Folk Linguistics: How many tenses does English have?

How do we know how many tenses English has? Well, we’ve been taught it. What were you taught?

I think normally the basic answer is past, present and future: “I came; I come; I will come.”

Then someone (probably someone who did some Latin) will chime in with perfect or pluperfect: “I have come; I had come.”

Someone else might then think of mentioning that there are actually 2 present tenses: “I come; I’m coming”.

And there’s the past continuous or imperfect “I was coming”.

Perhaps another Latin scholar will come along and mention the subjunctive: “I may come; I might come; I should come” and maybe similar constructions like “I ought to come”.

And in fact there are all sorts of other combinations of these and others. Are these all different tenses? Why on earth are there 2 present tenses? Where did all this come from?

Where I think it’s come from

I used to think that perhaps we were trying to analyse English as if it were Latin, and possibly that is a little the case. But that itself isn’t entirely satisfactory, because actually Latin too has been traditionally misanalysed and mis-explained in several ways.

The imposition of an alien structure – whether from another language or even from some philosophical assumptions – seems to be at the root of this confusion. Through studying some linguistics and interesting African languages, I’ve been helped to follow in the footsteps of many linguists who have seen a different way forward.

Rather than supplying a philosophical framework of divisions of time then trying to explain how our language fits into that, we could actually just look at the different structures – the different forms – and then work out what each form does.

(While the ‘folk linguistics‘ we’ve all been taught about our language may do no particular harm most of the time, we shouldn’t be surprised if it does cause confusion. In the same way ‘folk etymologies’ about the origins of words may be a distraction, ‘folk medicine’ may harm and ‘folk mythology’ won’t necessarily help us understand how the world is and how it came to be. So I hope untangling myth from reality might make it possible to understand and use English better, and also to understand how to translate to/from English better. It may also be a little simpler, we might hope.)

Aside: It all began with titles and historic presents

I had for some time been somewhat troubled by the fact that any verbs in English titles are always in the present tense, even when we know they describe something in the past (or future). Similarly I had never quite been convinced by the description of of the ‘historic present’ as adding vividness by making it feel like you are actually in the moment of the action. That explanation seems somewhat exaggerated and forced. I think there’s a better explanation, and it’s all about markedness, a key concept in descriptive linguistics. Underlying all this is a firm bedrock of relevance theory which provides a more satisfying explanation of how partial communication about reality is adequate, or in other words, why you don’t need to say everything you mean.

How can we do better?

Look at the forms a speaker/writer uses and the purpose of a text.

A speaker’s purpose will inform the forms they use and lead to an understanding of 

Forms: How does English mark verbs?

What would happen if we were to set aside the 3 times theory for a moment and just look at the actual morphological distinctions made? What does the morphology of English seem to show?

Inflections: 4 suffixes, or alternative forms

  • 3s -s
    • All otherwise unmarked verbs inflect 3rd person singular with a suffix: -(e)s
      I look, He looks, He looked, He has looked, He is looking.
  • -ing
    • All verbs can accept a suffix -ing which turns them into nouns (or adjectives) describing the activity.
      Hit – hitting. Show – showing.
  • -ed (or equivalent)
    • There are 2 kinds of verbs — those which form past with suffix: -ed.
      I look, I looked
    • and those which change vowels or consonants to indicate inflection:
      I come, I came.
    • But though there are different ways of forming this ‘narrative past’ form, the meaning of the marking is the same. Verbs behave in the same way whether they add the suffix or change a vowel.
  • -en/-ed: Another mysterious form which depending on the verb sometimes ends -en, sometimes -ed and sometimes is just the same as the uninflected verb.
    • I see, I have seen, I was seen.
    • it runs, it has run, it was run.
    • I catch, I have caught, I was caught.


This then gives us 4 basic forms of the verb. What do they tell us about the action? My current working hypothesis is something like this:

  • Unmarked (but with 3s -s)
  • ‘-ed’ = Narrative past
  • ‘-en’ ‘-ed’ = Completed (used with ‘have’ and ‘be’)
  • ‘-ing’ = Noun form

The uninflected form tells us nothing apart from the basic meaning of the action word. (But when we look at particular kinds of text, we’ll see soon that this is not entirely true.)

The narrative past form is used for everything in the mainline of a narrative that is past.

The completed form is used with auxiliaries. (See below.)

The noun form simply turns the verb into a noun using the meaning of the verb to describe something or someone.

Forms: Helping words (auxiliaries)

There are a handful of auxiliary words (mostly verbs) which can come before an inflected verb, and this is where much more information about the action/description is given:

  • Am/are/is + -ing form – state or ongoing activity.
  • Will/shall + any other inflection. Future.
  • May/might.Possibility.
  • Should. Someone thinks the action is supposed to happen.
  • Could. Ability or possibility.
  • Have/had + completed form. Describing current or past state.
  • To + uninflected.

Many of these can be used in combination with each other:

  • I could possibly have been coming.
  • I will have been seen.
  • I might have been finished.
  • I will have to stop.

Purpose: Now consider what kind of text it is

Every genre comes with its own expectations about what marking is required, so it’s not really helpful to state that the uninflected verb is ‘present’. 

Conversation is a very common kind of communication. In that case you may begin talking about something happening now (descriptive), or something in the past (narrative) or in the future. How do you know the speaker’s purpose? In English the forms we use as we start a conversation often tell the listener our purpose. Books and other communication usually presents its purpose quite clearly so you know how to understand it. If you pick up a book that looks like a recipe (procedure) and it turns out to be a novel (narrative) you’ll be surprised. Similarly if the forms change unexpectedly within a sentence you were surprised and confused. [sic]

Habitual descriptions, procedures and instructions generally use the uninflected form. “You press this button; People always make this kind of mistake…” Time is just not a feature. Sometimes non-past statives may be used to provide background context: “After you have boiled the kettle, immediately pour boiling water on the tea bag.” or “After boiling the kettle, tea-lovers immediately pour boiling water on the tea bag.”

Narrative always insists on using the past form for the main line of events. Since this is normal it is unmarked. Using the uninflected form (sometimes called ‘present’) is marked and could either mean the narrator has switched to some descriptive background, or some other purpose. Possibly it might be that the unmarked past form keeps the chronology moving, but the uninflected form allows more prominence for the meaning of the verb (the action) over the time. Past statives may be used to provide background context: “After he had boiled the kettle he immediately poured boiling water on the tea bag.” or “After boiling the kettle he immediately…”

Plans or expectations use the ‘will’ future form, and obviously cannot be narrative.

And so finally we get back to where it all began, titles:

Titles maybe shouldn’t be considered a ‘genre’ but they do have a distinctive purpose and they are quite separate from procedural, habitual or narrative. Titles should be brief so that many normal elements of narrative or other genres are omitted. The uninflected verb is normal (and thus unmarked). We are expected to pick up any time cues from the body of the narrative.

So my conclusion is that it is not helpful to claim that English titles use the present tense. They simply use the uninflected form, which is also used for present descriptions, habitual and procedures.

And a takeaway for translation?

In any other language we’re going to have to find out what’s normal in a title. It probably won’t be the same form used for habitual or procedural! Sometimes translators will let the wider understanding of the purpose of a title drive them to do the right thing anyway, but it may be worth digging to make sure we’re making titles recognisable and not too strange.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *