Tense and Time

last changed 19 March 2003

                     

Introduction

An important text-level skill is the ability to use verb tenses (past or present) consistently throughout a long passage. Many pupils are still developing this ability at KS3.

Tense and time

What is the difference between tense and time?

  • Tense: classifies verbs as:
    • present tense
    • or past tense
  • Time: classifies situations described by verbs according to whether they occur at some time:
    • in the past,
    • in the present
    • or in the future

Usually, the link between tense and time is very simple:

  • present tense for present or future time
  • I like today's weather.

(The 'liking' is a situation in present time, and the verb like is in the present tense.)

    I leave tomorrow.

(The leaving is in future time and the verb leave is in the present tense.)

  • past tense for past time

    I liked yesterday's weather.

(The 'liking' is a situation in past time, and the verb liked is in the past tense.)

But sometimes a verb in one tense describes a situation in a different time:

If I died tomorrow, I would miss your party.

(The dying is in an imaginary future time, and the verb died is in the past tense.)

We shall look at some of these special rules for choosing tenses below.

Compound tenses

The underlined forms are all compound tenses:

She has seen him

She is seeing him

They had been running

:Compound tenses are easy to recognise:

  • They involve a verb chain.
  • The verb chain contains the auxiliary verbs have and/or be.
  • The first auxiliary verb shows the 'basic' tense:
    • present
    • or past.
  • The compound tense may be:
    • perfect, consisting of have followed by a past participle
      • have walked, has taken
    • continuous, consisting of be followed by a present participle
      • is walking, am taking
    • or perfect continuous, a combination of perfect and continuous: have been + present participle
      • has been walking, have been taking

The terms 'perfect' and 'continuous' are traditional but not very illuminating; 'perfect' hints at the 'completion' of the action (and not its perfection!), and 'continuous' at its continuation. The meaning of the perfect is discussed briefly below.

The three compound tenses may be basically present or past tense:

Compound tenses Present

Past

Perfect

has taken

had taken

Continuous

is taking

was taking

Perfect continuous

has been taking

had been taking

 

Some frequently asked questions:

Choosing a tense

We normally choose the tense according to the time of the situation we are describing.

Ahmed was a small boy who had lived in Birmingham all his life. He went to the school in the next road and was always playing football.

This description uses exclusively past tenses to show that the situation described existed in the past, and exists no longer.

Ahmed is a small boy who has lived in Birmingham all his life. He goes to the school in the next road and is always playing football.

This description uses exclusively present tenses to show that the situation described still exists at the time of writing.

In one piece of writing we may describe a number of separate 'worlds' in time; for example, a letter may describe both the events of yesterday and the plans for tomorrow, and so different tenses will be used.

The tense choice normally reflects the time of the described situation relative to the time of writing.

But there are situations where other principles influence our choice of tense:

  • Where the situation is imaginary.
  • If I knew French, I could read it.

  • Where a past situation is being presented in an especially vivid way.
  • Jake dives for cover and pulls his gun.

  • In discussions of literature.

    Shakespeare portrays Romeo as love-struck.

  • In backshifted subordinate clauses.

    I thought today was Monday.

These special cases are where problems of inconsistency are likely to arise.

Consistency

The choice of tense provides a time framework for the "world" being described. The chosen tense must be maintained when describing the same world. For example, take this simple report:

I know that Mary told John that she had met Jane.

In this sentence we can distinguish three different worlds:

  • The present world of the writer, "I"; this world defines 'now', the time of the "knowing".
  • The past world of Mary telling John.
  • The 'pre-past' world of Mary meeting Jane.

If this report was extended, it would be important to maintain these tense choices in order to keep the three worlds separate from each other.

Shifts of tense may be confusing, when they are inconsistent - i.e. when the tense used for one "world" changes for no reason.

    I saw a house in the distance, but the windows are all dark so they must be out.

Consistency is often a problem at KS3. In the next example all the finite verbs are highlighted; the three past tense verbs are underlined, and the present tense verbs are bold.

The writer suggests that Lewis and Benjamin had lived on their own all their lives on an isolated farm, with only neighbouring farms for company. They have help in the form of 'Theo' and are quite independant for 80 year olds. Their family is photographs of people all around the house, and when they sometimes come to visit. I think Benjamin is happier at the farm more than Lewis because, Benjamin doesn't like change. And was only happy when and after they saw the farm on the flight. Lewis, however, is more open to suggestion and, is frustrated by his cramped and frugal life.

Consistency is especially difficult when the writer is describing an imaginary world using either present tenses and will or past tenses and would. This difficulty can be seen in the examples of KS3 writing.


Why is there no future tense?

Future time is described by verbs in the present tense:

He will take the exam soon.

He is going to take the exam soon.

I shall take the exam soon.

I take the exam tomorrow.

Will take is often thought of as "future tense" but this use of the auxiliary is only one way of expressing future time, and in any case the auxiliary verb will is present tense. (Its past tense is would - click here for evidence.) All these expressions of future time combine with other present-tense verbs, just as we should expect if they themselves were basically present-tense verbs:

He will take the test when he is ready.

He will take the test when he was ready.

He would take the test when he is ready.

What is the tense of "He has taken the test" - past or present?

Has taken is called the 'present perfect' because its first verb, has, is in the present tense. It counts as a basic present tense, not a past tense, although it describes an event in the past.

The simple past tense would have been:

He took the test.

If you compare this with the present perfect:

He has taken the test.

you will see that the effect is quite different, although the difference is quite hard to explain. The difference is roughly like this:

  • If you want to say when the event happened, you use the simple past, not the present perfect:

    He took the test last week.

    He has taken the test last week.

  • If you want to say that the event is relevant to the present, you use the present perfect, rather than the simple present:

    He has already taken the test, so he is qualified.

    He already took the test, so he is qualified.

Fortunately native speakers of English apply this distinction efficiently in everyday speech so it should not raise problems in writing; but it is important to be aware of it when teaching tense and time because it shows that past time does not necessarily require a past tense. The choice of tense depends on how the writer views the event: as basically in the present world, or as basically in an earlier world.

The present perfect is also different from the past perfect:

He had taken the test.

This counts as a basic past tense combination, because had is past tense. This is used to show that the event is relevant to some earlier world or merely that it happened before this earlier world:

He had already taken the test, so he was qualified.

He had taken the test the week before I saw him.

The imaginary use of tense

KS3 writers are often asked to describe imaginary situations, so they often have to use tense to distinguish an imaginary world from the real world.

We use different tenses to describe imagined situations according to whether they are likely, possible or no longer possible:

likely to arise

If it rains, everyone will get wet.

Present tense verb forms, expressing future time.

merely possible

If it rained, everyone would get wet.

Past tense verb forms. (Is would really a past tense verb?)

impossible (now)

 

If it had rained, everyone would have got wet.

Past perfect and past verb forms.

The vivid use of tense

Stories are normally written in the past tense:

A shot rang out. It came from the hill above them. Jake dived to the ground and cautiously crawled behind a rock for cover.

But a deliberate choice can be made to tell a story in the present tense:

A shot rings out. It comes from the hill above them. Jake dives to the ground and cautiously crawls behind a rock for cover.

The vivid present conveys a sense of immediacy. It is rare in KS3 writing so this is an area where explicit instruction and help may be needed.

Use of tense in discussions of literature

There is a convention allowing use of the present tense to describe an author's ideas and writing, or to describe the world the writer described, even though the writing took place in the past and the author may be long dead:

Shakespeare portrays Romeo as love-struck.

According to Shakespeare, Romeo loves Juliet.

  • The normal rules for tense would demand past tenses because both Shakespeare's writing and Romeo's feelings happened (in reality or imagination) centuries ago.
  • Although the act of writing and the events described are in the past, the output of the writing, our experience of the events, is current.

This convention is not self-evident to inexperienced writers, and has to be learned. This KS3 writer has adopted the convention successfully:

This bit of writing from H. G. Wells is very descriptive and he uses many adjectives. He starts off in the first paragraph very unsure of what he is going to find. He expects a human shaped extra-terrestrial but he is just guessing. His attitude towards the alien then changes he starts describing what the alien looks like.

Backshift in subordinate clauses

The tense of a verb in a subordinate clause may be 'attracted' to the past tense of a main clause. For example,

I didn't realise that today was Tuesday.

The only reason for the past tense was is that didn't is past tense - otherwise we would expect today is Tuesday, since it is obviously still true.

Similarly, present tenses shift to past if they are reported by a past-tense verb:

She said she liked me (reporting: I like you.)

This pattern is called backshift, and is likely to cause problems of consistency at KS3.

Is would really a past-tense verb?

The word would is the past tense of will. If you doubt this, consider the following facts:

  • It has more obviously past-tense uses as in:
  • He would sit for hours dreaming about his youth.

  • The form is like that of could, which is clearly the past tense of can in examples like:
  • He could walk before he was a year old.

  • It is the form we produce if we apply backshift to will; for example, suppose we start with:

    It will rain soon.

then report this with a past-tense verb such as said:

    He said it would rain soon.