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How many tenses there (really) are in English (a critical view of the traditional grammar syllabus)

If you are an English teacher or learner, you have at some point asked yourself, “How many tenses are there in English? 12? 14? 16?"


TRADITIONAL GRAMMAR PRESENTATION OF THE ENGLISH TENSES


Most mainstream grammar and course books will present you with the following list of verb tenses:


1. Present Simple (I study English every day.)

2. Present Continuous (I’m studying English at the moment.)

3. Present Perfect Simple (I’ve studied English for ages/since a very young age.)

4. Present Perfect Continuous (I’ve been studying a lot of English lately.)

5. Past Simple (I studied English last year.)

6. Past Continuous (I was studying English when you called me.)

7. Past Perfect Simple (I had already studied English before I moved to Canada.)

8. Past Perfect Continuous (I had been studying English for many years when I decided to become an English teacher.)

9. Future Simple (I will probably study English at a higher level in the future.)

10. Future Continuous (I’ll be studying English at that time tomorrow.)

11. Future Perfect Simple (At that time next week, I will have studied English for at least 10 hours.)

12. Future Perfect Continuous (By the time I move to Canada, I’ll have been studying English for many years.)

13. Going-to future (for intentions) (I’m going to study English this afternoon.)

14. Going-to future in the past (I was going to study English today, but I had unexpected visitors.)


Some grammar books will also include the so called “Conditional tenses” (or Future Past tenses):

• Simple conditional (I would study English.)

• Continuous conditional (I would be studying English.)

• Perfect conditional (I would have studied English.)

• Perfect Continuous conditional (I would have been studying English.)


As you can see, there are 12 main “tenses”, plus other 2 ways of expressing future intentions, plus other 4 conditional/future-past “tenses”.


Sounds pretty complicated, right? Think about the reaction most learners have when they see this long list, especially those still struggling to wrap their heads around “present simple vs. present continuous”. Imagine the detrimental effect on their motivation for learning English altogether!


TENSE, TIME, AND ASPECT


Now, let’s do both teachers and learners a favor. Let’s do some CLARIFICATION and SIMPLIFICATION of the English verb structure, shall we?


What if I told you there were ONLY TWO TENSES in the English Grammar? PRESENT and PAST.


“Wait a minute!” you might say. “What about the Future?”


Well, that’s exactly where we make a very important, yet overlooked point in teaching and learning English grammar- the distinction between TENSE and TIME.


TENSE is simply a grammatical category marked by the form of the main verb. For example, base form- speak, infinitive- to speak, past form- spoke, present participle- speaking, or past participle- spoken).


ASPECT is another, very important grammatical category. It helps us view the action, state, or event, expressed by the verb in its entirety, as:

• stable, habitual, or finished (simple aspect), or as

• temporary, ongoing, and changing, therefore unfinished (continuous aspect), or as

• expressing a relation between the time of the event and the time of reference (perfect aspect).


TIME, on the other hand, is not a grammatical category, but a concept related to our PERCEPTION OF REALITY.

There are three times: PAST, PRESENT, and FUTURE.

Time is expressed grammatically through the verb form and by means of adverbials like now, yesterday, tomorrow, next week, etc.)


So, TIME is a category of MEANING, whereas TENSE is a category of (verb) FORM.


TIME AND TENSE DO NOT ALWAYS COINCIDE


Now the tricky part is that TIME AND TENSE DO NOT ALWAYS COINCIDE. Here are a few examples:


• Newspaper headlines report past evens but use a present verb form to give the statement a sense of urgency and excitement, which is assumed to be more enticing to the reader. This is known as the historical present. (Example: UK economy accelerates as tourism and hospitality emerge from lockdown, The Guardian)

• We tell jokes or anecdotes using present verb forms while telling a past story. (Example: So, yesterday, there’s this weird guy. He’s looking at me smiling. At some point, he comes closer and says hi, and only at that moment I realize it’s my neighbor without the beard!)

• We talk about future plans and arrangements using a present continuous verb form. (Example: I’m meeting my client at 5pm tomorrow.)

• We use a present simple verb form to refer to future schedules and programs. (Example: Our train leaves at 5 pm tomorrow and arrives at 7:15. The concert starts at 10 and finishes past midnight.)

• We talk about a hypothetical present using a past verb form. Yes, the so called second conditional. (Example: I can’t afford it, but if I had the money, I’d buy it.)


Do you see now why there is NO SUCH THING AS A “FUTURE TENSE”? We refer to a future TIME, but we use PRESENT VERB FORMS to express our PERCEPTION OF THE FUTURE.


By choosing one present verb form over another, we view the future in different ways. For example, the present form of the modal verb WILL expresses prediction or volition about the future. The present continuous verb form is used to express plans and arrangements about the future. The present form of the verb TO BE + going to + base form expresses our intentions about the future. Finally, the present simple verb form is used to talk about set schedules, timetables, and programs in the future.


Doesn’t it make a lot more sense now? It’s not about memorizing rules or using tables with verb form formulas. It’s about understanding how tense, aspect, and time correlate and choosing the right verb form to express various MEANINGS.


REAL LIFE ENGLISH


A final point to make is about the VERB FORM FREQUENCY in real life. According to ginsengenglish.com, only 5 verb forms cover around 96% of all spoken English!


Present Simple accounts for 57% of all verbs used in real life. Next is the Past Simple (19.7%), then the so called “Future Simple” (8.5%), followed by Present Perfect Simple (only 6.0%!!!), and then Present Continuous (5.1%!).


Why is this important? Because verb tense frequency should help teachers and learners prioritize grammar content better and determine how much time and effort should be dedicated in the classroom to teaching certain verb tenses. Why on earth do we spend years trying to figure out the perfect continuous tenses when these make up less than 2% of the actual verb use?!


To sum up:

• There are only TWO TENSES in English: present and past.

• These two tenses combine with FOUR ASPECTS: simple, continuous, perfect, and perfect continuous.

• Time and Tense do not always coincide. There is FUTURE TIME, but NO FUTURE TENSE.

• LEARN WHAT IS IMPORTANT. Most people use English to communicate and to do so will perfectly get by with no more than 4 or 5 of the 12+ verb “tenses”. Present and Past Simple, Present and Past Continuous, and Present and Past Perfect will be more than enough for you to be able to communicate clearly and accurately in English. Only a very small percentage of learners will benefit from a detailed grammar syllabus, and those people will most likely become linguists or... English teachers. :))


So, next time someone asks, “How many tenses are there in English”, well... simplify! :))






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