In addition to misinformation about indirect objects and grammatical number, another common lie that many grammars perpetuate concerns tense in English grammar. Tense refers to the grammaticalized expression of the location in time of an action or state, which only roughly relates to actual time. In simpler terms, tense tells when an action or state occurred. Humans of the Western philosophy tend to think of time linearly with the past referring to the time before now, the present referring to now, and the future referring to the time after now.
Many languages also have three grammatical tenses. For example, French and Spanish both have past, present, and future tenses. But not all languages have three tenses. Greenlandic has future and nonfuture tenses. Arabic and Japanese have past and nonpast tenses. Some languages such as Chinese lack a tense system. But, again, tense only roughly relates to time. All these languages can talk about the past, present, and future. Some, however, use other grammatical features to relate time. A lack of a future tense, for example, does not mean that language users cannot talk about the future.
English is another example of a language with only two tenses. English has only two tenses: past and present. More accurately, English has past and nonpast tenses because English uses the present tense to talk about the present and the future. Too many grammars talk about the past, present, and future tenses in English, which is just not true. English does not have a future tense. English can talk about the future, of course, but English does not have a future tense.
The past tense expresses actions, occurrences, and states that occurred before the present, i.e., in the past. For example:
- She went to the store yesterday.
- He read the book an hour ago.
- The doorbell rang two seconds ago.
- We traveled to Portugal last year.
- The baby screamed earlier.
The present tense expresses actions, occurrences, and states that occur at the present, i.e., right now. For example:
- She goes to the store right now.
- He reads the book right now.
- The doorbell rings right now.
- We travel to Portugal right now.
- The baby screams right now.
The present tense also expresses ongoing or habitual actions, occurrences, and states with present implications. For example:
- She goes to the store every day.
- He reads the book all the time.
- The doorbell rings every afternoon.
- We travel to Portugal each spring.
- The baby screams all night.
The English language does not have a future tense. But do not confuse the future tense with the expression of futurity. The future tense is a grammatical tense that refers to an event at a time after the moment of the utterance. Futurity is a semantic category that refers to an event at a time after the moment of an utterance. While the future tense can express futurity, languages have other ways of talking about the future as well.
English, for example, can use the present tense to talk about the future. For example:
- Tomorrow is Tuesday.
- The train arrives soon.
- Your flight leaves later.
- The concert starts in an hour.
- She has a class in the morning.
- The train is arriving soon. (present progressive)
- The boy will finish the dishes tomorrow. (modal verb)
- Your flight is going to leave later. (auxiliary construction)
- The concert is to start in an hour. (auxiliary construction)
- The concert is about to start. (auxiliary construction)
But notice that the English language does not have a distinct future tense with which to talk about the future. The Spanish yo comeré, which translates to “I will eat,” is an example of a future tense. The French je mangerai, which also translates to “I will eat,” is another example of a future tense. But the English I will eat is an example of a modal verb expressing futurity, not a future tense. Because English does not have a future tense.
While English can and does talk about the future, English does not use a future tense to do so. Instead, English expresses futurity through the simple present, present progressive, modal verbs, and auxiliary constructions. Grammars that list the English tenses as the past, present, and future be lying to you. The English language has only two tenses: past and present (or past and nonpast). English does not have a future tense.
For more information about tense and futurity in English, see A Form-Function Description of the Grammar of the Modern English Language: Book 1 (Level 7) and A Form-Function Description of the Grammar of the Modern English Language: Book 1 (Level 8) of A Form-Function English Grammar.
Brinton, Laurel J. & Donna M. Brinton. 2010. The linguistic structure of Modern English, 2nd edn. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
Hopper, Paul J. 1999. A short course in grammar. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Huddleston, Rodney. 1984. Introduction to the grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kosur, Heather Marie. 2021. A Form-Function Description of the Grammar of the Modern English Language: Book 2 (Level 8). Rock Pickle Publishing.