Grammatical tense can be defined as the grammaticalized expression of the location in time of an action or state. Verb tense only roughly relates to actual time. The English language has two grammatical tenses:
- Present tense
- Past tense
The first grammatical tense in the English language is the present tense. The present tense allows speakers to form sentences in which the action or state occurs in the present in relation to the utterance. For example, the following sentences are examples of the English present tense in the active voice:
- My adorable puppy whines for people food. (simple present)
- Three women have entered the building. (present perfect)
- I am studying linguistic modality. (present progressive)
- The student teacher has been grading papers all evening. (present perfect-progressive)
The following sentences are examples of the English present tense in the passive voice:
- Baby Jesus is stolen from the manger every Christmas. (simple present passive)
- The little boy has been stung by a large bee. (present perfect passive)
- The letter is being delivered by a private courier. (present progressive passive)
- Some pamphlets have been being printed for free. (present perfect-progressive passive)
The second grammatical tense in the English language is the past tense. The past tense allows speakers to form sentences in which the action or state occurs in the past in relation to the utterance. For example, the following sentences are examples of the English past tense in the active voice:
- The angry boy broke the expensive dining room chair. (simple past)
- I had written the senator a letter. (past perfect)
- The ugly woman was coloring her hair green. (past progressive)
- We had been eating dinner during the storm. (past perfect-progressive)
The following sentences are examples of the English past tense in the passive voice:
- My car was repaired by a skilled mechanic. (simple past passive)
- The intruder had been beaten senseless by the old woman with the pan. (past perfect passive)
- The beach was being washed away by the ocean. (past progressive passive)
- Apples had been being stolen from my trees. (past perfect-progressive passive)
Despite popular belief, the English language lacks a future tense. Futurity in English is instead expressed through modal verbs, auxiliary constructions, and the present tense. For example, the following sentences are examples of futurity expressed through modal verbs:
- I will finish my essay tomorrow.
- He will have painted the living room by then.
- We shall come to your party.
- You shall not pass.
The following sentences are examples of futurity expressed through auxiliary constructions:
- I am going to wash the dishes later.
- She is going to travel to Europe next summer.
- The chair is fixing to break.
- Our lives are fixing to change forever.
The following sentences are examples of futurity expressed through the present tense:
- I start my new job in the morning.
- My brother goes to New York tomorrow.
- The students travel to a new school next year.
- The villain dies in the next scene.
Verb tense expresses the location in time of an action or state. Both native speakers and English language learners must learn the two grammatical tenses in English—present and past—in order to communicate effectively and fully in the English language.
Huddleston, Rodney. 1984. Introduction to the grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.