I went through my entire English and French educations learning nothing about aspect. We only learned about tenses and a little bit about mood. With that K12* vocabulary, we'd call J'avais mangé l'orange and I had eaten the orange the plus-que-parfait or indicative past perfect tense.

I'm now giving teaching support at a linguistics and translation school and the instructors insist that my previous teachers were wrong; my colleagues would call J'avais mangé l'orange and I had eaten the orange the indicative, past tense, perfect aspect.

So I shared that with my social network. The K12 language teachers went on the counterattack and they had plenty of sources online to cite.

I've tried googling around for arguments on either side of the debate, but everyone I've found seems to be talking past each other. I can't find any sources that recognize that there is a debate. Is that because the K12 language teachers are truly clueless or are they so right that people don't think it's worth talking about?

What am I missing? Is the perfect tense really a thing?

NB1: My confusion isn't helped by the fact that I'm seeing three terms used that could be relevant to the above example: "perfect tense," "perfect aspect," and "perfective aspect." I can't help but notice that perfective doesn't exist as a tag on this site.

NB2: I think my colleagues' main point is that K12 language teachers should teach aspect. There remains a possibility that I'm misunderstanding them and putting words in their mouths. On that note, Khan Academy has an aspect lesson mapped to Common Core's CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.5.

Examples: This link seems consistent with how K12 teachers see it. This link is mostly consistent with how I think my colleagues see it. I've more found cite-worth documents which seem consistent with this, but these linguists are so gunshy when it comes to prescribing their viewpoint.

Update: I found a Wikipedia article that refers to a shift in terminology:

The pluperfect is traditionally described as a tense; in modern linguistic terminology it may be said to combine tense with grammatical aspect; namely past tense (reference to past time) and perfect aspect (state of being completed). It is used to refer to an occurrence that was already in the past (completed) at a past time.

* When I refer to "K12 teachers", I'm mostly thinking of French and Spanish teachers. But there are probably others.

  • 3
    The English perfect is involved with aspect, but it doesn't express a specific aspect. With respect to English use of the construction you may want to check What is the perfect, and how should I use it?. Be aware that you can't generalize from French use to English use: the 'habeo perfect' arose more than a thousand years ago, in the late empire/early middle ages, and every language has evolved distinct uses for the construction. Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 18:51
  • There are answers to your questions, but there isn't enough information to decide which answers to give. When you say French and Spanish teachers, for instance, do you mean K-12 teachers who are French and Spanish (and teach in French and Spanish schools), or do you mean teachers of French and Spanish language in Anglophone schools? You can see that these are very different groups, with undoubtedly very different sets of grammatical presuppositions. And do you mean "Is it a tense" in English only? lf I get enough boundary conditions to make it worthwhile, I'll attempt an answer.
    – jlawler
    Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 19:11
  • 4
    The answer depends on what definition of tense you use. A distinction is made between tense and aspect in contemporary semantic theory, but "tense" is also used to refer in a general way to whatever tense-like properties a verbal inflection has. "Aspect" didn't exist in modern linguistics until about 150 years ago. The locution "Tense-aspect" is giving way to "tense-aspect-mood" or "tense-aspect-mood-polarity", as people become more aware that negation can be tied up with the non-referential system of verb inflection in languages.
    – user6726
    Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 20:32
  • 1
    I'm an American, and I'm thinking of second language acquisition teachers mostly. (But in my personal experience, English grammar also lacked education about aspect in my Anglophone schools.) Indeed, the people who showed me the importance of aspect were non-anglo europeans.
    – Merchako
    Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 20:35
  • 5
    Yes, despite what teachers will say, English grammar is not taught in Anglophone schools. It never was; Latin grammar was the norm, and it was close enough if you weren't writing Latin. So everybody knew what "direct object" and "relative clause" and "perfect subjunctive" meant, because they'd studied Latin. So they used the terms quite normally; but then Latin stopped being required for college about 1960 or so, and now almost nobody who's teaching English in the USA has ever studied any Latin. So the grammatical terms are pretty meaningless to most people.
    – jlawler
    Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 4:06

1 Answer 1


Tense vs. aspect vs. mood

Let's first clarify what the different categories mean in the first place:

  • Tense is a category that locates events on a timeline. Distinctions between different tenses are often described by means of relations between event time (E), speech point (S) and reference point (R).
    For example, when I utter something like I realized that I had forgotten my wallet and we consider the embedded sentence I had forgotten my wallet, the speech point is now, the reference point is the moment in the past where I had the realization, and the event time is even further in the past, namely the point where I lost my wallet.
  • Aspect is a category that specifies the view taken on an event: An event can either be viewed from an outside perspective, perceiving the event as a completed whole, or from an inside perspective, perceiving the event from within as something continous.
  • Mood is something rather different: Roughly, it signals whether, e.g., the event described is a fact, a command, a possibility, a counterfactual proposition, a reported speech, etc.

Perfect vs. perfective

The difference between perfect and non-perfect can be illustrated by a pair of sentences like

(1)-a The military have taken over leadership (perfect)
(1)-b The military took over leadership (non-perfect)

While the perfect sentence indicates the action is still having an effect on the reference point (the miltary is still in power), this does not follow from the non-perfect sentence (the military took over leadership at some point in the time, but the resulting state might not extend up to today).

Velupillai (2012) treats perfect as an instance tense and not of aspect, under the assumption that it is the defining property of the perfect to express than an event is still relevant/having an effect to some later location on a timeline, thereby making the event span between two locations on a timeline:

enter image description here

Under this account, perfect is be considered a tense, rather than an aspect, because it has the function of locating an event on a timeline - more precisely, locating the event to be spanning the time between the points E and S/R.
(Here, S and R coincide - however, this holds only true for the present perfect where the speech time is the same as the reference time (as in They have taken over); in past perfect (as in They had taken over), the reference time is before the speech time, and the event would extend only until R, not up to S).

In contrast, perfective is considered an instance of aspect, indicating that the event is being viewed as a "bounded whole" (from an outside perspective), rather than as an ongoing event from an inside perfective (which would be called imperfective):

enter image description here
(Velupillai (2012))

The difference would be between sentences like

(2)-a I cooked lunch (perfective)
(2)-b I was cooking lunch (imperfective)

In the perfective sentence, the event is reported from an outside perspective as a bounded event, while in the imperfective sentence, the event is being viewed from an inside perspective as something ongoing.

Velupillai makes a sharp distinction between perfect and perfective here, arguing that the former is an instance of tense (because it locates an event on a timeline) while the latter is an instance of aspect (because it describes the view taken on the event). However, she also notes that perfect is often being labelled as an aspect category.

The problem

The problem is that English (or French) does not actually express aspect independently: The distinction between perfect and non-perfect, and perfecitve vs. non-perfective becomes apparent only in combination with tenses, such as past perfect, past perfect progressive, simple past, present progressive, etc. This makes it hard to actually draw the line between what is an aspect and what a tense, especially given that in school, different "tenses" (which might now be arguably pure tenses or mixtures of tense and aspect) are beingt taught in the shape of the complex conglomerates mentioned above.
Note that, for example, Wikipedia introduces the term imperfect as "a verb form [...] which combines past tense and imperfective aspect". I think it's pretty much the same issue with the name "past perfect": It combines a notion of tense with a notion of aspect.

Especially in as far as the difference between perfective (what we considered a tense above) and imperfective (what we considered an aspect above) in English is concerned, the difference is not immediately obvious: In a situation like

(3)-a John has lived in Chicago for five years
(3)-b John lived in Chicago for five years

I would argue that it is both tense and aspect that make the difference in meaning:
In (3)-a, the use of "past perfect" indicates that John's living in Chicago is a still ongoing state of affairs, there while in (3)-b, the use of "simple past" (non-perfect) suggests that the situation described does no longer hold true in the present, which is a tensual concept (supporting the view that perfect is a tense category).
However, at the same time, viewing (3)-b as something that describes a terminated event comes with a strongly perfective notion, as opposed to (3)-a, where the event is not really regarded as a bounded whole, which is an aspectual category. (Note how things are twisted: The sentence that doesn't use past prefect tenes is the more perefective one!)
This would lead to the conclusion that the use of perfect does have an aspectual component, and that it is not simply a matter of tense.

And now what?

What this all boils down to is that it might not be wrong to categorize perfect as an instance of tense, by assuming a difference between perfective and imperfective where the latter as a form of aspect and perfect is a device that locates events on a timeline (in the sense that some event is still of relevance to the speech or reference time), in the style that Velupillai treats these two terms.
However, what the above discussion also shows is that this distinction is not as straightforward when interpreting how different "tenses" are being used in English (or French or whatever other language), and that complex combinations of tense, aspect and possibly mood are being subsumed under the term "tense" because it reflects how aspect is being used in that language - namely in combination with tense categories, and not as an isolated grammatical function.
And because it is simply easier to explain to students. Telling them they are going to learn a new tense is easier to grasp than starting to introduce terminology that even linguists disagree about. Up to now, I haven't seen a word of command that puts an end to the discussion of perfect vs. non-perfect, perfect vs. perfective, tense vs. aspect once and for all, because such complex abstractions are vague by nature and languages don't always behave exactly in the categories you want them to.


"Perfect" can be considered a tense if one distinguishes it from "perfective" and considers perfect as soemthing that locates events on a timeline.
Perfect is in reality often, if not usually considered an aspect.
The reason is that the way perfect is being used in English, French etc. is a complex combination of tensual and aspectual concepts, putting into play the notion of perfective vs. imperfective also.
Calling it all tense is simply easier if it's only for the purpose of teaching students and not in the context of detailled linguistic analysis.


Velupillai, Viveka. 2012. An introduction to linguistic typology. John Benjamins Publishing.

  • "if one…considers perfect as something that locates events on a timeline." Is that condition the source of all the seeming disagreement?
    – Merchako
    Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 20:29
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    Are there any serious linguists who don't distinguish the perfect from perfective aspect??? My definition of tense is that it is temporal deixis. I'm not sure the perfect really carries the on-going sense much - I think most of the time is just used to shift the reference point backwards, which makes it related to tense, but not tense. But also not aspect ;)
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 0:01
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    @curiousdannii Under Comrie's definition the perfect is a tense: a "grammaticalization of location in time"; but it is usually described as a 'relative' or 'secondary' non-deictic tense which locates an eventuality indirectly, relative to a (deictically located) reference time rather directly and deictically relative to speech time. It may or may not be accompanied by a subsequent 'shift' of reference time to the anterior eventuality time. Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 0:44
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    @StoneyB Which work are you referring to? I remember that Comrie (1976) did not consider perfect to fall neatly in either category... Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 0:55
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    @BillJ 1. Someone asking me to write a book is not a necessary precondition for me to write a book. I might as well be writing a book because I wanted to write a book. 2. I didn't write a book. 3. If I had thought a short answer would have sufficed, I would have written a short answer. I didn't think a short answer would suffice, therefore I wrote a long answer. I see no reason to get upset over a long answer because it is a long answer. If you have a better solution at hand, you are always welcome to make it public. That's what we're here for ;) Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 20:26

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