Expressing time

Grammar is important for expressing information about time. It helps us to locate situations in the past, present or future, and to describe how situations unfold over time.

This is typically done by using different forms of the verb. For example:

  • Mina helps him.
  • Mina helped him.
  • Mina is helping him.
  • Mina has helped him.

You can see that these examples involve different verb suffixes (e.g. helps, helped), and some of the examples have auxiliary verbs which work together with the main verb (is + helping, has + helped).

These different grammatical ways of talking about time are called tense and aspect. We will look here at how these patterns work.

Most linguists agree that English has two main tenses, namely the present tense and the past tense, which are marked on the verb.

  • We can use a present tense form like works to talk about a present-time situation, as in Mina works in a bank.
  • Or we can use a past tense form like worked to talk about a past-time situation, as in Mina worked in a bank.

When the verb phrase has just a main verb with no auxiliary verbs, we can use the labels simple present and simple past:

  • Mina works in a bank. (simple present tense)
  • Mina worked in a bank. (simple past tense)

Here are some examples from our corpus. See if you can find the verb for each one and identify each example as simple present tense or simple past tense.

  1. He took two tries and three goals. [S2A-004 #54]
  2. Gillespie positioned himself for a challenge. [W2C-004 #50]
  3. Catherine falls in and out of love with various radical men. [W2B-009 #79]
  4. This tiny village is world-famous as the shrine of all travelling gypsies. [S2B-027 #109]
  5. Well, we went away to Dorset for a week at Easter. [S1A-021 #250]

When you’ve finished, you can check your answers below.

Here are the answers:

  1. He took two tries and three goals. (simple past)
  2. Gillespie positioned himself for a challenge. (simple past)
  3. Catherine falls in and out of love with various radical men. (simple present)
  4. This tiny village is world-famous as the shrine of all travelling gypsies. (simple present)
  5. Well, we went away to Dorset for a week at Easter. (simple past)

As well as tense, English has what is called aspect. This is marked by using an auxiliary verb (called an aspectual auxiliary).

English has two types of aspect, called progressive aspect and perfect aspect. They mark different types of meaning, as we will see below.

Progressive aspect indicates that a situation is ongoing:

  • And they are bringing the ball forward. [S2A-018 #241]
  • ...behind my back he was slagging me. [S1A-052 #100]

These two examples illustrate the present progressive (are bringing) and the past progressive (was slagging). The present progressive indicates that the action is ongoing now, while the past progressive tells us that the action was ongoing at some past time.

Progressive aspect is marked with a form of the auxiliary verb be followed by a verb in the present participle form. It can combine with tense:

  • In the present progressive, be takes a present tense form (e.g. are bringing).
  • In the past progressive, be takes a past tense form (e.g. was slagging).

Here are some further examples:

  • But after a few anxious moments the baby is breathing. [S2B-011 #53] (present progressive)
  • Groups of people were straggling up a moorland path. [W2F-018 #63] (past progressive)

Perfect aspect is marked by using the auxiliary verb have followed by a verb in the past participle form. Here are some examples:

  • And Denis Irwin the full back has come up to take it. [S2A-003 #170]
  • We asked for the documents which they had mentioned[S2B-025 #115]

The first example is of the present perfect, the second the past perfect:

  • In the present perfect, have takes a present tense form (e.g. has come).
  • In the past perfect, have takes a past tense form (e.g. had mentioned).

Let’s look at our examples again and think about their meaning:

  • And Denis Irwin the full back has come up to take it. [S2A-003 #170]
  • We asked for the documents which they had mentioned[S2B-025 #115]

The present perfect typically indicates that a situation happened (or started) before the present time, but is still relevant to us now, perhaps because it has only just taken place. In our example (from a radio sports commentary), we can assume that Denis Irwin is, at the time of speaking, in position and ready to act.

In the second example, the past perfect is used to show that the action took place before a particular moment in the past: the asking happened at some time in the past, and the mentioning happened before that.

Here are some further examples:

  • You’ve spilt something on the carpet here, Vicky, by the way. [S1A-040 #426] (present perfect)
  • Before leaving for Cumberland Catherine had organised afternoon tea in Cadell Street for a later date. [W2F-010 #78] (past perfect)

More complex examples can also occur:

  • For two years customs officers have been working on an undercover investigation code named Operation Jade. [S2B-019 #49]

Here we have three verbs: the present tense perfect auxiliary have combined with the progressive auxiliary be and the present participle working, such that we have a present perfect progressive construction. The sentence describes a situation that started in the past and has been continuing over a period of two years up until the speaker’s present moment. (The situation may or may not continue beyond that moment.)

We’ve seen how tense and aspect are marked in the verb phrase. But English has further ways of talking about time. For example, we can also use Adverbials to express information about time:

  • Last night we went out with our Belgian flat-mate ... [W1B-005 #141]
  • She came at seven o’clock in the morning. [S1B-066 #137]
  • And I’ve known Ian for eighteen years. [S1A-017 #173]
  • He happens to shave three times a day. [S1A-065 #197]
  • I have often been idiotic. [W2F-018 #39]

These Adverbials answer questions such as: When? For how long? How often? Short Adverbials can occur inside the verb phrase, as in the last example.

Using a timeline

It can be helpful to place examples on a timeline:

past   now   future

Click on the text below:

Summary table

Name

Example

simple present

Mina helps him.

simple past

Mina helped him.

present progressive

Mina is helping him.

past progressive

Mina was helping him.

present perfect

Mina has helped him.

past perfect

Mina had helped him.


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