Time and tense

The verb phrase is the primary grammatical element where time distinctions are expressed. It indicates, for example, whether an event took place in the past, present, or future. However, there is no one-to-one match between the tense of a verb phrase and the time it refers to.

Moreover, there are only two tense forms of verbs in English, namely the present tense form and the past tense form. To express future time in English, a combination of auxiliary verbs and main verbs are typically required.

When discussing the expression of time in the verb phrase, it is necessary to uphold a distinction between grammatical forms, e.g. present and past tense, and the real-world notion time. Thus, although English verb phrases have only two tenses - present or past - they can also refer to the future, and, in addition, they can offer a variety of temporal perspectives on events and states.

In this section the focus is on the expression of past, present and future time. The first two are dealt with rather summarily here. For more detailed discussion follow the links below.

Referring to the present

The simplest forms of verb phrases used to refer to present time are those that consist only of a main verb in the present tense, as in the following examples.

(1) We expect the results from our experiment to match the theoretical assumptions rather closely.

(2) On an average an elephant weighs about five tons.

(3) We agree with Smith that the concept of innate constraints is inherently problematic.

(4) As part of the ritual, the men gather in the centre of the village and rub themselves with leaves of the acanthus plant.

Verbs that normally occur in the simple present (and not in the present progressive) denote present states or encode other permanent characteristics. Also, reference to habits and recurring events is typically made using the simple present tense. Verbs that most often occur in the simple present tense include:

Verbs denoting sensory perception: hear, detect, smell, taste, etc. 

Verbs denoting mental attitudes: agree, appreciate, doubt, hope, imagine, suppose, etc.

Verbs denoting ownership, inclusion, and similar relations: have, own, possess, belong to, consist of, comprise, etc.

The simple present tense alternates with the present progressive to refer to present time. Also, verb phrases with modal auxiliaries in the present tense are used to refer to present time. See the following links:

A Swedish perspective: Sensory perception verbs: hear, see, smell, etc (click to expand/contract)

In Swedish, the sensory perception verbs are typically used on their own when they refer to the present. In English, however, these verbs typically occur together with the modal auxiliary can:

(1) Jag ser kyrkan härifrån. — I can see the church from here.

(2) Hör du musiken? — Can you hear the music?


Referring to the past

The simplest verb phrases referring to past time consist only of a verb in the past tense. The past tense firmly anchors a past state, event, etc. at some definite time in the past, or in some definite period in the past.

(5) The train for London left at 3 o'clock.

(6) Miss Redfurn lived as a spinster all her life.

The simple past tense alternates, for instance, with the present perfect, which is used to refer to states, events, etc. that bear relevance to present time, although they may have occurred or merely started in the past. See the following link for discussion.

Referring to the future

Since English has no future tense form of verbs, various types of expressions are used to talk about states, events, etc, that belong to future time.

A Swedish perspective: English marks future reference consistently (click to expand/contract)

In Swedish, it is common to refer to the future with a simple verb phrase in the present tense, without any special marking to indicate that future reference is intended. In English however, with very few exceptions, verb phrases with future reference are marked in one of the ways discussed in this section. The following examples illustrate this point:

(1a) Enligt banken fortsätter räntorna att stiga även nästa år.

(1b) According to the bank, interest rates will contunue to rise next year, too.

(2a) Jag är tillbaka på kontoret efter lunch imorgon.

(2b) I will be back in my office after lunch tomorrow.


A Swedish perspective: More on the future (click to expand/contract)

Strictly speaking, neither English nor Swedish has a future tense, since we have no verb form that in itself always expresses future tense. What is generally considered to be the normal way of referring to the future in English is through a combination of the auxiliary will and an infinitive, as in example (1) below. Similarly, Swedish uses a combination of the auxiliary ska (or, more formally, skall) and an infinitive, as in (2):

(1) They will go to Paris tomorrow.

(2) De ska åka till Paris imorgon.

Both languages also have alternative ways of talking about the future that are also very frequent, as exemplified in (3) and (4):

(3) He is going to write a thesis on Robert Blake.

(4) Han kommer att skriva en avhandling om Robert Blake.

Please note, by the way, that while (1) and (2) must be regarded as each other's exact counterparts, there may be subtle differences between (3) and (4) that we will not discuss here.

Instead, the important contrastive difference between English and Swedish that we have to be aware of is that Swedish speakers and writers frequently and rather freely use the present tense verb form to refer to the future. For example, (5) and (6) are totally acceptable and normal in Swedish:

(5) Han åker till Paris nästa vecka.

(6) Peter spelar tennis på söndag.

In English, we cannot use a present tense verb to refer to the future, unless we are talking about something that has been decided and scheduled and which we are almost certain will happen, as in (7):

(7) The conference takes place in Amsterdam between 14 and 16 April, 2011.

In other types of cases, we should definitely avoid using the present tense to refer to the future in English.


will

The most common types of verb phrases with future reference occur with the modal auxiliary will as the first verb. The meaning is that of a neutral prediction about the future. The use of will normally indicates a fairly high degree of certainty about the future, as in the following examples:

(7) The number of senior citizens will continue to rise.

(8) The Committee will meet again on Tuesday at 8 o'clock.

Main clauses with will are often accompanied by dependent clauses (in italics in the examples below) or other expressions specifying conditions for the prediction:

(9) If many people lose their homes, the real estate market will deteriorate.

(10) If the result of a previous test is available, the lab will be able to compare the results and form better conclusions.

A similar use of will occurs in some kinds of statements about general truths, especially ones that resemble conditional statements. This use of will alternates with the simple present tense.

(11) Aluminum melts at 1220 degrees Fahrenheit.

(12) Aluminum will melt at 1220 degrees Fahrenheit. (Cf.: Aluminum will melt if heated to 1220 degrees Fahrenheit.)

Text-internal reference (click to expand/contract)

Practices vary when it comes to referring within a text to parts that come 'later'. Thus, writers may refer to subsequent chapters as belonging to the future. The text is then viewed from the perspective of a reader moving through the text in temporal sequence. 

(1) In chapter 4, we will focus primarily on how organizations look when viewed through the lens of political systems.

It is also possible to view a text as a static object, where the different parts are not temporally related. It is then natural to use the present tense to refer forward in the text:

(2) In chapter 4, we focus primarily on how organizations look when viewed through the lens of political systems.


be going to

In spoken English, the so called semi-modal be going to is the second most frequent way of referring to the future. However, in academic prose, its use is fairly restricted. One reason for this is that it commonly denotes the future fulfilment of somebody's intention, as in the following examples:

(13) My son just talks me to death telling me what he is going to do.

(14) The government are going to publish a draft bill in April.

Obviously, if the subject matter is such that the intentions of individuals are relevant the be going to construction can be used, but there are also more formal ways of referring to intentions, as in the following examples:

(15) In the following chapters I intend to propose a theory of mind.

(16) This chapter aims to propose a theory of narrative structure.

Be going to is also used to denote the future fulfilment of present circumstances. Again, this use is frequent in spoken varieties, but rare in formal writing. The following examples illustrate this use:

(17) All the statistics indicate that production is going to increase.

(18) Demographic trends show that each taxpayer is going to support significantly more beneficiaries than today.

In such cases, will can frequently be used without a significant change in meaning.

The present progressive and the simple present tense

Like be going to, the present progressive (BE+the ing- form) is anchored in the present, namely through the existence of a program or arrangement about the future. The following examples illustrate this use:

(19) We are leaving early tomorrow morning.

(20) I am taking my mother out to dinner tonight.

The simple present tense can also be used with future reference, with a strong sense of inevitability. The following examples illustrate statements about the calendar, predictable natural phenomena, and formally scheduled events, respectively.

(21) Tomorrow is Friday.

(22) When is the next full moon?

(23) The tournament starts next Wednesday.

In main clauses, the use of the present tense with future reference alternates with explicit markers like will. However, there are cases where the simple present tense is obligatorily used. The most important ones are dependent clauses with temporal or conditional meaning. The following examples illustrate this use.

(24) Europe's air quality will improve if all member states decide to comply with the Kyoto protocol.

Here, the decision to comply with the Kyoto protocol lies in the future, as does the improvement of Europe's air quality. In the main clause, will is used to mark reference to the future, but in the dependent clause - the conditional if-clause - the simple present tense is used.

(25) According to this view, the ultimate fulfilment of the prophecy will occur when the Messiah returns.

Again, the reference to the future in the main clause is made by the use of will, whereas the temporal dependent clause, the when-clause, has the simple present tense.

Note that the use of the present tense in these two types of dependent clause (i.e. conditional and temporal ones) is not conditioned by the fact that the main clause already marks the future (by will, in our examples). In the following example, with a dependent clause expressing reason (the since-clause), both the main clause and the dependent clause must be marked for the future, and in neither would it be possible to use the simple present tense.

(26) In the future, there will be no thieves, since everyone will be provided with the necessities of life.