Time and tense - what’s the difference?
When we talk about English grammar in general terms, it is common to hear people talking about ‘the past tense’. However, when we are teaching, this is a simplification which can be confusing to students, as it does not take into account the range of ways that English has for describing past events, through use of past tenses. ‘The past’ is in fact not a tense, but a time in which we can place different types of action, by use of different tenses. So what is the difference between ‘time’ and ‘tense’?
The English time system
In English, there are three times which we can communicate: past, present and future. Within each of these times, we have different ways of talking about actions, depending on when they happen in relation to other times and events. These specific ways of describing actions are tenses. All tenses happen in time, and include that time in their name.
The English tense system
English tenses are named using the time in which they happen, followed by the aspect of the action which we are communicating, as follows:
Simple A complete action, or a series of complete actions
Continuous An action which is incomplete at a specific time
Perfect An action which happens before another time or action
The aspects ‘perfect’ and ‘continuous’ can be combined, which communicates that an action is incomplete in relation to another relevant time or action
Perfect continuous An action, or a series of actions, which continue up to
another connected time or action
Each of the three times in English can be combined with each of these aspects to form the full range of 9 tenses and 3 aspect-based future forms in English:
Past simple I ate the bread
Past continuous I was eating the bread (when…)
Past perfect I had eaten the bread (by the time…)
Past perfect continuous I had been eating the bread (for… when…)
Present simple I take the bus
Present continuous I’m taking the bus
Present perfect* I’ve taken the bus (for…)
Present perfect continuous* I’ve been taking the bus (for…)
* Note that the present perfect tense refers to actions that happened in the past, but in relation to now, making this a present tense. The action may have happened in the past, but it happened in a present time period (for 3 years (up to now) / since 1983 (to now) / this week / this month / this year... (all unfinished, therefore present times)). Present perfect tenses show the difference between time and tense well.
‘Future simple’** I’ll speak to him (at 5:00)
‘Future continuous’** I’ll be speaking to him (at 5:00)
‘Future perfect’** I’ll have spoken to him (by 5:00)
‘Future perfect continuous’** I’ll have been speaking to him (for… by 5:00)
** The reason for the ‘inverted commas’ on the future forms listed above, and the mention of ‘aspect-based future forms’ above, is that the future behaves slightly differently in English. Strictly speaking, the future is a time, but not a tense. For more on this, see my previous article on future forms.
In summary, ‘past’, ‘present’ and ‘future’ are times, not tenses. Times combine with aspects to form tenses, which open them up to different ways of seeing events in time.
Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL and 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.
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