27

Does English really have two tenses - present and past? Some linguists argue that it is a Latinate fallacy to think that English has three tenses.

Some English professors and even some native speakers do not accept the proposition.

If it is true, why are the standard grammar books published by Cambridge and Oxford Publications still mentioning the term future tense? Is it not misleading the learners?

Can we call the two sentences given below present continuous?

  1. "I am working here today."

  2. "I will be working here tomorrow."

I have doubts regarding others forms too.

My question is: Does English really have only two tenses?

I hope the answer will be comprehensive.

  • 4
    You have a problem to call using a help verb (will) to express future, a real future tense? – Joop Eggen Sep 5 at 14:29
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    The question is where to stop. If you allow will to be called the future tense, what will you call must, for instance? Or be going to? And what about used to as a past tense? One could go on indefinitely. The dispute is over the change that English made from being an inflected language like German or Latin that uses endings to being an analytic language that uses auxiliaries, articles, complementizers, prepositions, and other little particles in constructions to do the same work as inflection. You can call it what you want, but the linguists' way is the most consistent. – jlawler Sep 5 at 14:47
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    @jlawler : German has the same two simple tenses that English has, and uses an auxiliary verb to form the future tense, expressing that auxiliary verb in the present tense (except when it is in the past tense....) so the point of your contrast between English and German somehow seems to miss something, or else I am missing something. – Michael Hardy Sep 6 at 2:27
  • "I'll be at the station when your train arrives." That sentence has "arrives" in the present tense. Would I be right in thinking that in French or Italian the future tense would be used there? (I learned a little bit of Italian a few aeons ago, and my knowledge of French consists of a vague suspicion that that language exists.) – Michael Hardy Sep 6 at 2:29
  • @MichaelHardy French would use a future tense "Je serai là quand ton train arrivera", but Spanish would use a subjunctive present "Estaré allí cuando llegue tu tren" – David Sep 6 at 8:17
35

Does English really have only two tenses.

It depends how you define "tense", but to most linguists, yes.

All languages can mark the time when an event occurs, to any degree of specificity you want. You can say "I played a game", or "I played a game yesterday", or "I played a game at 11:35am on September 4th", and so on.

Linguists generally only call it "tense" (sometimes "morphological tense", though that's not quite the same thing) when this marking is mandatory. For example, if I played a game at 11:35am on September 4th, then "I played a game yesterday" is perfectly correct (as of the time of writing), and "I played a game" is also fine. But that -ed is mandatory for past-tense verbs in English: that part can't be left off. As soon as I switch to "I play a game", the meaning has changed significantly.

And in English, the only mandatory morphological distinction is between past and non-past. It's conventional to use "will" to mark events happening in the future, but you can also have future meanings without it: how about "I'm going to play a game"? Or "after I play this game [I'm going to go get pizza]"? In both cases, the game-playing will happen in the future, but no "will" is required. The only thing that is required is using a non-past form, since the event is non-past: we can't say *"after I played this game [I'm going to go get pizza]". (The star before it is linguistics shorthand for "this isn't valid".)

This is why some languages, like Mandarin, are said to be tenseless. Mandarin is certainly capable of expressing whether an event happens in the past, present, or future. But this marking is not mandatory: it's entirely optional, like whether to include "…yesterday" or "…tomorrow" in English. So linguists say Mandarin has no (morphological) tenses at all.

  • 3
    In Ukrainian and Russian which have synthetic future verb forms, using them when speaking about future is not mandatory, too. Shall I consider that these two languages have no future tenses? ('You will play': Ukrainian зіграєш, гратимеш, Russian сыграешь - these verb forms have only future meaning, they cannot be used for other tenses or time planes). – Yellow Sky Sep 5 at 17:28
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    They convey nothing special except that they are 100% future. Usually when talking about future, they are used, but very often the present forms are used instead, and if there's an indication it's about future, like 'tomorrow' or 'next week', there's absolutely no difference, which form is used, future of present. My point is that "mandatory" is not the best criterion to tell if it is a tense or not. Present can be used when talking about the past: "Yesterday I'm entering the bar and I see Bill! He's sitting there drinking beer as if nothing has happened." – Yellow Sky Sep 5 at 17:45
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    @YellowSky That's part of why I've always been hesitant about this particular analysis of English's future auxiliaries. The same thing happens in Romance languages; the inflectional future can occasionally have modal or evidential meanings (IT: "Sarà il postino" be.FUT.3SG the postman, "it must be the postman, I infer") and it's fine to refer to future events in the present if it's marked otherwise (FR: "On part en Asie l'année prochaine" we=leave.IND.PRES in Asia the year next, "we visit Asia next year") – Eau qui dort Sep 5 at 20:05
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    This is a distinction I’ve never seen before, mandatory markedness being a requirement for something to be a tense. The reason given for why English is said to have only two tenses has always, in my experience, been that English has only two morphological tenses (i.e., temporal constructions which are expressed solely through morphology). Marking is much more nebulous, too: “I play a game yesterday” is fine as a narrative present, for example, so would English only have one tense by that definition? – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 5 at 22:56
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    The past tense marker isn't entirely mandatory. It's quite common to use present tense for a past event to put the listener in the moment. ("Did you hear what happened yesterday? I'm at the bar, and Fred walks in...") Similarly, your game-playing example can be expressed in the present in Spanish, which does have a future tense. (I don't think that would work if it wasn't immediate future). – Peter Taylor Sep 6 at 7:54
11

The argument that the English "will + infinitive" construction should not be considered a future tense is fairly complex. It is not an obvious matter, and I think the rejection of this classification is usually based on several criteria, not just one.

I believe a tense is usually defined as something like a grammaticalized construction used for time reference. I know that there is a lot of linguistic literature about the exact meaning of "tense" and how it works, but I haven't read any of it, so I can't give an explanation of whether the semantics of the English "will" construction qualify as future tense or not from a semantic point of view.

Contrary to what has been said in other posts and comments, I don't think there is any general consensus that tense can only be expressed by synthetic, and not by analytic constructions. French, German and Latin all have analytic constructions for some tense/aspect/voice combinations, but these constructions are still generally understood to be marked for tense (e.g. French "il est allé" is typically classified as a past tense construction despite the fact that the finite verb, the auxiliary "est", does not bear past-tense inflection).

I'm also not sure whether it is supportable to say that some other languages have analytically expressed tenses, but English specifically does not. If I remember correctly, the CGEL analysis of the English tense system categorizes the perfect as a secondary axis of tense (rather than as a primarily aspectual construction), even though the perfect is formed analytically.

Optionality and frequency (I think as proxies for grammaticalization) are criteria that can be applied even to languages with a synthetic "future" construction

I think Draconis's answer, in bringing up the topic of "optional" vs "mandatory" constructions, gets at a more important point. Tense is supposed to be "grammaticalized", and in general, more grammaticalized categories in a language are expected to be more obligatory and to have fewer competing alternatives for their expression than less grammaticalized categories. I'm not sure I put this very clearly, so here is an example of what I mean: English the is considered to be a highly grammaticalized word, of a type that has been given a special name ("definite article") and that is often viewed as distinct from the less frequent demonstratives this and that. In some languages, demonstratives can be used in certain contexts to express a similar idea to that of the English definite article. But if it is not obligatory to mark definite noun phrases with a demonstrative, the language is less likely to be categorized as "having definite articles".

In fact, even languages with synthetic constructions that refer to the future are not invariably classified as having future tenses. In the comments section of the World Atlas of Language Structures chapter 67, "The Future Tense", by Östen Dahl and Viveka Velupillai, Dahl mentions an argument for not classifying Portuguese's inflectional future construction as a future tense because the verb form is "not [...] used generally enough to be treated as a grammaticalized future tense (it is in competition both with the present and with the periphrastic ‘go’ construction)."

Dahl and Velupillai also restrict their chapter to synthetic/inflectional constructions, but I feel like this criterion may have been chosen in part for convenience.

I found a paper by Martin Haspelmath about the issue of classifying certain analytic constructions as "periphrastic" ("Periphrasis", Article 68 of Morphology: A Handbook of Inflection and Word-Formation, HSK, de Gruyter) which may have some relevance. Haspelmath brings up the connection of the concept of "periphrasis" and grammaticalization, and also draws a distinction between "suppletive periphrasis" of the kind found in the Latin tense paradigm (where some kinds of futures are expressed analytically, but others are expressed synthetically) and "categorical periphrasis" like the English have-perfect, which is always expressed analytically.

To understand the contrast between what English has and what a "real" future tense would be, it might be best to look at some of the following languages

As some comments have noted, many other European languages can be viewed as having the same kind of problematic aspects to their "future tenses": not only Germanic languages, but also Slavic languages and even, as I mentioned above, some Romance languages, despite the development of a synthetic future construction in Romance.

For the sake of better understanding the range of future constructions in languages, and how tenselike they can be, it may be helpful to study the following languages mentioned in another paper by Dahl:

As noted in Bybee and Dahl (1989), the future grams in an expanded version of the sample used in Dahl's earlier investigation (Dahl 1985) which were systematically used in both temporal and conditional clauses were all bound. In the expanded sample, the languages in question were the following: Alawa, Bandjalang (Australian), Oneida, Seneca (Algonquian), Hebrew (Semitic), Hindi/Urdu, Kurdish, Latvian (Indo-European), Georgian (Kartvelian). The futures in these languages are also characterized by a number of other indicators of high degree of grammaticalization: close adherence to the generalized cross-linguistic profile of the gramtype, high frequency of use and tendency to obligatory use in central cases (to the extent that all these things can be judged about from the questionnaire data).

[...] the absence of any languages from Western or Southern Europe, two areas that are rather over-represented in the sample, should be noted. The conclusion is that full grammaticalization of futures is not common in large parts of Europe. This is a point that we shall return to.

("The grammar of future time reference in European languages", by Östen Dahl, p. 5)

4

There is an argument for distinguishing morphological tenses from periphrastic tenses. The English verb “to be” has five morphological tenses:

present: I am

past: I was

present subjunctive: (if) I be

past subjunctive: (if) I were

imperative: be!

Periphrastic tenses combine a form of the verb with a battery of auxiliaries, giving:

present continuous: I am working

past continuous: I was working

future: I shall/will work

future continuous: I shall/will be working

and a lot more.

Your question is basically whether “tense” is a morphological category or a syntactic category. Both positions have their supporters, but the former is neater.

  • 8
    Please don't confuse matters further by calling modal and aspect forms tenses. – curiousdannii Sep 5 at 22:28
  • I’ve never heard moods referred to as distinct tenses. That seems to rather muddle the definition. Why should the present indicative and the present subjunctive and the present imperative be different tenses when they refer to the same temporal entity? – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 6 at 6:38
  • People asking questions here and on ELU.SE frequently speak of the present simple tense, the future progressive tense, the past perfect tense, and many other sogenannte "tenses". Tense/Aspect/Modal criteria interact; they just don't always interact the same way. – jlawler Sep 6 at 15:28
3

It depends on what you mean by "tense". One thing that goes into making a "tense" is time reference, so the English future qualifies on that basis. The other thing, though, is "grammaticalization", such as affixing a certain morpheme to verbs to form the particular verb form. Compare how past, present and future are constructed in Swahili, Assamese, or Lushootseed where you add certain affixes. If your understanding of "tense" is that it's about verb form, then English doesn't have a future tense. But we can still convey future time reference by adding something in the neighborhood of the verb (an auxiliary like "shall", "will", "may", subordination like "going to" or "intend to", or "about to").

  • 1
    In Swahili, tenses are marked with prefixes on the verb, preceded by the subject personal prefix. For the future tense, the prefix is -ta-, e.g. nitapiga 'I will beat': ni-ta-pig-a – 1st.p.sg-future-beat-ind.mood. If you wrote it as *ni ta piga, you'd have it exactly word-for-word as the English "I will beat", or, vice versa, if in English we wrote it as '*iwillbeat', we'd have it as a verb with 2 prefixes, exactly like in Swahili. – Yellow Sky Sep 5 at 15:43
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    It's not about spelling, it's about whether you have different verb forms. nitakupigia is one word, a verb form, translatable into English as 5 words. – user6726 Sep 5 at 16:32
  • Anyhow, -ta- is a prefix, not suffix. – Yellow Sky Sep 5 at 16:34
  • @YellowSky : Shouldn't -ta- be considered an infix rather than a prefix? It seems Swahili has prefixes and infixes, but no suffixes, and English has prefixes and suffixes but no infixes. – Michael Hardy Sep 6 at 2:33
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    @Michael Hardy Infixes are inserted inside morphemes whereas prefixes are not. For example, in Tagalog the actor-trigger infix -um- is added inside the verb root bili "to buy" to give bumbili (rather than as a prefix, e.g *umbili). The prefix ta-, however, is not inserted inside the verb root in Swahili (that is, you don't get forms like *ni-pi<ta>g-a, where pig- is the verb root); it doesn't matter that it is preceded by another prefix, ta- is still a prefix. – Miztli Sep 6 at 9:27
0

It is only now when the future tense deteriorated to the mere one auxiliary will that it lost its look as a true tense, but quite recently, like 50 years ago, it used to have the 1st.p. vs. non-1st.p. distinction, shall vs. will suppletive auxiliaries, and this feature distinguished it from both shall and will as modal verbs, each of them has just one single form for all the persons and numbers. We can speak about the on-going restructuring of the future tense, but definitely not about its absence as such.

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