Definition of term Tense

Verbs in present-day English change their form depending on whether they are expressing past or present states: I walk (now), I walked (then); I fight (now), I fought (then). There is one further suffix in present-day Standard English, the third person singular present ending -s: he/she/it/one walks. And that’s it. There are no more suffixes to be added to the verb itself to express when the action took place.

Verbs which are marked to express a time-period are called finite verbs. Finite verbs in English can be marked with –ed, -s or zero, and can express past or present time.

Present Past

singular

plural

singular

plural

I

0

we

0

I

-ed

we

-ed

you

0

you

0

you

-ed

you

-ed

he/she/it

-s

they

0

he/she/it

-ed

they

-ed

If we want to express futurity, we have to use a time-referring verb, known as an auxiliary: I will walk, I shall walk, or express it another way: I am going to walk, tomorrow it is my intention to walk. There is no ending, or vowel change, that we can add to the verb itself to express futurity. Present-day English has two tenses that are expressed morphologically, past and present. [A morpheme is the smallest grammatical unit; in this case, zero, -s and –ed.]

However rather than the term ‘present’, linguists sometimes use the term ‘non-past’ instead. This is because the present tense form is used for past, present and future states:

Water boils at 100 degrees

(it always has boiled, boils now, and will boil in the future at 100 degrees)

On Monday I fly to Helsinki

(Monday is in the future)

I read my email every day

(I have read my email every day in the past up til now, and probably will in future, a habitual action)

Demonstration of Tense: Non-Past

Consider the time-periods expressed by the finite verbs in the following extract:

As an apprentice to lighthouse-keeping my duties were as follows:

  1. Brew a pot of Full Strength Samson and take it to Pew.

  2. 8 am. Take DogJim for a walk.

  3. 9 am. Cook bacon.

  4. 10 am. Sluice the stairs.

  5. 11 am. More tea.

  6. Noon. Polish the instruments.

  7. 1 pm. Chops and tomato sauce.

  8. 2 pm. Lesson – History of Lighthouses.

  9. 3 pm. Wash our socks etc.

  10. 4 pm. More tea.

  11. 5 pm. Walk the dog and collect supplies.

  12. 6 pm. Pew cooks supper.

  13. 7 pm. Pew sets the light.  I watch.

  14. 8 pm. Pew tells me a story.

  15. 9 pm. Pew tends the light. Bed.

These are all habitual actions, going back to whenever the apprentice began work and projecting into the future: what I have always done since I became an apprentice lighthouse-keeper and what I shall do until my apprenticeship ends. The verbs brew, take, cook, sluice, polish, wash, walk and collect, base forms, are a list of instructions. [Instructions, orders and commands are known as imperatives.] However cooks, sets, tells, tends are marked with third person singular –s, and watch, although zero-marked, is governed by the pronoun I, so the verbs in 12-15 are all finite, marked for the non-past. One could then, retrospectively, read the previous verbs as though they were governed by I too – in which case, they too would be non-past rather than imperatives; i.e. ‘I brew a pot of Full Strength Samson and take it to Pew, I take DogJim for a walk’.

What is the effect? Beginning reading the text as a set of imperative commands which then veer to finite forms lends a certain bathos. The imperative style is military (sluice the stairs, polish the instruments, collect supplies), as is the vocabulary (sluice rather than clean; collect supplies rather than do the shopping), but the actions become domestic (walk the dog, Pew tells me a story), as does the vocabulary (more tea). The two structures, imperative and non-past, and the two styles, military and domestic, lead to a sense of cosiness, an implicit security in a simple routine with storytelling before bed.

Literary Exercise

In the following extract, which is from the beginning of a radio play, identify the non-past verb forms. Say whether they are indicating past, present or future time-settings, and consider their effect.

The Fishmonger's Arms, Wood Green, 1906.

First read the text, then click below to see the non-past verb forms made explicit.

In the following finite Verb Phrases, verbs marked for the simple non-past are in red. Verb Phrases consisting of finite auxiliary verbs plus non-finite –ing forms are marked orange, finite auxiliary verbs plus non-finite -ed forms are marked white, and finite auxiliary verbs plus non-finite base forms are marked blue. My comment on the time-setting is expressed in green.

[Voice 1] I am having a very nice time. (at the present moment and in the recent past)

The weather is up and down (at the present moment and in the recent past), but surprisingly warm, on the whole, more often than not.

I hope (right now) you’re feeling well (right now, and over the last few days), and not as peaky as you did, the last time I saw you.

No, you didn’t feel peaky, you felt perfectly well, you simply looked peaky.

Do you miss me? (at the present moment and in the recent past)

I am having a very nice time (at the present moment and in the recent past) and I hope (right now) you are glad of that (right now).

At the moment I am dead drunk (right now).

I had five pints in The Fishmongers Arms tonight, followed by three double scotches, and literally rolled home.

When I say (right now) home I can assure you (right now) that my room is extremely pleasant (at the present moment, in the past, in the future). So is the bathroom (at the present moment, in the past, in the future). Extremely pleasant. I have some very pleasant baths indeed (in the fairly recent past, and in the future, though not right now) in the bathroom. So does everybody else (in the past) in the house. They all lie quite naked in the bath (in the past) and have very pleasant baths indeed (in the past, probably in the future). All the people in the house go about (in the past, probably in the future) saying what a superb bath and bathroom the one we share is (at the present moment, in the past, in the future), they go about (in the past, probably in the future) telling literally everyone they meet (in the past, in the future) what lovely baths you can get (at the present moment, in the past, in the future) in this place, more or less unparalleled, to put it bluntly.

It’s got a lot to do with the landlady (at the present moment, in the past, in the future), who is a Mrs Withers (at the present moment, in the past, in the future), a person who turns out to be an utterly charming person of impeccable credentials (at the present moment, in the past, in the future).

When I said I was drunk I was of course making a joke.

I bet you laughed.

Mother?

Did you get the joke? You know (past, present, future) I never touch alcohol (past, present, future).

I like being in this enormous city (recent past, present, future), all by myself. I expect (right now) to make friends in the not too distant future.

I expect (right now) to make girlfriends too.

I expect (right now) to meet a very nice girl. Having met her, I shall bring her home to meet my mother (present declaration of future intent).

I like walking in this enormous city (in the recent past, right now (that is, I like the idea of walking right now)), all by myself. It’s fun (in the recent past, in the future) to know no-one at all. When I pass people in the street (in the recent past) they don’t realize (in the recent past) that I don’t know them (in the recent past) from Adam. They know other people (in the recent past) and even more other people know them (in the recent past), so they naturally think (in the recent past) that even if I don’t know them (in the recent past) I know the other people (in the recent past). So they look at me (in the recent past), they try to catch my eye (in the recent past), they expect me to speak (in the recent past). But as I do not know them (in the recent past) I do not speak (in the recent past). Nor do I ever feel (in the recent past) the slightest temptation to do so.

You see, mother (right now), I am not lonely (now), because all that has ever happened to me (in the past) is with me (now and in the future), keeps me company (now and in the future); my childhood, for example, through which you, my mother, and he, my father, guided me.

I get on very well with my landlady (past, present, future), Mrs Withers. She tells me (in the recent past) I am her solace (in the recent past). I have a drink with her at lunchtime (in the recent past) and another one at teatime and then take her (in the recent past) for a couple in the evening at The Fishmongers Arms.


Hide explicit non-past verb forms.

Click here to see the non-past verb forms in the above text made explicit.


Identify the non-past verb forms. Say whether they are indicating past, present or future time-settings, and consider their effect. Write your answer below:


Compare your answer with the sample answer below:

Commentary

There are several reasons why this monologue sounds slightly odd (it turns out later to be a letter – this is the start of the play – though at this stage it could be one side of a phone conversation), but non-past usage is not one of them. You may find your interpretations of the time-settings are slightly different from mine, but you’ll see that there is a range of time-settings conveyed by the non-past. None are particularly unusual and they don’t pose any processing problems for the listener – it’s the kind of thing we do with the non-past in conversation all the time. They provide a semblance of normality; a person reflecting on his recent activities.

What is unusual is the pragmatics: to be quite so precise about one’s expectations (to meet friends, girls, a very nice girl, a potential wife) with no specific prospect – no bird in the hand, as it were; to be quite so emphatic and repetitious about the loveliness of bathing in the rooming-house (although certainly bathrooms in British rooming-houses could be quite appalling); to be quite so specific about the thoughts and intentions of unknown passers-by in the city. The declaration about being drunk, although retracted, could be a plausible explanation.

Teaching Point

This section introduces tense: past and non-past; -ed, -s, and zero markers; and the concept of finite verbs, which are marked for tense.  The present tense doesn’t necessarily convey a present time-setting; speakers use it to express a range of more-or-less-distant points in time.


University College London's
The Internet Grammar of English links:

Past and Present Forms