense, as (unlike in English) the verbs ‘regarder’, ‘venir’ and ‘aimer’ take specific verb endings to take on their future simple forms.
3) Verb + ing = a continuous verb
This is an easy mistake to make, as we drill students in the form of continuous tenses, and the fact that the verb ending used is indeed -ing. However, the verb+ing structure does not make up the full continuous form. Remember: continuous aspect is carried by a ‘be’ auxiliary plus a verb with an -ing ending. Without that ‘be’ auxiliary, even in a continuous verb phrase, the verb+ing alone is actually a present participle. Without a ‘be’ auxiliary in a sentence, a verb+ing form could also be a gerund. This section will differentiate between gerunds and present participles to contrast the different verb+ing forms which exist.
Present participles can be used as part of a continuous tense verb phrase, or can stand alone and carry an adjectival function, describing a noun, as in ‘a dripping tap’ or ‘a boring teacher’. This use of present participles as adjectives probably evolved from the continuous tense, with its ‘be’ auxiliary, having a similar structure to an adjective being used with a ‘be’ auxiliary, as in ‘the tap is dripping’ (present continuous), so it is a dripping tap (present participle), or ’the teacher is boring the students (present continuous, specific situation), so ‘the teacher is boring’ (present participle adjective, general description).
Another use of present participles is as adverbs adding a ‘cover-all’ action to a sentence, as in ‘the postman walked along the street, delivering letters and whistling’, where the delivering and whistling (present participles) happen at the same time as the walking down the street, adding detail to that action, or modifying it. This ‘at the same time’ concept is also true of present participle adjectives; the dripping tap is dripping at the time it is being described, and the whistling postman is whistling at the time of description, too.
Gerunds, by contrast, are verb+ing forms which function as subjects or objects in a sentence, so behave more like nouns. We can test this through substitution. If we substitute the -ing verb in the sentence ‘Smoking is bad for your health’ with a noun, we can keep the same basic grammar (and meaning, which helps), as in the sentence ‘cigarettes are bad for your health. An example of a gerund used as an object in a sentence would be ‘I don’t enjoy seeing the dentist’, which could be substituted for ‘I don’t enjoy visits to the dentist’. Object gerunds are often dictated by the verb used, which requires a specific verb form to follow (as do ‘like’, ‘hate’, ‘enjoy’, ‘remember’, etc.).
Gerunds, being noun-like, also follow prepositions in verb phrases such as ‘think about’, ‘believe in’, dream of’, etc. As prepositions must be followed by nouns, the gerund form, which behaves like a noun, can fill that position just as easily, and is definitely not continuous, despite having the -ing ending.
4) continuous actions are ‘longer’ than simple actions
The continuous aspect is often misunderstood and it is easy to make generalisations about the concept of a continuous action based on examples commonly found in textbooks.However, more often than not, the more accurate explanation for a concept is more beneficial to students in their long-term study, despite being a little harder to process.
The misconception here is that in a sentence such as ‘I was having a shower when the phone rang’ (which seems to be one of about three examples ever used to show the past simple and continuous used together, for some reason, though I can’t remember the last time it happened to me…), the shower is assumed to be ‘longer’ in duration than the phone ringing. In fact, that may not be true. Firstly, we don’t know how long the person was in the shower, or how long the phone was ringing for, whether the person got out of the shower to answer it or let it ring, and if so, for how long. There are a lot of contextual details missing from this iconic situation, which do not prove that either action was longer or shorter than the other. This seems flimsy evidence for a broad generalisation such as the one we are thinking about here.
The key concept between these two actions is in fact that the phone rang, interrupting the taking of the shower. This means that the shower was not finished at the point where the phone started ringing. An action can only be interrupted if it has duration, which as we saw in section 1) of this article, is a feature of continuous tenses. Consider the difference between the first action in the following examples:
1) I left school, turned the corner and found fifteen pound coins scattered on the street
2) I was just leaving the school gate when I found fifteen pound coins scattered on the street.
In sentence 2), the ‘leaving’ feels shorter in time than the finding of fifteen scattered coins on the street. However, the speaker has chosen to give the action duration, being interrupted as it was by the lucky vent. In sentence 1), the leaving is clearly complete before the finding of the money starts, showing the complete, uninterruptible nature of actions with simple aspect.
This notion of completeness or interruptibility is helpful for students when they go on to study other, more complex continuous forms such as the present or past perfect continuous, or the future continuous, where the concept is much less clear and subtle differences in meaning can get confused.
5) past perfect actions happened a really long time ago
This is a somewhat culture-specific issue which seems to be taught in schools in India and China, for some reason. I have taught and trained many very high-level users of English who have a mastery of English in all aspects except for this one point, where past simple and past perfect tenses are used interchangeably depending on how long ago the action is felt to have happened.
The past perfect simple is sometimes referred to as ‘the past of the past’, but this does not refer less to the distance in time back from now, but to the past as seen looking back from another past point in time. As we saw above, the perfect aspect is used to connect one action or event happening before another. The later of the two events is used as a kind of time reference, from which the speaker projects back to the perfect action, perhaps because of some connection between the two actions, or to emphasise exactly when it happened.
Past perfect tenses are actually quite complex and require some careful contextualisation to be fully understood by students. Without the context of the time reference, a past perfect sentence feels incomplete, as in ‘I had finished my dinner’. Although this is a grammatically complete sentence, without further context, a listener’s brain would be screaming ‘AND…?! What happened?’. Without a reference to another action or point in time, this is a single, complete past event, and should be communicated with the past simple.
In summary, English tenses are an integral part of grammar study, and to understand their concepts fully, it is often the case that both students and teachers have to rethink the generalisations that it is all too easy to make in the classroom. Don’t rely on textbook examples, think of your own and question any generalisation about tenses. More often than not, there is an exception which will take you closer to the accurate concept, and which will help out your students as they get into more and more complex forms.
Tom Garside is Director of Teacher Training for Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.