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How Many English Tenses There Are

The reason why learning English can be difficult, is related with various aspects. One of large obstacles for a beginner is a confusion around the number of grammatical categories of time. When you try to learn how many time tenses there are in the English language by your own you come across different information. As a result, the goal of mastering the language seems to be unachievable.

The fact is, however, it is far easier than it seems at first. Understanding the difference in approaches to language structures of Russian and British linguists can eliminate the illusory complexity. First, let us see into the primary issue, i. e. the quantity of tenses which deemed to be correct based upon different information sources.

How Many English Tenses There Are — 12 or more

Traditional English Grammar includes 12 tenses. This number is supported by many linguists of specialized web sites. Self-teaching guidebook by Tatiana Trofimenko indicates 26 tenses. Based on authoritative online sources, there are 16, 24, and even from 2 to 4 tenses. Each alternative option is correct in a way and is well-argued.

The hard part is that the authors refer to different concepts of the category of time. If you try to find any parallel with phrase building in the Russian language, you can come across more linguistic inconsistencies. Russian has many in common with English, however, the rules that define the forms as a separate tense differ. For example, let us compare English Past Continuous tense and Russian imperfective verbs, and we will see pretty much the same constructions.

The matters in relation to the quantity of the tenses that linguists approach differently can be explained by the fact that the active forms of the verbs are added to the groups of passive voice and future in the past tense. Russian language has three tenses: Future, Past, and Present. For the English language, there are also three principal groups: Future Tenses, Present Tenses, and Past Tenses. Each of the group can be further divided into four separate categories of time.

The table below is helpful to illustrate the number of English tenses.

Group / Time  Present  Past  Future 
Simple  verb / verb + s
am / is / are 
the second form
(regular / irregular) 
will + verb 
Continuous  am / is / are + verb + ing  was / were + verb + ing  will be + verb + ing 
Perfect  have / has + the third form  had + the third form  will have + the third form 
Perfect Continuous  have / has been + verb + ing  had been + verb + ing  will have been + verb + ing 

The challenge to percept the classification is rooted in the differences of language structures. Let us look at this difference by an example. The modern usage of Russian is characterized by an infrequency of the modal verb to be. On the contrary, English speakers would use it as a mandatory piece in building sentences. Let us translate the phrase "I am an auditor" — "Я аудитор" (Present Simple). In Russian, we would not use the verb. The phrase "I am throwing the ball" can be translated into Russian word-by-word as "Я есть бросающий мяч» (Present Continuous). But if we want to build the Russian phrases organically, we shall simplify the structure by omitting the forms of the verb to be ("Я аудитор", "Я бросаю мяч").

How Many Groups of Time There Are in English

In English, there are three groups of time (Present, Past, and Future) and four tense-aspect forms: Perfect, Simple, Continuous, Perfect Continuous. The groups of time (Present, Past, and Future) can be divided by the nature in which actions are performed — how rather than when a certain action was performed. Let us see how the tense-aspect forms are build by the example with action, performer, and object of action. We take the words Ben, mow, lawn.

Present

  • Present Simple. This is a habitual or ongoing action. It can be accompanied with such words like always, sometimes, every day, etc. Example: Ben mows the lawn every day.
  • Present Perfect. States the result of an action performed without indicating its time. It can be accompanied with such words like just, already, etc. Example: Ben has already mowed the lawn.
  • Present Continuous. This indicates an action which is being performed at the present moment. The verb takes –ing to its root. Example: Ben is mowing the lawn now.
  • Present Perfect Continuous. Indicates an ongoing action that started in the past and is continuing for a certain period. Example: Ben has been mowing the lawn since 9 am.

Let us count how many Present Tenses there are in English; it is 4.

Past

  • Past Simple. Means a habitual, repetitive action in the past. It can be accompanied with such phrases as last year, five years ago, yesterday, etc. Example: Ben mowed the lawn yesterday.
  • Past Perfect. This tense refers to an action that was completed before some point in the past. Example: Ben had mowed the lawn by 17 o’clock yesterday.
  • Past Continuous. This shows a process that was happening at some point in the past Example: Ben was mowing the lawn when the guests arrived.
  • Past Perfect Continuous. This tense shows that a process that started in the past continued up until another time in the past. Example: Ben had been mowing the lawn for 15 minutes when the guests arrived.

We see how many past tenses there are in English (it is also 4).

Future

  • Future Simple. This refers to intention to perform an action. Ben will mow the lawn tomorrow.
  • Future Continuous. The tense shows an expected action in the future. Ben will be mowing the lawn tomorrow at 9 am.
  • Future Perfect. This tense refers to an action that is expected to be complete at some point in the future. Ben will be mowing the lawn tomorrow at 9 a.m.
  • Future Perfect Continuous. This describes an action that will continue up until a point in the future. Ben will have been mowing the lawn for 20 minutes when the guests arrive.

Now, we can count the tenses of the English language: 3 groups, 4 forms in each, amount to 12 tenses. But this figure covers only active voice. Passive voice will add other kinds of tenses.

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