In some languages like Chinese, it isn’t imperative that the tense of the verb is explicitly marked. So if you mean an action that will occur in the future, you can still refer to it in an all-encompassing way with a “present” form.

But in English, for the most part, the tense has to be marked, and it therefore has to agree with the scenario. If it doesn’t, it’s a communicative error.

How can the language-acquisition mechanisms in the mind permit either necessary explicit tense or a lack of explicit tense? Is it theorised that this is a selected parameter of language, like head first or last, SVO order, etc? This reminds me of programming languages, which can be strongly- or weakly-typed. Is that a connected feature of language?

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    It's just because some languages do have the category of tenses on the verbs, and some don't. Just the same way as English has the category of definiteness on nouns and it has to be marked explicitly on every noun, but Polish, Ukrainian, Russian and other languages have no such category on nouns, and it's up to you whether you mark it in a way or not. Each language has it's own set of grammar categories which are mandatory to be marked.
    – Yellow Sky
    Oct 27, 2021 at 11:52
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    I’m voting to close this question because as a Why?-question, it cannot be answered. Oct 27, 2021 at 12:24
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    @jk-ReinstateMonica I disagree, because many syntactic theories (especially the more UG-leaning ones) do specifically try to explain why this happens. I believe more lexicon-oriented syntactic approaches also have their own explanations of this, though I don't know as much about those.
    – Draconis
    Oct 27, 2021 at 15:03
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    In Chinese, we use extra vocabulary to indicate the tense and aspect. Since Chinese doesn't have morphology, certain adverbs like "xianzai"(now) "mashang"(is going to) and prepositions like "yao" also indicate the future, etc., and for marking the aspect, we use "le","zhe","guo" which is usually attached to the verb phrases or at the end of the sentence. I agree @YellowSky "each language has its own set of grammar categories". Draconis you are correct I think.
    – Xia.Yili
    Oct 28, 2021 at 0:03
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    It is interesting that there is still a lot of debate on whether Chinese clauses have the difference on finite or non-finite because there is no morphology for tense and aspect. CT James Huang2008 believes Chinese do have finite and nonfinite clauses but Xu Liejiong1994 does not think so.
    – Xia.Yili
    Oct 28, 2021 at 0:19

2 Answers 2


All human languages allow the expression of distinctions in time reference, so there's always a way to describe the situation that one event precedes another. Some languages do this with special grammaticalized markers, perhaps particles or morphemes attached to other words. Similarly: all languages allow the expression of the idea that a thing is small, or that it is big. Some languages do this with a grammaticalized marker – a diminutive or augmentative affix or noun class.

It is a basic property of languages that syntactic representations can have features of some sort, and that combinations of node can requirement "agreement" in those features. Very common examples are person, number, "gender" (including noun class and animacy-marking), definiteness, case, negation, tense). The general finding of linguistic typology is that in principle any semantic property can be grammaticalized and is subject to obligatory marking. However, some things are more prone to grammaticalization than others. Person and number are highly susceptible to grammaticalization, evidentiality is less-so.

Tense is more complicated because tense is traditionally used to indicate formal differences in verb morphology, but also to refer to precedence relations between events. A similar but different distinction is made between tense vs. aspect, which has to do with the "extent" of an event over time. Chinese does have grammatical markers for aspect.

The immediate explanation for why a given language mandates marking of some event-related property is that children learned that system based on the ambient data produced by their elders, who likewise learned a system from their grand-elders and so on. Most of the answer for a specific language is based on historical conservatism. There is a functional consideration that favors some system of marking, that there is functional utility to distinguishing between saying that some event has already happened, or is happening now, or is expected to happen (it's futile to try to prevent a fait accompli). Such communicative-functional considerations also favor the expression of number.

  • Thanks. So you don’t think there has to be a system which generates the grammar of a language based on an underlying parameter but that much of the grammar rules may be an accidental result of semantic expressive needs getting grammaticalised? Oct 27, 2021 at 16:03
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    There is a "system" underlying grammar learning, but I don't think it has any substantive parameters, as in P&P theory. So for example I don't think that there is a universal label "tense" that must be present but is obligatorily empty in some languages.
    – user6726
    Oct 27, 2021 at 16:16

Ultimately we can't answer why one language grammaticalises tense and why another language doesn't.

But what we can say is that all languages have at least one major verbal grammatical category. Tense is just one option, others include aspect, modality, or evidentiality; together these are called Tense-Aspect-Modality(-Evidentiality). As far as I know, all languages have at least one of these as a grammaticalised verbal feature. One of them will be the prominent category - it will be obligatory on non-infinitive verbs (though not necessarily as an affix). If there is a secondary category then it will be less significant, and may not be fully grammaticalised. English is an example of a Tense-prominent language: Aside from infinitive verbs, all verbs must have either PAST or NONPAST tense in English. English also has aspect - the progressive -ing, but it's not obligatory, and its absence does not always indicate perfective aspect. English also has auxiliary verbs which indicate modality, but it doesn't express the base realis/irrealis distinction.

An excellent short book on this topic is The Prominence of Tense, Aspect and Mood by D.N.S. Bhat. In addition to explaining these categories he also cautions against letting the prominent category of your language (for example, tense in English) hinder your observations of the languages you study which may in fact have a different prominent category.

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    Very fascinating! I hadn't heard of this "prominent category" theory before, but I also can't think of any languages which lack one.
    – Draconis
    Oct 28, 2021 at 0:17
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    I wonder, what's the prominent category in Malay/Indonesian?.. It looks like it's ‘voice-and-the-like’, but then it's not tense, not mood, and not aspect. Maybe the “tense, mood, aspect” list isn't complete? Or is voice a kind of evidentiality? Anyhow, even voice in Malay/Indonesian is in the sphere of derivation, word building, not inflection. And in some dialectal varieties parts of speech don't exist at all and no categories whatsoever are marked. How to treat that?
    – Yellow Sky
    Oct 28, 2021 at 0:52
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    @YellowSky Austronesian languages are generally modality prominent, though I don't know the specifics of Malay/Indonesian. A quick search suggests that Malay has lost its modal morphology, but the category could be expressed through auxiliaries instead? Voice is not typically grouped with TAM(E) categories, but maybe an argument could be made that a language is voice prominent instead of TAM? As to your final question, I've never seen a credible example of a language without parts of speech. Roots may be category-less, but languages still need nominals and verbals at least.
    – curiousdannii
    Oct 28, 2021 at 1:23
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    What you wrote in your answer is extremely interesting and I'm in no way going to contradict you, I'm just trying to put the whole picture together. Here's an article Valency Classes in Jakartan Indonesian about the dialect I mentioned. It discusses the OP question as applied to that dialect. You'd do a great favor if you have a look at it and share your thoughts about it.
    – Yellow Sky
    Oct 28, 2021 at 2:58
  • @YellowSky Sorry, I really don't know enough to say more. Maybe you have found a counterexample to the TAM dominance!
    – curiousdannii
    Oct 28, 2021 at 3:12

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