Grammatical tense is a way languages express the time or place at which an event described by a sentence occurs. In English, this is a property of a verb form, and expresses only time-related information (English does not have spatial tenses). Tense, along with mood and person, are three ways in which verb forms are frequently characterized in Indo-European languages.

The exact number of tenses in a language is often a matter of some debate. The more complex tenses in English are formed by combining a particular tense of the verb with certain verbal auxiliaries, the most common of which are various forms of "be", various forms of "have", and the modal auxiliary "will." An example of some generally-recognized English tenses using the verb "go" is shown below:

  • Simple present: "I go." For many verbs, this is used to express habit or ability ("I play the guitar").
  • Simple past: "I went." In English (unlike some other languages with aorist tenses), this implies that the action took place in the past and that it is not taking place now.
  • Simple future: "I will go." Can be used to express intention, prediction, and other senses.
  • Present continuous: "I am going." This is used to express what most other language use the simple present tense for. Note that this form in English can also be used to express future actions, such as in the phrase "We're going to the movies tonight."
  • Past continuous: "I was going."
  • Future continuous: "I will be going."
  • Present perfect: "I have gone." This is usually used to express that an event happened at an unspecified or unknown time on the past.
  • Present perfect continuous: "I have been going." This is used to express that an event started at some time in the past and continues to the present.
  • Past perfect: "I had gone." Expresses that an action was completed before some other event.
  • Past perfect continuous: "I had been going." Usually expressed with a duration, this indicates that an event was ongoing for a specific time, then completed before a specific event.
  • Future perfect: "I will have gone."
  • Future perfect continuous: "I will have been going."

Many analysts would not accept, however, that English has twelve tenses. For example the six "continuous" forms in the list above are usually treated under the heading of "aspect" rather than tense: the simple past and the past continuous are examples of the same tense, under this view. In addition, most modern grammars of English agree that English does not have a future tense (or a future perfect). These include the two largest and most sophisticated recent grammars:

Biber, D., S. Johansson, G. Leech, S. Conrad & E. Finegan. 1999. Longman grammar of spoken and written English. Harlow, Longman.

Huddleston, R. & G. Pullum. 2002. The Cambridge grammar of the English language. Cambridge, CUP.

The claim that the future tense is nonexistant comes from the realization that the auxiliary "will" is not a prefix of the main verb. The proof comes from questions, "Will I go?" for example.

However, if one uses that line of reasoning with the "future tense", it is illogical to restrict it to only that verb form. Thus, it immediately follows that English has only two tenses, "past" and a form usually called "present", but more properly called "indeterminate" or "non-past."

These same arguments restrict the number of tenses in all the Germanic Languages.

See also: aspect