There are languages around the world that do not need verb tenses to communicate when an action occurs. They also don’t need a different verb form for each specific pronoun. 

Languages where the verbs do not change form, either in conjugation or for any tenses, include Afrikaans, Scandinavian languages and Mandarin Chinese.

Is your native language one of those where the verb form doesn’t alter, despite the subject or time the action happened?

If it is, the requirement to constantly change the verb when speaking and writing English must be perplexing. Particularly because there are multiple manners in which to mark time in the English language.

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Introduction to the Topic

It is currently debated by linguists whether the English language really uses verb tenses, and if it does, how many.

Dive into learning English verbs and tenses.
Before diving into the subject, let's talk about the theory of English grammar. Source: Pixabay Credit: Saranjib

Some argue that grammar rules for verbs are in fact aspects, not tenses. The aspect of a verb in English is determined by whether the action is continuing or completed.

Grammar aspects follow the traditional lines of verb tenses:

  • Simple Aspect – otherwise known as the indefinite aspect.
  • Perfect Aspect – otherwise known as the completed aspect.
  • Progressive Aspect – otherwise known as the continuing aspect.
  • Perfect Progressive Aspect – a continuing-complete aspect.

Verb tenses are more well known: Simple, Perfect, Progressive (or continuous) and Perfect Progressive. 

These categories are each subdivided into past, present and future, resulting in twelve common tenses that are utilised when speaking English.

Here are some examples.

Simple aspect utilising past tense:

She studied English.

Perfect aspect: 

She had sat for IELTS before travelling to Sydney.

Progressive aspect:

He was studying for the ESL exam when I arrived.

Perfect Progressive aspect:

He had been practicing his spoken English until his ESL teacher called.

Can you identify the verb phrases by their commonly known tenses?

How it Works in Other Languages

Bahasha Indonesia doesn't use tenses nor verb conjugations.

Reminder: to conjugate a verb is to change the verb's form to suit the pronoun.

Like in Chinese – the most commonly cited language when comparing grammar structures - in Indonesia, you indicate time by writing when the action or event occurred at the beginning of the sentence. For example:

Yesterday I go to learn English.

Tomorrow I continue to study English.

Here, the concept of time is effectively expressed despite the fact that the verb remains in its basic form.

A frequent mistake non-native English speakers make is not using proper verb endings and tenses.

As basic level English learners and intermediate level English speakers often translate from their native language word for word, these language learners tend to overlook standard grammatical constructions and other rules when speaking English.

But it is possible to translate from your native language, as long as the verbs in your native language also change form when conjugated, and utilise a tense/aspect to convey when the action or event occurred.

If that’s the case, it could be relatively easy for you to adapt the grammar system of your mother tongue to the English language system.

However, if your native language has no similar verb rules and you’re trying to learn English, perhaps you should think about focusing your English learning on understanding verbs and how to use them.

Why does the English Language use this System?

For those who are learning English as a second language, the system of verb tenses and pronouns can seem, at best, superfluous. This system may not exist in your native language and yet everyone can understand when actions are performed and by who. 

At worst, English grammar is regarded as overly complex: why does it change the form for third person singular when all other pronouns seem to work with no change to the verb?

Discover how grammar in English has evolved over the years.

The English language is an amalgamation of several other languages. The most influential are German and French. While you’re learning English vocabulary, it’s likely you’ll encounter words with their roots in those languages.

Learn which words have multiple meanings in English.

Verb conjugation in German and French is far more complex than in English: each pronoun has a different verb ending, it doesn’t matter what tense the speaker is utilising. Additionally, when the tense is altered, so is the verb form – to include an entirely different set of endings. 

Discover more about the style and form of the English language.

The positive is that verbs in English are largely conjugated in the same manner.

Irregular verbs can often be a problem as they deviate from the norm. However, the good news is that even irregular verbs in English are all conjugated in the same manner.

Luckily, the list of irregular verbs in English is somewhat short.

On the other hand, the list of irregular verbs in Spanish or French is extremely long.

If you would like to practice English grammar rules, take these exercises.

Why English does not Require Time Descriptions

You’ve probably heard many times in your English classes to listen for context clues. Maybe your teacher would like to you refine your listening skills and reading comprehension by emphasising that context gives meaning.

Discover reputable teachers for your English lessons.

You don't need to indicate time in English, that's what verbs are for.
The English language doesn't require time descriptors. Source: Pixabay Credit Geralt

The person teaching you English is entirely right: the context of what is written or being said is vital for language nuance. By considering the context, you can find out various pieces of information, such as when actions occur, and the general tone or mood.

In the English language, the best indicators of time are verb tenses.

Think about the three simple English tenses: past, present and future. Utilising one or the other to denote when an action occurs gives the reader/listener sufficient information to determine the timing of the action or event.

Maybe that explains why so many people who are learning English as a foreign language are satisfied with only utilising the three simple tenses.

However, verb tenses in English can provide a much wider image - more context. For example:

  • Progressive tenses communicate something currently happening (until the action was interrupted).
  • Continuous tenses indicate something ongoing.
  • Perfect-progressive tenses emphasise the result of an action.

Verb tenses assist the speaker/listener in lending actions more definitive time frames.

The Subjunctive Mood

In the English language, verb constructions can be utilised to set a mood – a tone that provides deeper meaning to a sentence or paragraph. There are a total of five moods, but let's focus on the subjunctive mood.

This kind of phrasing is typically found in more formal English constructions. For example:

To obtain fluency in the English language, it is strongly suggested that the learner practice speaking skills every day.

The subjunctive mood utilises: a dependent clause + passive voice + conjunction + independent clause (with modified verb, to suit the mood.)

This type of construction typically utilises verbs such as: suggest, demand, insist, recommend, and ask.

Are you able to write a subjunctive mood sentence?

Delve deeper into English grammar clauses.

The Passive Voice

As you can see above, subjunctive mood sentences utilise a passive voice clause. This sentence construction places the emphasis of the phrase on the object, instead of the subject. For example: 

Today's English class was taught by Mrs. Smith.

Standard English sentences usually put the emphasis on the subject, such as: 

Mrs. Smith taught today's English class.

Using an active voice is much more direct, and is the recommended manner in which to express oneself in English.

The passive voice will be discussed in depth in the next Daily Dose of English Learning article.

Returning to the Debate

As mentioned earlier, the grammaticians of British and American English are fiercely debating whether English verbs really utilise any tenses at all. The general consensus appears to be that English only utilises two tenses: past and present.

It is argued that the English language actually uses verb aspects, not tenses.
Linguists are fiercely debating whether the English language even uses verb tenses. Source: Pixabay Credit: Geralt

Furthermore, it is believed that less than half of the world's languages actually utilise clearly defined tenses, as opposed to aspects.

You might be wondering why that matters to you, as someone who is taking English lessons in Melbourne? It doesn't a whole lot, other than the fact that you will probably have to recognise and identify verb tenses for any English test, quiz, or homework.

To hone your English skills you should speak the language as much and as often as possible, rather than focus on books and theory. While a comprehension of English grammar is imperative, it is not essential that you know every single aspect and rule in order to speak daily English.

The more you practice speaking, the more likely it is that the language constructs will begin to come to you naturally, without you having to try too hard.

To really improve your English, we recommend that you focus on your English pronunciation and vocabulary, learn to utilise English words in proper context, develop strong writing skills and overall literacy, as well as your grammar classes.

What mood is that sentence written in?

If you're not able to take in-person classes, you can also learn English with a tutor online.

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Alison

Ali is an Australian writer, community manager and art curator living in Paris.