Tenses: What They Are and Why They Are Important

Posted December 1, 2012 by Amanda Shofner in Writing / 0 Comments

Why is tense important?

In Chinese, tense doesn’t exist. Learning that boggled my mind: how do people know how to distinguish between past, present, and future without tense? But the concept of time is actually built into time words (yesterday, tomorrow, etc.) instead. Still, the thought of not having tense is something my English-language brain can’t handle. Why?

Tense is important because we use it to signal what happens when. And then there’s aspect to go along with tense. Think of aspect as a tense sharpener: it lends additional meaning to tense. Tense and aspect play a vital role in constructing meaning. Here’s what you need to know to understand what tense and aspect tell you.

What are the tenses and aspects?

Since tense and aspect can get a bit complicated, I created a chart. It should be pretty self-explanatory. The only term that needs defining is PP, which stands for past participle. The past participle is generally formed by adding -ed to the end of verbs. There are irregular verbs, however, that have all sorts of different endings (e.g., written, run, taken, eaten, been, and more.) Past participles are often used as adjectives as well, so you’re far more familiar with them than you realize.


We’re left with the following tense-aspect combinations:

  • Simple Present
  • Present Continuous
  • Present Perfect
  • Present Perfect Continuous
  • Simple Past
  • Past Continuous
  • Past Perfect
  • Past Perfect Continuous
  • Simple Future
  • Future Continuous
  • Future Perfect
  • Future Perfect Continuous

The simple aspect is usually what people think of when tense comes up. The continuous aspect is always formed with some form of the verb ‘be’ and the -ing form of the main verb (e.g., am writing). The perfect aspect uses the verb ‘have’ with the past participle (e.g., have written) and the perfect continuous aspect combines the two (e.g., have been writing).

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