Tenses: What Can They Tell Us?

Posted December 15, 2012 by Amanda Shofner in Writing / 6 Comments

You already know what tense is and why it’s important. Now we’re going to take it further and discuss what these tense and aspect combinations can tell us. Beware. This post will be full of technical terms and grammar concepts. I’ve kept it as simple as I can.

What’s this all about?

Tense is one of those things that seems very easy and straightforward. It’s not. Choosing between the different tense-aspects may not affect your grammaticality, but it can affect how your readers experience your words.

Using past perfect in a book that’s told in the past tense allows the reader to distinguish between events that are happening and ones that have already happened. Choosing to use simple present tense instead of simple past tense when reviewing a book can create more excitement or show your continuing passion. (“I loved this book!” versus “I love this book!”) Sometimes subtleties have the biggest impact.

Simple Aspect

When you think of tense, you’re probably thinking of the simple aspect. It’s as the name implies—simple.

Simple Present

Used for facts and habits. For singular third person (he/she/it), an S must be added to the verb.

The grass is green. (Fact)
Every morning, she drinks two cups of coffee. (Habit)

Simple Past

Used for actions that were started and completed in the past. Except for irregular verbs, simple past verbs are created by adding -ed.

Your doctor called the house yesterday.
They went to the store yesterday.
I studied all the tense-aspect combinations for my grammar test.

Simple Future

To create simple future, you use the modal verb (also commonly called a helping verb) ‘will’.

I will talk with you later.
She will visit her sister in March.
They will leave their house at 10am.

Continuous Aspect

The continuous aspect is used to focus on the continuous nature of an action, or to place emphasis on an action in progress. The continuous aspect is also called the progressive aspect. Continuous and progressive are interchangeable; I’ve seen both in grammar textbooks.

Present Continuous

Used to focus on the continuation of an action or an action in progress.

I am currently writing about tenses.
She is talking with her friend right now.
More people are using social media these days.

Past Continuous

Used for actions in the past. Most commonly used when referring to a specific time or for the comparison of two actions in the past when one action was in progress when the second happened.

At 10pm last night, I was getting ready for bed. (Specific time)
I was replying to your email when you called. (Two actions)

Future Continuous

Talking about events in the future. Most commonly used for a specific time in the future.

Tomorrow at 10am, I will be driving to Minneapolis.

Perfect Aspect

The perfect aspect is used to connect two time periods.

Present Perfect

Used to connect the past with the present. (i.e., something started in the past and has continued into the present.) Present perfect is also used to mention something that happened in the past at an unspecified time.

She has lived in Minnesota for 20 years.
The German students have studied in the USA since 2010.
I have traveled to Canada. (Unspecified time.)

Past Perfect

I like to call this the past-past tense. It’s used to distinguish between events that happened in the past. That is, it’s used for the event that happened first.

She had never been out of the country before she studied abroad in Scotland.
By the time he got home, we had already eaten.

Future Perfect*

Connecting the past (or present) with a date in the future.

In three months, we will have been married for five years.

Perfect Continuous Aspect

Perfect continuous combines the two previous aspects into one. Like the perfect aspect, this connects two time periods. But. The perfect continuous aspect focuses on the continuation of the action.

Present Perfect Continuous

Used to connect the past with the present but focuses on the continuation of the action. That is, the action is ongoing.

She has been living in Minnesota for 20 years.
The German students have been studying in the USA since 2010.

Past Perfect Continuous

This tense is like a combination of past continuous and past perfect: it’s used to distinguish between two past events where one was in progress when the second happened. Also used to show causality.

I had been studying for three hours when you arrived.
He grounded his daughter because she had been lying about her school attendance.

Future Perfect Continuous*

Connecting the past (or present) with a date in the future, but with an emphasis on the continuous nature of the action.

In August, we will have been dating for two years.

*Both future perfect and future perfect continuous are complex tense-aspect combinations, and I find they’re rarely used.


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