Tenses – Definition and Concept

Verb is a multi-functional part of speech that provides various kinds of information about the sentence. One of the characteristics of the verb is to show the tense of the sentence.

What is the tense of a sentence?

The tense of the sentence is the time of occurrence or execution of the verb with respect to the time of framing the sentence. Simply put, it is the period in time that the verb of the sentence refers to.

  • You are always welcome here.
  • We had refurbished this item here.
  • He will confine her to the building.

The verbs mentioned (in boldface) above will help us determine the tense of the verb.

At the end of the article, the readers will be able to:

  • Classify the tense of sentence based on time period and status of completion
  • Apply various auxiliaries on main verbs to create a sentence in a particular tense
  • Understand the influence of modals on verbs of a sentence

Determining the Tense of the Sentence

In the above section, we have understood that verbs determine and influence the tense of the sentence. However, we’ve also seen that the examples above are only of single clause sentences. What if the sentence has multiple clauses? Which verb should be the determiner of the tense? Let us take two different cases of such sentences.

Coordinate Clauses

We’ve already seen examples of coordinate clauses in the article on Conjunctions. Let us revisit them here:

  • He was late for the meeting yet they welcomed him in gladly.
  • The Batman has been incorruptible but has acted cruel occasionally.
  • You will be the first here yet they will not select

Coordinate clauses are those that are independent yet equivalent. This equivalence extends to the tense of both the independent clauses of the sentence. Since both the clauses have equal priority and tense, we can use either of the verbs to determine the tense of the sentence.

Subordinate Clauses

A subordinate clause or a dependent clause is the one that is logically and sometimes grammatically dependent on an independent clause. The independent clause in this case is referred to as the main clause. Let us see a few examples below:

  • Although you finished first, you’re disqualified from the competition.
  • We will verify whether he has taken any type of muscle stimulant.
  • The board thinks that you’ve been delusional all along.

Thus, by definition, we’ve now determined the main clause (verbs in boldface) and the subordinate clause of the sentence (verbs in italics) and identified their verbs. Now we make the statement.

The tense of the sentence is the tense of the main clause of the sentence.

Thus the verbs in boldface will determine the tense of the sentence. Hence we observe that in every example, the independent clause determines the tense of the sentence.

Classification of Tenses Based on Time Period

So, logically, how many different periods in time can a verb refer to? It can refer to a period in time before the time of sentence, it can refer to the same period in time as the sentence or it can refer to the period in time after the time of the sentence. Thus, there are three major tenses according to the verb of the sentence.

If the verb refers to the same time as the statement is made (an activity or occurrence has happened/is happening now) (now, today, generally, as we speak, etc.) then the verb is in the present tense.

  • You are a terrible liar.
  • I am completing the assignments.
  • He has been present for all the classes.
  • The management is gunning for your suspension.
  • They have been producing a pathogen which is incurable.

If the verb refers to a time before (an activity or occurrence happened/was happening before) the statement is made (yesterday, many years ago, long back, before) then the verb is in the past tense.

  • You were a terrible liar.
  • I was completing the assignments.
  • He had been present for all the classes.
  • The management was gunning for your suspension.
  • They had been producing a pathogen which is incurable.

If the verb refers to a time after (an activity or occurrence will happen/will be happening soon/later) the statement is made (tomorrow, thereafter, upcoming, etc.) then the verb is in the future tense.

  • He will be at the venue today.
  • You will be listening to everything I say.
  • I will have been incarcerated by then.
  • They will have been infiltrating the division by this time next week.

Each of these tenses take verbs in different forms, depending on the status of completion or occurrence of the verb. We study that in the next section.

Classification of Tenses Based on Status of Completion

A verb in any sentence in the English language can have four different forms based on status of completion.

Simple form

In the simple form, the verb is used to refer general occurrence once over the entire time frame, or regular occurrence throughout the entire time frame. Note the following examples:

  • They reimbursed all of my travel expenses. (General occurrence once in the past)
  • We brought cookies to these kids every afternoon. (Regular occurrence in the past)
  • I pay for his tuition. (General occurrence in the present)
  • She takes her dog out for a walk every evening. (Regular occurrence in the present)
  • The building will not sustain the impact of another earthquake. (General occurrence in the future)
  • Once it’s ready, the council will assemble here once every fortnight. (Regular occurrence in the future)

Continuous form

In the continuous form, the verb is used to show continuity or progress of the action in any particular time frame. Continuous form uses the present participle form of the main verb in the active voice (with different forms of the auxiliary be) and past participle form of the main verb (along with the present participle being) in the passive voice. Note the following examples:

  • We were working on the next update. (Activity in progress in the past)
  • It is trying to download the update. (Activity in progress in the present)
  • They will be releasing an update next month. (Activity in progress in the future)

Perfect form

In the perfect form, the verb is used to show complete execution or completed occurrence of the action in any particular time frame. Continuous form uses the past participle form of the main verb (with different forms of the auxiliary have) in the active voice and past participle form of the main verb (along with the past participle been) in the passive voice. Note the following examples:

  • We had worked on the next update. (Activity completed in the past)
  • It has tried to download the update. (Activity completed in the present)
  • They will have released an update by next month. (Activity completed in the future)

Perfect Continuous form

In the perfect continuous form, the verb is used to show partial execution or partial occurrence of the action in any particular time frame. Perfect continuous form uses the present participle form of the main verb (along with the past participle been and different forms of the auxiliary have) in the active voice and past participle form of the main verb (along with the present participle being and different forms of the auxiliary be) in the passive voice. Note the following examples:

  • We had been working on the next update. (Activity partially completed in the past)
  • It has been trying to download the update. (Activity partially completed in the present)
  • They will have been releasing an update by next month. (Activity partially completed in the future)

Auxiliaries and Modals in Tenses

Use of Auxiliaries

Two auxiliaries be and have are used in different forms to frame sentences in different tenses. In the simple form, these verbs are used as primary verbs.

  • It is a sunny day.
  • They were a tough opponent to beat.
  • As of now, we have
  • The mansion will be empty by tomorrow.

In the other forms, they will be used as auxiliaries.

  • It is going to rain today.
  • They had remained a tough opponent to beat.
  • As of now, we have gained the upper hand.
  • The mansion will be emptied by tomorrow.

Use of Modals

The Present and Past tense of the Verb uses modals as additional support.

  • It might be a sunny day. (Root form of is)
  • As of now, we may have gained the upper hand. (Root form of have)
  • They may be a tough opponent to beat. (Root form of is)

The Future tense mandatorily uses modals will and shall as mandatory auxiliaries to show the future occurrence.

  • They will empty the mansion by tomorrow.
  • As of tomorrow, we will have
  • The board will have concluded that you’re delusional.

In every example, the modal reduces every main verb to its root form irrespective of the tense, as we see in the above examples. However, we face an unusual difficulty while encountering and using modals.

The use of modals on verbs in the Past and Future Tenses creates confusion about the tense of the sentence. Note the examples in the discussion on modals. The addition of a modal reduces the verb from past form to root form and thus the sentence resembles their present tense equivalent.

This means that the sentence takes the Simple Present form (with modal) if initially expressed in Simple Past or Simple Future form (without modal), Present Continuous form (with modal) if initially expressed in Past Continuous or Future Continuous form (without modal), Present Perfect form (with modal) if initially expressed in Past Perfect or Future Perfect form (without modal), and Present Perfect Continuous form (with modal) if initially expressed in Past Perfect Continuous or Future Perfect Continuous form (without modal).

Readers can verify the above statement by comparing the section on modals of the articles on the corresponding forms of Present and Past and the corresponding forms of Present and Future Tense, especially the examples of sentences after the implementation of modals.

Thus in situations like these, the role of adverbs becomes quite important, as they are the determiner of the tense of these sentences. Sometimes, even after the use of adverbs, the tense of the sentence is left ambiguous. In that case, irrespective of the form of the sentence before the inclusion of modals, we identify these sentences as being in the Present Tense. The subtype of the Present Tense can thereafter be determined by the conventional methods discussed in the articles on Present Tense.

Conclusion

This concludes the initial discussion on Tenses. When we study each tense in particular, we will explore the general expressions, auxiliaries, commonly used modals and the passive forms of sentences of these tenses.