A comparatative approach to the English tense system

Term Paper, 2011

10 Pages, Grade: 1,7

Marc Schubert (Author)




1. How many tenses are there in the English language?

2. Describing temporal systems
2.1 Hans Reichenbach
2.2 William E. Bull
2.3 Generative Semantics





Robert Binnick (1991: vii) wrote „whoever has read in one book that English has three tenses, in another that it has two, and in yet a third that is has sixteen (...) may be pardoned for some confusion and some skepticism as to the claim of linguistic scholars to know a great deal about tense“. This quotation illustrates the problem of the classification of the English tense system on which the focus of this paper will be based. Although linguists’ knowledge of the tense system has increased over the years, the problem is that, as Robin Lakoff wrote, they “cannot account for many ways in which tenses are used in English” (Binnick 1991: vii). Therefore, English tense(s) have not yet been understood completely. By comparing different authors and frameworks, this paper will present different approaches to the English tense system. The aim is not to provide a perfect solution to all answers but to introduce different viewpoints and to go a step beyond the common conceptualization of the English language by presenting competing theories.

1. How many tenses are there in the English language?

Binnick quotes grammarian James Harris to illustrate the “natural” (Binnick 1991: 3) way of a division into three times: “The most obvious Division [sic] of Time is into Present, Past, and Future, nor is any Language complete, whose verbs have not Tenses to mark these Distinctions.” (Harris 1968: 97). Therefore, he assumes that there are three times and three corresponding tenses. The ancient Greeks shared this perspective as they wrote about “the three times” (Binnick 1991: 3) and Homer referred to “things that were, the things to come and the things past” (Binnick 1991: 4).[1] Grammarian Dionysius Thrax had a similar similar viewpoint. He wrote “[t]here are three Tenses: Present, Past, Future” (Binnick 1991: 6). This analysis of English consisting of three tenses and three times has “become an integral part of the Western grammatical tradition” (Binnick 1991: 8) and is therefore taught in schools.[2] A closer look into a recent grammar book confirms this thesis. David Crystal (2008: 479 f.) defines the term tense as “a category used in the grammatical description of verbs (along with aspect and mood).” He continues “traditionally, a distinction is made between past, present and future tenses, often with further divisions (perfect, pluperfect, etc).

However, this distinction is not consistent and some arguments can be challenged. For instance, the future form clearly does not have a specific tense marking – in contrast to the past tense (inflectional morpheme í –ed ý or irregular verb form). Instead, the modal auxiliary will is used. Östen Dahl provides a possible explanation: The future is used to take about plans, suggestions, intentions, and predictions. Since “sentence[s] which refer to the future will almost always differ modally from a sentence with non-future time reference […] [,] the distinction between tense and mood becomes blurred when it comes to the future” (Dahl 1985: 103). As a consequence, analyzed only on a formal basis, English (and German as well) do not have a separate future tense, as it is the case in Greek or Romance Languages (cf. Binnick 1991: 8).[3] Nevertheless, everyone does not share this perspective. Aristotle believed that “there are only two times, the past and the future [because] the present ‘now’ is not part of time at all” (Binnick 1991: 4).

It might be useful to analyze how languages deal with this problem. Binnick (1991: 5) explains that languages “treat [the present] as having sometimes considerable duration, and it may even be used to express ‘eternal truths’” as is the sun rises in the East. Interestingly, the English future tense (which formally does not exist) can also be used for such truth statements (as in girls will be girls) and for present actions (that will be Rose calling me now). It can therefore be inferred that the claim of three times and three tenses in English is falsified since there are neither “formal [nor] semantic grounds” (Binnick 1991: 8). In addition, the present tense can sometimes be used to talk about the future (the bus leaves at 2 p.m.) and the past tense for the present (I wish I knew what he is planning). David Chrystal (1991: 385) describes this phenomenon as follows: “Tense forms [i.e. morphological variations in the verb form] can be used to signal meanings other than temporal ones”.[4] The meaning of the verb form consequently depends on the context in which it is embedded. He suggests using different terminology (e.g. “past” vs. “non-past”, “future” vs. “non-future”) to overcome the problem that modal auxiliaries are used for future forms.

Such a distinction is proposed by Richard Matthews. He distinguishes between past vs. non-past, perfect vs. non-perfect and progressive vs. non-progressive (cf. Matthews 1994: 70). Again, this is challenged by some school grammars, as they claim that the passive progressive form is only used in the present tense and past tense (cf. Bartels/Röhr 1975: 180). Complex phenomena such as the “Mandative Subjunctive” or the “Irrealis Subjunctive” can be explained by this theory because secondary tense (perfect vs. non-perfect) and aspect (progressive vs. non-progressive) can be found in them (cf. Matthews 1994: 71 f.). The following schema illustrates the use of the indicative:

a) ± Past ± Perf ± Prog ± Pass V

b) non past (Perf) (Prog) (Pass) V


It can be inferred that the choice between past vs. non-past is morph syntactically obligatory (as well as the choice of V) whereas Perf, Prog, Pass are syntactically optional. The result is a phenomenon, which is called “verb raising” in generative grammar books (Matthews 1994: 73). The elements are pushed from the right to left, i.e. lifted from bottom to top in a tree diagram, as indicated in the following schema.

Pres Infl. have – Past Part be – Pres Part be – Pres Part V

Past Infl.

Not only English is affected by this problem, but Dutch can be analyzed in different ways, as well (cf. Janssen 1994).

2. Describing temporal systems

2.1 Hans Reichenbach

Hans Reichenbach developed a comparative theory to describe tenses on a grammatical level. He introduced the terms speech time and reference time. The latter is determined by the speech time (simultaneously, before or after). The event is referred to by the reference time (vgl. Schopf 17).[5] These three time parameters can be used to describe the differences between English tenses (see appendix A). Reichenbach understands the difference between the present perfect and the simple past as a different order of time parameters. The simple past is characterized by the simultaneity of an event and its reference time whereas the present perfect refers to an event whose reference time is equal to the speech time. This can be illustrated in the following diagram (adapted from Matthews 1994: 83).

Posterior present S,R ---- E I shall see john

Simple future S --- R, E I shall see john (tomorrow)

Posterior future R – E – S I would see John

or: R --- S, E

or R – S – E

Anterior future S – E – R

or: S. E --- R

or: E – S – R

Richard Matthews’ criticism consists of two essential points. First of all, according to this model, the posterior present and the simple future have the same morphological form, although Reichenbach does not interpret them as being temporally ambiguous. Secondly, the posterior present and the anterior future each have three time schemata, although semantically, they can only be understood in one way (cf. Matthews 1994: 83 f.). Matthews assumes that S and E are never directly connected. Instead, R makes the connection between them. With this modification, it is possible to reduce the three schemata to only one for each tense (cf. Matthews 1994: 84).

Posterior past: (S > R) & (R < E) read: R before S and E after R

Anterior future: (S < R) & (R > E) read: R after S and E before R

In addition, Schopf criticizes that Reichenbach’s theory is insufficient to illustrate how the conditional perfect could be integrated into this schema (cf. Schopf 1984: 17). Therefore, the further developed theory by William E. Bull is presented in the next part.

2.2 William E. Bull

In order to solve problem of how to include the conditional perfect, William E. Bull added a fourth element of orientation in addition to the primary orientation axis, which is called Point Present (PP), the second orientation axis for events in the past, which is named Recalled Point (RP) and the one for the future, which is the Anticipated Point (AP). He introduced the Retrospective Anticipated Axis (RAP). Furthermore, he connected these orientation elements with the three time references simultaneously (0), before (-) and after (+). Correspondingly, the conditional perfect could be described as (Event < RAP – V >) (cf. Schopf 1984: 18 f.).

Schopf notes that these two models represent theoretical approaches that languages will never exhaust. For example, English realizes only eight of the 13 (cf. Reichenbach’s theory) or 12 possible tenses (cf. Bull’s model).

2.3 Generative Semantics

Generative Grammars developed their own models. Chomsy’s work on Syntactic Structures and Aspects of the Theory of Syntax only referred to morphological verb forms in English. As a consequence, the proposal was insufficient for syntactic analysis (cf. Schopf 1984: 18) because it failed to illustrate possible pronominalization of verb forms. John R. Ross suggested treating modal verbs such as have and be as full verbs. James D. Mc Cawley later enhanced this and additionally treated tenses as full verbs. In his proposal, the modal verb have is derived from the past tense which governs the sentence. McCawley justifies his statement that have is derived from a past tense in showing that infinite forms (such as the perfect infinitive) could appear together with time adverbials in a sentence that otherwise require the past, as in John is believed to have arrived at 2:00 yesterday. According to this model, the sentence Al had been doing homework could be analyzed in the following form (based on Schopf 1984: 19 f.).

However, this model contradicts the original thesis. The past elements of the sentence (had, been, - ing) are formally not controlling the sentence but only the VP that they represent. In a tree analysis, governing elements are always on the left side and over the nodes that they govern (such as the infl position that has control over the following VP). Furthermore, the –ing morpheme does not necessarily indicate a past tense, as in I’m going to bed now.


[1] An other piece of evidence could be the three Fates or Weird Sisters: “Clotho spins the thread of life, Lachesis allots it, and Atropos cuts it off” (Binnick 1991: 4).

[2] For example the verb (to) watch; past: watched, present: watch(es), future: will watch.

[3] e.g. the regular French verb manger; past: je mangais, present: je mange, future: je mangerai.

[4] For example, the past tense form I knew can be used in the present tense I wish I knew (now).

[5] e.g. When Luke came to the party, Sarah had already gone home. Speech time: independent (today), event: Sarah’s leaving, reference time: Luke’s arrival which happened after the event.

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A comparatative approach to the English tense system
University of Hamburg
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tense, tense system, English tense system
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Marc Schubert (Author), 2011, A comparatative approach to the English tense system, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/183793


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