It seems to be a well-known fact that the English language has three different tenses divided into 4 aspects in the grammar system: Present, Past, Future, Present Perfect, Past Perfect, and Future Perfect. An extensive body of linguistic and psycholinguistic research is done concerning the concept of time and its representation in the language. For example, Rody and Winterowd (2005) suggest that there are only two tenses – past and present – it is interesting to see what they mean, suggesting this analysis.
The critical point of this definition is the difference between the notions of time and tense in the language. According to Rody and Winterowd (2005), “It is important to distinguish between the grammatical concept tense and the idea of time […]tense is a formal aspect of sentences and clauses, whereas time is a concept about the way the world works” (p. 54). Indeed, it is true that there is a significant difference between ‘tense’ and ‘time.’
Time is a concept of life and human cognition, and tense is a reference to it in the language. According to Klein (2008), “tense indicates a temporal relation (earlier, simultaneous, later) between some event or state and some ‘temporal anchor’, typically the moment of speech” (p. 8). Further examples in the book of Rody and Winterowd (2005) suggest that English verbs are conjugated only for past and present and refer to the future are grammatically necessary other words (auxiliary verbs, adverbial expressions, particles, etc.).
Taking a closer look at the tense formation in the English language, it is possible to see that the idea about the verb conjugation is genuinely logical. In the present tense, the verb takes an ‘s’ suffix in the third person singular, and in the past tense, it takes the ‘ed’ suffix or a vowel change (+ exceptions). For example, she walks – she walked; he comes – he came. In order to create a future tense, we necessarily need additional words: “tomorrow he comes” or “he will come” and so on. We can see that English has no morphological future tense, only the substitutive constructions. However, even with those constructions, by adding certain adverbs, we can change the reference from future time to the present: “My daughter will now play the clarinet for you” or “I will fill out the form right now” (Aarts et al., 2021, p.186).
Not every language, however, is the same. For example, in the Italian language, there is a verb form with future tense that is conjugated without additional constructions: amare – amerò (to love – I will love) or credere — crederà (to believe – he will believe). It should be noted that the tense system in the Italian language is more complex than in English.
For this reason, there are more simple tenses with verb forms that do not require auxiliaries, adverbs, and other grammatical constituents: Present tense (io credo “I believe”), Imperfect past tense (loro credevano “they used to believe”), Absolute past tense (io credei “I believed” but in a sense that it is a very distant event), Future simple (io crederò “I will believe”). Moreover, there is also a simple conditional form of verbs and a subjunctive form of verb tenses (to express opinion, possibility). All those forms in the Italian language are simple as Present and Past in English.
This comparison with the Italian language suggests that each language finds its way to represent the real-life category of time and all the years of each language’s development show the historical reasons for certain grammatical peculiarities. That would probably be a possible explanation of the existence of only two simple tenses in English, past, and present. This question would be interesting to analyze in the future, performing more complex research.
Aarts, B., McMahon, A., & Hinrichs, L. (2021). The handbook of English linguistics. Wiley Blackwell.
Klein, W. (2008). Time in language, language in time. In P. Indefrey & M. Gullberg (Eds.), Time to Speak: Cognitive and Neural Prerequisites for Time in Language. (pp. 1-12). Language Learning Research Club.
Rody, J. & Winterowd, W.R. (2005). The uses of grammar. Oxford University Press.