How many verb tenses does English have?

Discussion in 'English Only' started by rambler, May 27, 2006.

  1. rambler Senior Member

    Tampa, Florida (hurricanes!)
    English Canada (blizzards!)
    (1) How many verb tenses does English have if you include all the moods and voices?
    (2) Is there a list somewhere that names each of these tenses?
    (3) I tried to list and name all of the tenses that I could think of (below). Are they all valid?
    (4) Are there more?

    1 INFINITIVE to study
    5 INDICATIVE I used to study IMPERFECT
    6 INDICATIVE I would study while she slept IMPERFECT ?
    8 INDICATIVE I have been studying PAST ?
    9 INDICATIVE I am going to study FUTURE ?
    13 INDICATIVE I had studied PAST PERFECT
    14 INDICATIVE I had been studying ?
    15 INDICATIVE I was going to study ?
    16 INDICATIVE I will study FUTURE
    17 INDICATIVE I will be studying FUTURE ?
    18 INDICATIVE I will have studied FUTURE PERFECT
    19 INDICATIVE I will have been studying FUTURE ?
    20 IMPERATIVE Study!
    21 SUBJUNCTIVE I insist that he study
    22 CONDITIONAL I would study if you'd be quiet PRESENT
    23 CONDITIONAL I would have studied PAST

    1 INFINITIVE to be made
    2 INDICATIVE The houses are made of brick PRESENT
    3 INDICATIVE The houses are being made of brick PRESENT PROGRESSIVE
    5 INDICATIVE The houses were made of brick SIMPLE PAST
    7 INDICATIVE The houses have been made of brick PRESENT PERFECT
    8 INDICATIVE The houses used to be made of brick IMPERFECT
    9 INDICATIVE The houses would be built while the roads were being paved. ?
    10 INDICATIVE The houses were being made of brick PAST PROGRESSIVE
    11 INDICATIVE The houses had been made of brick PAST PERFECT
    12 INDICATIVE The houses will be made of brick FUTURE
    13 INDICATIVE The houses will have been made of brick FUTURE PERFECT
    14 INDICATIVE The houses are going to be made of brick ?
    15 IMPERATIVE Be made of brick!
    16 SUBJUNCTIVE I insist that the houses be made of brick
    17 CONDITIONAL The houses would be made of brick but for the cost PRESENT
    18 CONDITIONAL The houses would have been made of brick but for the cost PAST

    Thanks for your help!
  2. Whodunit

    Whodunit Senior Member

    Deutschland ~ Deutsch/Sächsisch
    I will fill out the blanks where you put a question mark:

    I'd say that "If I were you" is the subjunctive as well. ;)
  3. vince Senior Member

    Los Angeles, CA
    It's subjunctive, but what tense would you classify it under?

    Most cases where "to be" is in the subjunctive are just "be"
    "I insist that he be quiet"

    Perhaps Past subjunctive?
  4. Whodunit

    Whodunit Senior Member

    Deutschland ~ Deutsch/Sächsisch
    Why "past"? I'd say "present subjunctive". The past subjunctive would be "I insisted that he be quiet", I think.
  5. rambler Senior Member

    Tampa, Florida (hurricanes!)
    English Canada (blizzards!)
    Thanks, Whodunit, I appreciate your comments.

    But, could we discuss the statement "I would study while she slept"?

    Like you, I had originally thought that the statement would be considered in the "present conditional".
    But my grammar book says that the statement means "used to study", and is therefore in the "imperfect".

    Your thoughts?
  6. dwipper Senior Member

    Iowa, U.S.
    U.S. English
    First, in "If I were you..." were is the past subjunctive, used to express a present hypothetical. To be is the only verb that differs from the indicative in the past sujunctive.

    On the "I would study" as imperfect issue, would can be used to express the imperfect and habitual past action.

    Also, most grammar books I've read don't acknowledge the existence of an imperfect tense unless discussing other languages.

    However, all of this depends on how you define tense and aspect in English and if you consider modal expressions tenses. For example, some might say that English only has two tenses: present and past. Others might say you could add things like about to to you present prospective (going to) tense. What's more, you could keep adding onto a verb to form an innumerable number of 'tenses.'

    e.g. "I would have been going to study." -- Present Perfect Prospective Conditional

    So as you can see, it's not really possible to form a complete list of English tenses since there are so many ways to define what a tense is and so many permutations of those that are accepted.
  7. bartonig Senior Member

    UK English
    I agree with dwipper. I would add though that the listing of so-called English tenses is a time-wasting exercise by those who have really missed the essence of the language. English, although influenced by French, is not a romance language. I would go further and argue that if there are grammar books that put conditional, pluperfect and imperfect forward as tenses they should be consigned to the dustbin or ritually burned. Ideally, I would like to eliminate books that introduce the subjunctive notion, but I accept that that might meet with some resistance from American speakers.
  8. ed800uk Junior Member

    UK English
    I only use the subjunctive when the mood takes me.
  9. rambler Senior Member

    Tampa, Florida (hurricanes!)
    English Canada (blizzards!)
    To bartonig,

    You say that listing tenses "is a time-wasting exercise by those who have really missed the essence of the language". But why do you say that?

    I remember being taught about tenses in school, so you can imagine my current bewilderment at your comments.

    I am eager to learn, so please share your understanding. Don't leave me the victim of a hit-and-run.
  10. emma42 Senior Member

    North East USA
    British English
    "I would study while she slept" is definitely in the imperfect, because the "would" simply means "used to". There is no sense of the conditional here at all.

    I just have to say that ed800uk's joke is brilliant.
  11. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    No, that's the present subjunctive. The past subjunctive of "to be" is "were", for all persons.

    A warning to Rambler: some modern linguists only count synthetic tenses -- those composed of a single word -- as true tenses. With that definition, the English verb "to be" has only three to five tenses, the present indicative, the past tense, the past subjunctive, and (perhaps) the present subjunctive and the imperative.

    Other English verbs have only two-to-four tenses, since their past subjunctive is the same as their past indicative.
  12. bartonig Senior Member

    UK English
    My preference is to describe the structure of verb phrases in terms of two tenses, two aspects, and two voices. The tenses are the past and the present, the aspects are the continuous and the perfect, and the voices are the active and passive. Various constructions are used for specific meanings (such as am going to for intention). Certain verbs have special use as auxiliaries. These include the central modals such as will and would, and modal structures such had better. The past tense amongst other uses is used to convey ideas that are contrary to reality. These are sufficient for building all verb phrases in English spoken around the globe (and not solely in specific places populated by monolingual native English speakers).
  13. emma42 Senior Member

    North East USA
    British English
    That sounds like quite a good "working model" bartonig. But what about subjunctive/indicative? Where are they included in this model?
  14. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    If you're going to count the infinitive as a tense, why not the gerund and the past participle?

    It's not that common to list emphatic constructions as tenses in English, any more than it is to list interrogative constructions ("Do I study?"), or negative constructions ("I do not study").

    I don't like this name for the "used to + infinitive" construction, because often it's the simple past that translates the imperfect of other Indo-European languages, not "used to + infinitive".

    How about "to be about to + infinitive" and "to have just + infinitive"?
  15. bartonig Senior Member

    UK English
    The s-word is banned. It does not appear in the model. If a native speaker were to argue that were was not provided by the model I would point out that the verb be is different in many ways from all other verbs. For example, it forces adverbs to follow it rather than go before it, and it conjugates differently from all other verbs. So were in a conditional clause is just one more way in which be differs from other verbs. The formulaic subjunctive as in so be it is formulaic and so there is no need to explain its structure. The mandative subjunctive drops the s inflection in the third person singular, but there is no loss of meaning if the inflection is retained.

    Your phrase working model is good. I see the main issue in language as being how a speaker can make the language work to convey the intended meaning.
  16. dwipper Senior Member

    Iowa, U.S.
    U.S. English
    I take the view that for consistancy, there should really only be two options what we consider tenses: only consider synthetic tenses or include all modal tenses. To me, anything in between means we're picking and choosing and it just gets confusing to people trying to learn the language.
  17. ChiMike Senior Member

    Chicago USA
    USA, English
    Present subjunctive: Be quiet!

    Past subjunctive: Had I wings, I would fly. (Had is past subjunctive)
    Perfect subjunctive (not much used): If he have been good, he shall be rewarded.
    Past perfect subjunctive: "If he had been good, he would have been rewarded."
  18. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    That's the imperative, technically. Not that you can tell the difference in English. :)
  19. ChiMike Senior Member

    Chicago USA
    USA, English
    Quite so, except I would say present and simple past along with the strong part participle (if any: sing, sang, sung), imperfective and perfective aspects, and add: two moods (indicative and subjunctive. The imperative never has a form which cannot be explained by one of other two.). It might be added that the point of an analytic tense (as opposed to a synthetic one) is, exactly, that it can be analysed.

    However, for foreigners learning the language (as for English speakers learning certain foreign languages), learning the forms (always strong and for "to be," mixed) of the "auxiliaries" most used to form analytic tenses (to be, to have, to do) and treating them as "auxiliary" and arranging the tenses in patterns, is an extremely important introduction to speaking and to reading. Thereafter, uses of modal verbs (including "will" and "shall") can be introduced with greater benefit and less confusion, particularly if the learners are young. For older learners, the difference between synthetic and analytic texts should be explained when the "auxiliaries" are introduced, of course.
  20. ChiMike Senior Member

    Chicago USA
    USA, English
    Much of what you have said depends upon whether one wishes to take a merely synchronic view of the language or include as well a diachronic (philological) view. Furthermore, most of the tenses and moods to which you object are described in that manner in most German grammars written in German. English is, from the philological point of view (frequently very important for reading older texts, including, of course, Shakespeare and other Elizabethan and Jacobean writers, including the translators of the King James Version of the Bible) a mixed language using Germanic, Romance, and sometimes Celtic forms and, particularly, syntax. Its innumerable lexical borrowings from every possible language are, of course, legion and legendary, explaining why the entire lexis of French is about 100,000 words, while that of English is over 400,000, and growing at a rate which makes even recording all new or nonce words almost impossible.

    The problem of over-latinizing the grammar of English was a development of the Renaissance and of the general learning of Latin and/or Greek as part of the school curriculum and a preference for the learning of Romance, as opposed to Germanic, languages as a result. Now that even Latin is no longer learned by the vast majority of students, descriptions derived from Latin no longer seem relevant or useful.

    Unfortunately, completely discarding them makes understanding texts written from about 1500 to 1900 very difficult, at times, since the authors (such as Gibbon, for example) modeled their syntax and frequently their tense sequences upon Latin or Romance authors.

    And, of course, for foreigners learning English or any other language, arranging occurrences into patterns (however described) is fundamental. Otherwise, you will bite off more than you can conveniently chew.

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