This article has been written by Damian Williams, who is an ELT author and teacher trainer.
Consider the following statement:
Present tenses refer to the present and past tenses refer to the past.
How far do you agree with this statement? Can you think of any exceptions? What about the following:
I wish you were more polite.
Earthquake kills 200.
Could you possibly open the window, please?
As you can see, the examples above show that the ‘rule’ given above isn’t very robust, as there are many, perfectly acceptable, exceptions. What we’re using when we say things like the statement above are not really ‘rules’, but ‘hints’. Michael Lewis (1986) makes the following distinction:
Advice and classroom hints are one thing, grammar rules are another. Rules cannot be given which include words like sometimes, in certain circumstances, might mean, etc.
So, what’s going on with the exceptions above? Well, in fact, these are not exceptions but actually part of a wider rule about the use of tenses. In order to gain a fuller understanding of what’s happening here, we first need to look more closely at what tense and aspect actually refer to.
Tense vs aspect
Tense and aspect are often labelled as the same thing. It’s not uncommon to see the present progressive referred to as ‘the present progressive tense’ or will have + past participle referred to as ‘the future perfect tense’, for example. However, tense and aspect are not the same thing.
There are two aspects in English: the progressive aspect (also referred to as continuous), and the perfect aspect.
The progressive aspect is formed with the auxiliary be (reflecting the tense) and the addition of -ing to the main verb. It usually describes an event which is taking place during a limited time, e.g. I’m staying with friends while my house is being redecorated. We also often use it when we’re more concerned with the action rather than the time frame or result, e.g. I’ve been writing reports all day as opposed to I’ve written all four reports.
The perfect aspect links two times together in some way, for example, by showing that an event which started in the past is ongoing (I’ve lived here for twenty years), or by showing a future result of a present action (They’ll have visited all the continents by 2025).
In Collins COBUILD English Grammar (2017), tense is defined as ‘… a verb form that indicates a particular point in time or period of time’. And in his study of The English Verb, Lewis, (1986:50), describes tense as involving ‘a morphological change in the base form of the verb. A verb form which is made with an auxiliary is not, in this technical meaning, a “tense”.’
Following this understanding, we can see that there are two tenses in English, the ‘present’ and ‘past’ tense; these are the only verbs forms that do not require an auxiliary. We add further meaning and viewpoints to these basic forms through the use of aspect. Aspect allows the speaker to interpret the events being described and express how they view them.
A closer examination of what tense really refers to can provide us with a deeper understanding of how tenses work in English. Rather than think in terms of present and past, it can be useful in English to think in terms of distance. What we refer to as ‘past’ in English is better thought of as ‘remote’. Likewise, what we consider the ‘present’ is better thought of in terms of ‘close’. With this in mind, our choice of tense in English is influenced by three key factors, time, reality, and register:
In the diagram above, you can see there are three ways in which distance affects our choice of tense: time (close as in ‘my life now’ or remote as in ‘my life in the past’), reality (close to reality or remote from it, i.e. unreal), and register (the ‘closer’ someone is to me socially, the more ‘present’ tenses I use).
There are no exceptions to this rule.
It’s important to remember that so much of our choice of tense and aspect depends not only on how we view the events, but also how we want the events to be viewed. For example, in the newspaper headline given at the top of this post, ‘Earthquake kills 200’, a present tense is used, even though the event occurred the day before. However, if a past tense were used, the event would sound less immediate, and therefore less newsworthy.
Another very common use of the present simple tense is to describe past events in the ‘historic present’, often used when recounting personal anecdotes, e.g. So she just walks in, sits down, and doesn’t even say hello! The use of a present tense here makes the story more personal/informal, and therefore brings the speaker and listener closer.
Why is the distinction between tense and aspect important?
Raising your learners’ awareness of this ‘remote → close’ framework can really help when they start to meet hypothetical language. The regret I wish I hadn’t been so lazy is expressed using the past perfect, for example, as it contains two elements of remoteness – past time and unreality (the speaker was lazy). Conversely, the regret I wish I wasn’t so lazy is expressed using the past simple, as it contains only one element of remoteness – unreality (the speaker is lazy), but is ‘close’ in terms of time (the speaker is referring to now).
Similarly, an awareness of the common uses of aspect across the different tenses can help learners have a more accurate understanding of what’s going on when we use them. An understanding that our choices aren’t only affected by how we view events but by how we want them to be viewed, can help learners gain a fuller, more critical understanding of the language they hear. For example, an employer referring to an employee might say, ‘Harry works at my restaurant’, whereas the employee, Harry, may say, ‘I’m working at a restaurant’, implying that it’s temporary, until he can find a better job.
As teachers, we need to be aware of these concepts, so we can be aware of what’s really going on with the language we teach. The question is: to what extent should we share such theories of language with our students? Thornbury (2010) disparagingly calls the more simplified, traditional grammar descriptions that we come across in coursebooks ‘Grammar McNuggets’, describing them in the following way:
An enthusiasm for compartmentalization, inherited from grammars of classical languages, has given rise to the elaborate architecture of the so-called tense system – including such grammar McNuggets as the future-in-the-past, and the past perfect continuous, not to mention the conditionals, first, second and third – features of the language that have little or no linguistic, let alone psychological, reality.
Many teachers feel that the classroom ‘McNuggets’ we teach learners, especially at lower levels, can be useful ‘stabilisers’ in order to help communication and build confidence. However, it’s vital that as teachers we see the ‘hints’ as the simplified half-truths that they really are; we must go beyond a simple coursebook-style ‘compartmentalization’, so as to raise our own awareness of what’s actually going on with the language we teach. We can then gradually introduce our learners to more complex ideas and descriptions as they become more confident, and so able to deal with further subtleties in the language.
Collins COBUILD English Grammar aims to do this by breaking down elements of grammar into useful chunks while also reflecting the true nature of the tense and aspect systems outlined above.
Lewis, M. 1986 The English Verb: An Exploration of Structure and Meaning LTP