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Concourse 2

Tense and aspect: the essentials


What follows refers only to English.  Languages deal with these two issues very differently indeed.


What's the difference between Tense and Aspect?

The distinction between tense and aspect is the most important thing to know about verbs in English and it is not parallelled in a range of other languages which do not have aspect at all or have aspects of verbs which signal very different relationships in time.
This make it difficult for may learners to acquire the aspectual system in English.



Tense refers to the time of an event and is often marked by a change in the verb ending.  So we have, e.g.:

  1. Rita believes in ghosts (present)
  2. Rita believed in ghosts (past)

In these examples, the tense is marked by a suffix, -s for the present tense (which also shows that it is third-person singular) and -d for the past form.
Depending on the form of the stem of the verb, English also uses -es and -ed to mark these tense forms so we get:
    Rita pushes
    Rita pushed

and so on.
Other, irregular verbs mark the past form by changes to the internal sounds such as:
    Rita bought
    Rita came
and some make no changes at all so we have, e.g.:
    Rita bet £10
    Rita put the money on a horse

However, unlike many languages, English often has no inflexion on the base form of the verb in many cases.  For example, in:
    They believe in ghosts
the verb is in its base form with no marker to show tense or person but it is still a present tense.
Arguably, too, English has no future tense because we don't have a form of the verb to signify future time.  We denote the future in many ways, for example:
    She is going to talk to me
    She will talk to me



Aspect refers to how an event or state is perceived with reference to time.  So we have, e.g.:

  1. Rita has broken the rule
  2. Rita is breaking the rule

Sentence 3 tells us not only that the rule was broken in the past but also that it changes the present.  The fact that she has broken the rule has consequences now.  It is a present tense in this respect making the present situation clear in relation to the past.  It will come as no surprise that this tense form is referred to as the present perfect.
Sentence 4 gives a different aspect.  The -ing ending on the verb is called a present participle ending and in English that tells us that the event is happening now or happens repeatedly.  Unfortunately, English present tenses are a bit complicated.  Think what these actually mean and then click here for the answers.

  1. Rita walks to school
  2. Rita is walking to school tomorrow
  3. Rita is walking to school now

Aspect and tense are very closely related.  We can use other tenses with progressive (be + -ing) aspects and with perfect aspects (have + the past participle of the verb).
We form the perfect aspect in English with the verb have so we get, e.g.:
    John has arrived
with the present-tense form of the verb have and the form of the main verb known as the past participle.
We form the progressive aspect in English with the verb be so we get, e.g.:
    John is arriving
with the present tense of the verb be and the -ing form of the verb known, in this case, as the present participle.

Here are two more examples:

  1. Rita had walked to school
    Perfect aspect, past tense – we call this the past perfect tense.  It relates a past event to another past event.
  2. Rita was walking to school
    Progressive aspect, past tense – we call this the past progressive tense.  It is often used in conjunction with a simple form in, e.g.:
    Rita was walking to school when she met her friends
    and this is, again, a relational tense providing the background (walking) to the event (met).

Before we go on, here's a summary of the all the present and past tenses and aspects with their names, along with the future forms English also uses.

Example (form in italics) Tense name
She often speaks to her boss Present simple (habit)
She is speaking to her boss Present progressive
She spoke to her boss Past simple
She was speaking to her boss Past progressive
She has spoken to her boss Present perfect
She has been speaking to her boss Present perfect progressive
She had spoken to her boss Past perfect
She had been speaking to her boss Past perfect progressive
She used to speak to her boss used to for past habits
She would speak to her boss would for past habits
She will speak to her boss Future simple (factual future)
She is speaking to her boss tomorrow Present progressive (future)
She is going to speak to her boss going to future (intentionality)
She will be speaking to her boss Future progressive (ongoing future)
She will have spoken to her boss Future perfect (past in the future)
She will have been speaking to her boss Future perfect progressive (past in the future)



An important concept to understand when talking about tense and aspect is the distinction between an absolute tense and a relative or relational tense.

This is important because many languages do not make a clear distinction between the two types of tense and the concepts are not easy to grasp.

This page, slightly abbreviated, is available to download as a PDF document.

Click to go on to a test.

Related guides
a lesson plan if you would like to see how considerations of aspect might work in a full lesson
a lesson for elementary learners on using past simple and past progressive
the tenses index this has links to many other guides about tenses
the tenses map this is a map of all the tenses on which you can click to select the guide you need
time lines for tenses this is a set of time lines which will help you and your learners understand the concepts which the tense forms encode
voice with a focus on the active and passive
copular verbs for a guide to how be and other verbs work to link the subject and complement
the present perfect for a guide to how have works to form the language's most troublesome and misunderstood tense
aspect a more technical guide to the area in the in-service training section of this site