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Grammatical tense

Grammatical tense is a way languages express the time or place at which an event described by a sentence occurs. In English, this is a property of a verb form, and expresses only time-related information (English does not have spatial tenses). Tense, along with mood and person, are three ways in which verb forms are frequently characterized in Indo-European languages.

The exact number of tenses in a language is often a matter of some debate. The more complex tenses in English are formed by combining a particular tense of the verb with certain verbal auxiliaries, the most common of which are various forms of "be", various forms of "have", and the modal auxiliary "will." An example of some generally-recognized English tenses using the verb "go" is shown below:

Many analysts would not accept, however, that English has twelve tenses. For example the six "continuous" forms in the list above are usually treated under the heading of "aspect" rather than tense: the simple past and the past continuous are examples of the same tense, under this view. In addition, most modern grammars of English agree that English does not have a future tense (or a future perfect). These include the two largest and most sophisticated recent grammars:

Biber, D., S. Johansson, G. Leech, S. Conrad & E. Finegan. 1999. Longman grammar of spoken and written English. Harlow, Longman.

Huddleston, R. & G. Pullum. 2002. The Cambridge grammar of the English language. Cambridge, CUP.

The claim that the future tense is nonexistant comes from the realization that the auxiliary "will" is not a prefix of the main verb. The proof comes from questions, "Will I go?" for example.

However, if one uses that line of reasoning with the "future tense", it is illogical to restrict it to only that verb form. Thus, it immediately follows that English has only two tenses, "past" and a form usually called "present", but more properly called "indeterminate" or "non-past."

These same arguments restrict the number of tenses in all the Germanic Languages.

See also: aspect