Clarifying the Concepts of Time, Tense and Aspect when Teaching English Tenses

Abstract concepts are generally difficult to be made clear when teaching grammar in the classroom. Therefore, a clear distinction should be made between notions such as time, tense and aspect before expecting students to reach proficiency in using the right tense both in speaking and writing.

Time refers to an appointed moment for something to happen, begin or end which is reflected by tense. The best way to explain the difference between time, tense and aspect is using a timeline which helps students associate abstract notions with something more tangible. Ruxandra Drăgan (2005) distinguishes the following characteristics of the notion ‘time’: objective, epistemic, a linear representation durationally infinite and segmentable.

Tense is generally defined as representing the chronological order of events in time as perceived by the speaker at the moment of speaking, that is speech time (ST). Tense is a deictic category, i.e. the moment NOW is central in the sense that time past or time future represent directions whose orientation depends on ST. Speech Time (ST)/NOW is a central point on the temporal axis of orientation according to which students interpret the ordering of events/states. Events can happen at the same time with ST or they can be sequenced before or after it. Sometimes students have difficulty in choosing or using the correct tense because of the fact that they lack the experience of ordering events on the timeline depending on chronological information.

Geoffrey Leech and Jan Svartvik (1994) concluded that English has two simple tenses which can be resumed to: the present tense- ‘How are you today?’ and the past tense- ‘Fine, thanks, but yesterday I felt better.’ For some students it would be logical to use mainly past, present and future tense as the influence of their mother tongue cannot be limited.

Students should understand that aspects concern the manner in which a verbal action is experienced or regarded, for example as complete or in progress. In English there are two aspects which can be marked: the progressive aspect: ‘How are you feeling today?’ and the perfective aspect: ‘I’ve never felt better, thanks.’

Tense and aspect are often misunderstood by students even at more advanced levels because of their abstract character as well. When teaching the notion of aspect it would be recommended to compare it to the notion of tense. As already defined, tense locates the event in time relative to the moment of speaking. Therefore, tense is a deictic category, depending on egocentric orientation. On the contrary, aspect is a non-deictic category which focuses on the internal temporal structure of a situation. With aspect, the interest falls on the various individual phases that make up a situation viewed as a whole by the speaker.

Yet, further clarification should be made concerning the semantic opposition that aspect covers as there appears the difference between perfectivity and imperfectivity. While the perfective offers a holistic view upon the event according to which the event is seen as a single unanalyzable unit related to a certain reference time, the imperfective looks at the internal constituency of a situation at a specific reference time which means that the event is seen as divided into several internal phases.

Moreover, the choice between perfective and imperfective is constrained by two essential linguistic factors; one is tense and the other one is the lexical meaning of the verb phrase.

Maria has learnt two poems. (accomplishment)
She learns every day. (state)
She is learning a song now. (activity)

Aspect does not relate an event or situation to a point in time like a tense, but it is rather concerned with ‘the internal temporal constituency of one situation’ (Comrie). Aspect is related to the time structure of the event itself rather than its ‘external’ temporal location. This makes aspect be considered a non-deictic category, while tense is a deictic category, because it changes the referent (now) every time.

The main categories of aspect which can be found in languages are:

  • Perfective (completed; the development is reduced to a sort of ‘point’ where the beginning of an event coincides with its end)
  • Imperfective (non-completed; the event is presented in course)
  • Progressive (on-going)
  • Perfect (combines with the progressive, can express both complete and incomplete events but the meaning of completion or result depends on the meaning of the verb)

Taking this classification into consideration, past simple can be identified as a past tense with simple aspect whereas present perfect appears as a present tense with a perfect aspect. Huddleston (1984) has defined past tense as the ‘exclusive past’, thus placing it in opposition to present perfect, which is viewed as the ‘inclusive past’. So, it can be considered that past tense has some fixed point in a time previous to ‘now’ and ‘excluding’ the present, and of present as expressing a relationship between some past time and now, therefore including the present. Although the present aspect is different from other aspects, in that it does not tell so much about the internal temporal situation of an event or state and it expresses a relationship between a present state and a past situation, it is still classified as an aspect.

All things considered, it can be stated that clarifying these concepts with students is of utmost importance and in this way the failure of understanding the use of each tense can be prevented. However, more insight into the matter should be gained even by most of the experienced teachers.

1. Aitken Rosemary-Ideas for teaching and practicing tenses in English, Thomas Nelson LTD 1992
2. Ruxandra Dragan- English Morphology-The Verb, Credis 2005
3. Edwards Woods, Nicole McLeod- Using English Grammar, PHI LTD 1990
4. Mark Nettle and Diana Hopkins – Developing Grammar in context, CUP 2003
5. Geoffrey Leech and Jan Svartvik- A Communicative Grammar of English, Longman 1994


prof. Elena-Irina Teodorescu

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