I'm trying to break down and analyse different sentence structures in English. Each group contains one present, past, and future sentence, but otherwise should be the same within a group.


He gives
He gave
He will give


He has given
He had given
He will have given


He is giving
He was giving
He will be giving


He has been giving
He had been giving
He will have been giving

I believe that:

  • they're all indicative
  • 2 is perfective
  • 3 & 4 are progressive

Assuming that I'm not mistaken so far, I have the following questions:

  1. What is the inverse of progressive called, i.e. 1 & 2?
  2. What do 1 & 3 have in common that 2 & 4 don't, and what are their respective names?
  • You should look at Chomsky's most influential book Syntactic Structures, where an elegant analysis of these sentence types is proposed.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented May 22, 2019 at 16:06
  • 1
    Present-day English does not have an indicative mood like French German and Latin do. All that's left of mood today is the modal auxiliary verbs, and the "were" of "I wish that were true", an isolated irrealis mood form
    – BillJ
    Commented May 22, 2019 at 18:15
  • @BillJ There are more constructions, like She insists that he call the doctor. (Just using indicative here is also valid too, but it means something else.) And they're productive enough to apply to any verb. Commented May 23, 2019 at 3:43
  • 1
    @AdamBittlingmayer I prefer to call the subjunctive a kind of construction, not a mood form. We don't really need the term 'indicative' since it does no work.
    – BillJ
    Commented May 23, 2019 at 7:40
  • In my view, English doesn't have a future tense either. The modal form "I will go" (syntactically indistinguishable from other modal such as "I should go") often has a meaning of futurity, but sometimes has other meanings, including epistemic ones.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented May 23, 2019 at 17:14

2 Answers 2


(One thing to note first, these terms aren't universally accepted. Linguists like to come up with new terms, and some people might use "imperfective" or "continuous" where I use "progressive", or "preterite" or "aoristic" where I use "simple", and so on.)

Tense-wise, English has only two morphological tenses: past and non-past. These can be determined by looking at the first verb word in the phrase. "Will" + non-past, as a special augmentation, makes future. (But people often use the non-past for future events without "will": would you really say *"after you will arrive in Berlin"?)

If there's no other auxiliary (extra verb word), you have simple aspect. This is a sort of default form without anything special added.

If you replace the verb with "have" + past participle, you have perfective aspect. This indicates that the action was already completed, and you're talking about the effects that resulted. For example, compare "I ate" (simple action in the past) against "I have [already] eaten" (the action's finished, but we're talking about its effects in the present, so "have" is marked non-past).

If you replace the verb with "be" + present participle, you have progressive aspect. This indicates that it's an ongoing action, or an action that's extended over a duration. Again, compare "I ate" against "I was eating" (…over a span of time, during which something else happened).

Finally, if you replace the verb with "be" + past participle, you have passive voice. The direct object becomes the subject, and the subject is pushed off somewhere else.

Any number of these can be applied, in the order I listed them. For example, you can say "he will have been being fired": from beginning to end, this marks future tense, perfective aspect, progressive aspect, and passive voice.

The opposites of these don't really have well-agreed-upon names. So the easiest way to refer to 1 and 2 is "non-progressive", and the easiest way to refer to 1 and 3 is "non-perfective". None of these appear only in English, but in many languages the perfective and progressive are mutually exclusive, so the non-progressive non-perfective can be given a name ("aoristic"). But that's not the case in English, where you can mix and match them freely.

  • "Aorist" is usually perfective, not imperfective/non-perfective. Also the way you describe the perfective makes it sound like it is primarily an English construction, whereas it is instead primarily the cross linguistic category, which is marked in English as you describe.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented May 23, 2019 at 12:15
  • @curiousdannii Ah, I'll fix that. I was thinking of Ancient Greek, which has three aspects, and aoristic is really "not perfective and not imperfective" (the duration is unimportant and whether or not its completion had effects is unimportant, like the English simple "I ate").
    – Draconis
    Commented May 23, 2019 at 16:29
  • I only know Biblical Greek, but by then I would've thought its aorist was perfective. As indeed the simple English "I ate" is perfective! The progressive is a subkind of the imperfective, so naturally it cannot overlap with the perfective. Maybe we're approaching this from different schools of aspect?
    – curiousdannii
    Commented May 23, 2019 at 22:04

There you go: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grammatical_tense#English

Regarding aspect, 1 is "simple", 2 is "perfect", 3 is "continous" (or "progressive"), 4 is "perfect continuous" (or "perfect progressive"). (I'm not aware of a special umbrella term for non-continuous forms.)

2 & 4 share perfect aspect.

  • 3 b) "He was giving" has a perfect aspect, too, no? I find the homonymy more interesting along the lines of "he has golden shoes", and the synonym "gold shoes". E.g. "she has upvoted answers" would be well ambiguous, but therefore tend to diverge (*upvotened? voted-up, voted answers up?).
    – vectory
    Commented May 22, 2019 at 17:40
  • 1
    "He was giving" is past tense (preterite continuous), but not perfect. (Note that perfect is not the same as perfective aspect. The terminology can be somewhat confusing ...)
    – Cyreth
    Commented May 22, 2019 at 21:10

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