Grammatical Features Home >  Feature Inventory > Tense



Anna Kibort

  1. What is 'tense'
  2. Expressions of 'tense'
  3. The status of 'tense' as a feature
  4. The values of 'tense'
  5. Oddly behaving tense markers
  6. Problem cases
  7. Key literature

1. What is 'tense'

Following Comrie (1985:viiff), we take tense to be the grammaticalisation of location in time.

Three parameters are traditionally cited as relevant in defining tense and indentifying tense distinctions: (a) the location of the deictic centre (either at the present moment - in the so-called 'absolute tenses', or at a different point in time - in the so-called 'relative tenses'); (b) the location of the situation with respect to the deictic centre (i.e. prior to, subsequent to, or simultaneous with the deictic centre); and (c) the distance in time at which the situation referred to is located from the deictic centre (though see §4 below for comments on this point). In the discussion of the category of tense, the term 'situation' is understood as an event, process or state, without consideration of its internal temporal contour. The internal temporal contour of the situation provides the conceptual basis for the notion of aspect (see §5 below, and the entry on 'Aspect' in this Inventory).

This conceptualisation of time, which appears to be adequate for an account of tense in human language including all time location distinctions found in natural language, can be represented diagrammatically as follows:

The diagram represents time as a straight line, with the past represented conventionally to the left and the future to the right. The present moment is represented by a point on that line, labelled S (mnemonic for 'speech time'). Several things are intentionally left unspecified. One of them is whether the time line is bounded at either the left or the right, including whether it bends to form a circle. While this is an important philosophical issue, it does not seem to be relevant for the grammaticalisation of time. Similarly, conceptualisations of time as cyclic are found in all cultures, but on a macroscopic scale which does not have a bearing on tense distinctions. Furthermore, the diagram does not represent the flow of time - that is, it does not indicate whether S (or, Ego) moves along a stationary time line, or whether time flows past a stationary reference point S (or, Ego). This is another important philosophical question, but again it does not seem to play a role in the analysis of tense as a linguistic category. However, many of these culture-specific conceptualisations of time are metaphors that are important sources of time expressions across languages.

For temporal-deictic distinctions, the speech situation S projected onto the time line serves as the basic orientation point - that is, is always the primary point of reference (R0). One of the extra-linguistic presuppositions for an utterance is constituted by the speaker's consciousness of the relation of the speech situation S to the reported situation E (mnemonic for 'event') along the time line (Thelin 1978:37). A past situation is therefore located in the time before and not including the present moment, a future situation (a prediction, imposition, or an instance of pre-planning) is located in the time after the present moment, and a present situation, whether continuing or repetitive, is located in the time that includes the present moment, regardless of whether it encompasses a shorter or longer strech of time. This concept of time, which relates a situation to the time line, is essential to the linguistic category of tense (Comrie 1985:6; see §3 below).

It is interesting to note that a further parameter that could theoretically be posited for tense distinctions - that of a specific location in time, or a specific time lapse - does not seem to be grammaticalised as tense. In those cultures which care about, and are able to capture, very precise location in time and very fine distinctions of time, these are usually expressed using existing grammatical patterns and the appropriate lexical items which may be combined with mathematical expressions in order to gain precision (e.g. 10.45 am on Friday, 9 June 2006; nanosecond; 10-6 seconds). On the other hand, in cultures which lack the technology to capture precise temporal locations, or attach little value to precision in temporal location, such precision may not be attainable even lexically. For example, in Yidiny, an Australian language, it is impossible to distinguish lexically between the concepts of 'today' and 'now' (Comrie 1985:7-8; Yidiny information from Dixon 1977:498-499).

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2. Expressions of 'tense'

Location in time can be achieved linguistically in many different ways ranging from purely lexical to grammatical. Comrie (1985:8-9) suggests grouping them in three classes:

  • Lexically composite expressions - these involve slotting time specifications into the positions of a syntactic expression, e.g. the English five minutes after John left, 10-45 seconds after the Big Bang, the day before yesterday, last year. This set is potentially infinite in a language that has linguistic means for measuring time intervals.
  • Lexical items - these include items such as: the English now, today, yesterday; the Czech loni 'last year'. The range of time distinctions captured through single lexical items is necessarily smaller than that which is possible using lexically composite expressions, as it depends on the stock of items listed in the lexicon in the given language.
  • Grammatical categories - this is the set of grammaticalised expressions of location in time, that is the set of tenses in the given language. This set is the smallest of the three, with a finite number of synchronically listed items (tense values), and it is possible that for some languages it may contain no items, as there may be languages with no grammatical category of tense (see §4 below).

In order to be regarded as a (grammaticalised) tense, the expression of location in time has to be integrated into the grammatical system of the language. In contrast, a lexicalised expression of the location in time indicates its integration into the lexicon of the language, but does not entail any necessary consequences for the language's grammatical structure. Grammaticalisation, as opposed to lexicalisation, of the location in time, correlates with two parameters: obligatory expression and morphological boundness. The very rough rule is that a tense is grammaticalised if its morphological expression is obligatory even if the information carried by the exponent is redundant. For example, in the English sentence Last year I bought a new car "the choice of a tense other than the simple past would make the sentence anomalous, although the information that the event took place in the past is expressed unambiguously by last year" (Dahl & Velupillai 2005:266). The obligatoriness of tense can also be demonstrated in languages which allow for tense marking to be omitted in some circumstances. This has been argued for Central Alaskan Yup'ik whose tense system is relative (the deictic centre can shift even within one sentence between the time of speech and another reference point) and where the absence of an overt tense suffix has to be recognised as a meaningful zero (Mithun 1999). Morphological boundness is perhaps a slightly more problematic criterion, which is not necessary in itself - as in Yemba (Niger-Congo), where tense is expressed primarily by means of auxiliaries (i.e. not bound morphemes) which are also clearly not separate lexical items which could be seen as contributing to the compositional meaning of tense (Comrie 1985:11, 86-87). (For more detailed discussion of grammaticalisation and lexicalisation in general, and the grammaticalisation and lexicalisation of the location in time, see Lyons 1977:234-237, and Comrie 1985:10-12).

Tense is typically a morphological category of the verb, or verbal complex, and it can be expressed either by verbal inflection (on the main verb or the auxiliary - as in English), or by grammatical words adjacent to the verb (such as the Yemba tense auxiliaries; see above). It can also be analysed as a grammatical category of the clause. Anderson (1992) classifies tense as 'phrasal inflection' (distinct from 'configurational inflection' such as case, 'agreement inflection' such as number concord on English verbs, or 'inherent inflection' such as gender on Latin nouns), because it is a property that is "assigned to a larger constituent within a structure" (a clause) but "realized on individual words" (verbs). Similarly, Booij (1994:30) argues that tense has scope over a whole clause (however, he classifies it as 'inherent inflection', opposed to 'contextual', because "the tense of the verb is not determined by syntactic structure"; see §3 below). It is, therefore, not unexpected that tense can also be expressed by a marker placed in the position of sentence particles (as in the sentence-second position in Warlpiri, Australian; Hale 1973, cited in Comrie 1985:12), that languages may allow multiple marking of the tense value on different elements in the same clause (see §3 for discussion, and §5 for some examples of tense markers found outside the domain of the verb), or that tense systematically does not occur on non-finite verb forms.

Finally, it is important to note that there is often no agreement between scholars about the classification of individual grammatical forms, especially when the verbal forms and constructions simultaneously involve semantic elements from different domains, typically those of aspect and mood (see Dahl 1985), but also case (e.g. in Australian languages - see Evans 1995; 2003) and other categories. In fact, there are seldom grammatical markers that express just the temporal location of the situation.

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3. The status of 'tense' as a feature

Tense is often assumed to be and frequently referred to as a 'morphosyntactic category' or 'morphosyntactic feature'. As summarised in Mithun (1999:23), tense is "one of the most frequently cited examples of a prototypical inflectional category", seen as having "relevance to syntax". However, as pointed out by Mithun, the definition of syntactic relevance depends on the particular view of syntax that is assumed.

Although tense is typically an inflectional category, Booij (1994, 1996) classifies it as 'inherent inflection' (alongside number on Dutch nouns), rather than 'contextual inflection' (such as number agreement on Dutch verbs) because "the tense of the verb is not determined by syntactic structure" (1994:30). We propose that, for a grammatical feature, to be 'relevant to syntax' means that it is involved in either syntactic agreement or government. In many familiar languages the feature 'tense' encodes regular semantic distinctions and is an unquestionable inflectional category. However, it is not required by syntax through the mechanisms of either agreement or government: syntax is not sensitive to the tense value of the verb. Therefore, the familiar instances of the feature 'tense' are morphosemantic, but not morphosyntactic.

Thus, tense is typically a morphosemantic feature. Corbett (2006:138-141) investigated whether tense, aspect, mood and polarity could function as features of agreement - and therefore be morphosyntactic features - but did not find convincing examples and concluded that "the argument for tense, aspect, mood and polarity as agreement features remains open". Two types of construction in Kayardild which show elements of a clause matching in tense are probably better analysed as instances of multiple marking of the same value of tense in the clause.

The first type of construction involves so-called 'verbalising cases' (Evans 2003; earlier 'verbal cases', Evans 1995). Besides ordinary cases, Kayardild has several verbalising cases that are marked on all parts of the selected noun phrase. Verbalising case is involved in various domains; once an element is marked by verbalising case, it takes tense-aspect-mood and polarity inflection matching that of the main verb. For example, beneficiaries take the verbalising dative case marker -maru which appears on all parts of the noun phrase; the elements marked with the verbalising case then take verbal inflections for tense, aspect, mood and polarity. In the example below, which Corbett (2006:80, 139) quotes from Evans (2003:215), the items marked with verbalising dative (V_DAT) are also matching in tense:

(1) ngada waa-jarra wangarr-ina
  1SG.NOM sing-PST song-MOD_ABL
  ngijin-maru-tharra thabuju-maru-tharra  
  my-V_DAT-PST brother-V_DAT-PST  
  'I sang a song for my brother.'

In a dependency approach to syntax, which implies asymmetrical marking, it can be argued that tense, aspect, mood and polarity are primarily features of the verb, and if other items are marked secondarily, we have asymmetrical marking and an instance of agreement (Corbett 2006:139). However, if one believes that tense, aspect, mood and polarity are features of the clause, then marking of these features on items other than on the verb is symmetrical marking and hence does not qualify as agreement. This argument is paralell to the argument about case marking within a noun phrase. On the dependency view, the adjective can be seen as agreeing in case with the noun which is head of the phrase (this view is expressed, for example, in Mel'čuk 1993:329, 337). However, on the constituency view, the matching of case within the noun phrase results from the case being imposed on the noun phrase (often through government by the verb), and the case value being shared within the noun phrase. At this point we will, therefore, treat instances of tense matching - as in (1) - as multiple marking, or sharing, of the tense value within the clause.

The other type of construction from Kayardild involves what Evans (2003:215-216) calls a 'verbal group', which is a sequence of serialised verbs consisting of an obligatory main verb plus up to two further verbs functioning as markers of associated motion, adverbial quantification and aspect. They appear in a fixed order in a single intonational group, and the meaning of the group may be non-compositional. In Kayardild, all verbs in a verbal group take identical values for tense, aspect, mood and polarity, as in the following example (Evans 2003:223, also cited in Corbett 2006:140), where the two verbs of the verbal group match in tense:

(2) niya kuujuu-jarra thaa-tharr
  3.SG.NOM swim-PST return-PST
  'He went off for a swim.'

(Note that the verb thaa-tha 'return' here means 'go off and V' rather than 'V and return', therefore (2) could be uttered in a situation when someone has gone off for a swim and not necessarily returned from the swimming yet.) Evans emphasises that the past tense "is used because of a rule that all words in a verbal group must agree in TAMP [tense, aspect, mood and polarity - AK], not because it is independently locating 'returning' in the past" (2003:223-224). Examples like (2), of tense (and other verbal features) matching within a serial verb complex, are common in serial verb constructions, and the following sentence illustrates the same phenomenon from Paama (Paamese) (Oceanic, a language of Vanuatu; Crowley 2002:68)

(3) ni-suvulu ni-hiitaa netano
  1SG:DIST.FUT-climb.down 1SG:DIST.FUT-descend down
  'I will climb down.'

As suggested by Corbett (2006:140), in examples such as (2) and (3) it is still possible to view the verbal group as a semantic and syntactic unit, and tense (as well as aspect, mood and polarity) as being assigned to this unit. This is consistent with viewing a serial verb construction as "a sequence of verbs which act together as a single predicate, without any overt marker of coordination, subordination, or syntactic dependency of any other sort. Serial verb constructions describe what is conceptualised as a single event" (Aikhenvald 2006:1; though see Baker & Harvey forthcoming for discussion of serial verb constructions versus co-verb constructions). Therefore, we conclude that tense matching in verbal groups, as in (2) and (3), is also better treated as an instance of multiple marking, or sharing, of the tense value within the verbal group - unless one adopts a dependency view of syntax, or reformulates the definition of agreement and revises the typology of controllers, domains and features. (For more discussion of tense as a morphosemantic, but not a morphosyntactic feature, see Kibort 2010.)

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4. The values of feature 'tense'

Time itself does not provide any landmarks - such as the beginning or the end of time, or any other absolutely specified point - which would enable us to locate situations. Therefore, relating a situation to the time line is possible only if we establish some arbitrary reference point (note that this in a sense makes all time location relative, even though the location of situations relative to the present moment is usually referred to as 'absolute tense'). The point on the time line that is universally the basic reference point is the time of speech, i.e. the present moment - which makes tense a deictic category. Another logical possibility of a reference point - a 'famous event' in the history of the language community - is apparently never used for tense as a grammatical category, though it can be used for lexically composite expressions or even lexical items (e.g. pre-Revolutionary, post-Reformation; Comrie 1985:14), and for non-linguistic purposes (e.g. the calendar system). Furthermore, despite the invention of writing and sound recordings that enable temporal dislocation of speaker and hearer, as far as the lexicon and the grammar are concerned, human language makes the assumption that there is only one deictic centre common to both speaker and hearer (Comrie 1985:15-16).

As was mentioned in §1 above, one of the parameters that is often regarded as contributing to tense distinctions is the distance in time at which the situation referred to is located from the reference point. In languages which code different degrees of remoteness, these are usually labelled as different tenses. The most prolific systems coding several different degrees of remoteness have been found in sub-Saharan Africa (especially Bantu languages), Australia, and the Americas. Since temporal distance is relevant only with respect to the parameters of 'before' and 'after', we find distinctions of temporal distance only among past tenses and future tenses. The reference point from which the temporal distance is measured can be the present moment or a different point. The most common systems make two or three distinctions with regard to temporal distance, but five-way oppositions have been found in Africa, Australia and the Americas (e.g. in Yagua, an official language of Peru), while Kiksht (a nearly extinct Lower Chinook language of America) has been reported to have around seven oppositions (Comrie 1985:87,99-100, after Hymes 1975). For detailed discussion of various languages coding the degrees of remoteness, see Comrie (1985:83-101).

Although the degrees of remoteness are usually referred to as tenses, alternatively, this parameter could be seen as an expression of a different category, say 'remoteness' or 'distance', which is orthogonal to the category of tense. (Note also that the same concept of 'remoteness' or 'distance' could be seen as intersecting with the category of 'person' in some languages, yielding for example the proximate versus obviative distinction in the third person; see the entry on 'Person' in this Inventory for more details.) This explanation is compatible with the observation that some languages, e.g. Burarra and some other Australian languages, and also Kiksht, have 'tenses' that appear to refer simultaneously to more than one time segment, and thus not fit well within most current conceptions of tense (Comrie 1985:50,88-80, after Glasgow 1964, and Dixon 1977:498-500). In fact, the tense system in Burarra results from "the combination of two oppositions, one an absolute cut-off point between today and earlier than today, the other between recent and remote within each of these two time frames" (Comrie 1985:89). This makes Burarra's two tenses that code the degree of remoteness ('close' and 'remote') alternate cyclically. They receive present time reference within the 'today' frame, and reference to the most recent period that is not today (i.e. the last few days) within the 'not today' frame.

Thus, in order to derive all tense meanings found in natural language, it is sufficient to examine the parameter coding the location of the situation with respect to the reference point. It is immediately obvious that the relative positions of just two points on the time line - the speech time S, and the event time E - are not sufficient to account for all the different tense meanings found in language. Therefore, since Reichenbach (1947) most tense theories have used a third point in time, labelled R (mnemonic for 'reference point'), to capture all possible tense distinctions. Although the speech time (S) is always the primary reference point for tense, R serves as the temporal standpoint for the clause and may, but does not have to, coincide with the basic orientation point S. The reference point R indicates the speaker's chosen psychological or imaginary temporal location and alters, in a systematic way, the viewing of the temporal location of a situation whose actual location represented by E remains constant with regard to S.

The tense system of a language results from a selection of the following distinctions identified with the three semantic primitives: the time of speech (S), the time of the event (E), and the reference point (R):

  1. Different ways of arranging the three points in time: S, E and R
    • In a post-Reichenbachian view of tense, it is not the position of E relative to S, but the position of R relative to S which makes the speaker view the situation as 'past', 'future', or 'present'. The position of E with respect to R yields further three possible tense meanings that have been labelled as 'posterior', 'simple' and 'anterior'. (The third parameter, that of the position of E relative to S, remains unlabelled.) These possible tense meanings can be represented as follows:

        R   S         past               R   E         posterior
            R-S         present                   R-E         simple
            S   R     future                   E   R     anterior

      The hyphen in the diagrams represents the relation of 'coincides with', and therefore the ordering of the two coinciding points is irrelevant. The meaning of a 'posterior' tense can be understood as 'viewing the situation E from the past, from an earlier point; looking forward', and the meaning of 'anterior' can be understood as 'viewing the situation E from the future, from a later point; looking backward'.
    • If the truth value of the proposition matched against the state of the world at the primary, universally unmarked point of reference, S, yields the representation: 'E before S', then the possible tense meanings incorporating the above relationship, i.e. all the possible ways of viewing the above situation, are:

        R   E       S         posterior past
            E-R       S         simple past
            E   R   S         anterior past
            E       S-R         anterior present
            E       S   R     anterior future

      All possible tense meanings that involve only one deictic centre (S) include three simple tenses (where R=E), five anterior tenses (where E < R), and five posterior tenses (where R < E). Thus, the system of tenses in a language could include up to 13 tenses, and the actual number depends on how many of the possible tense meanings are grammaticalised.
    • The anterior tense meanings (E < R) and the posterior tense meanings (R < E) share the characteristic of R ≠ E, which can be seen as the conceptualisation of the category of the 'perfect' (Kibort 1997; 2009), a category which is typically used "to express events that took place before the temporal reference point but which have an effect on or are in some way still relevant at that point" (Dahl & Velupillai 2005:271). This category is grammaticalised in English and expressed by the 'perfect' tense meanings, as in:

        I have seen John     E   S-R         (anterior present)
        I have lived here for ten years     R   S-E         (posterior past)

      On this view, the 'perfect' can be analysed as a tense, extending from the semantic space of logical possibilities of expressing tense meanings. Note that the perfect is often traditionally listed as an aspect - but it cannot be viewed as canonical aspect since it tells us nothing directly about the internal temporal organisation of the situation. Alternatively, it could be viewed as a semantic category expressing meanings between canonical tense and canonical aspect, overlapping both (cf. Comrie 1976:6: "Traditionally, in works that make a distinction between tense and aspect, the perfect has usually, but not always, been considered an aspect, although it is doubtful whether the definition of aspect given above [i.e. 'aspects are different ways of viewing the internal temporal constituency of a situation' (Comrie 1976:3)] can be interpreted to include the perfect as an aspect. However, the perfect is equally not just a tense, since it differs in meaning from the various tense forms"). Note also that the terms 'perfect' and 'perfective' are not synonymous (see the entry on 'Aspect' in this Inventory for a discussion of both).
  1. Simultaneous location of more than one set of points {S,E,R} on the time line
    • While tense meanings listed and exemplified in (I) above locate an event E(1) with respect to the primary deictic centre S, further (relative) tense meanings may locate an event E2 with respect to the deictic centre R1 which is the reference point for an implied event E1 (whose deictic centre is S). Examples of such tense meanings grammaticalised as tenses are the following uses of the English Past Perfect (cf. Squartini 1999 who argues for distinguishing this tense meaning as a grammaticalised tense in Germanic and Romance) and Future in the Past:

        They had moved in [by then]     R2-E2   (R1-E1)   S       simple past + simple past ('earlier')
        [John left for the front;] he would never return     (R1-E1)   R2-E2   S       simple past + simple future ('later')

    • Many more combinations of E1 and E2 are logically possible, with the deictic centre of E2 = R1. If both events are expressed, the tense meaning is not grammaticalised as a separate tense. Many languages have a possibility of chaining more than two reference points, e.g. English:

        I know that he had met her before     R3-E3   (R2-E2)   S-R1-E1       simple past + simple past of the past

To sum up, tense meanings that are possible in human language result from the possible arrangements on the time axis of the three primitives {S,E,R} plus the multiplications of this set. Tense values are grammaticalisations of particular tense meanings or distinctions. Despite the wide range of logical possibilities (which do not have an obvious limit), not all of them are found; it is very common to find neutralisations of various temporal distinctions, often in combination with other (aspectual, modal) dinstinctions. In some linguistic traditions, combinations of tense, aspect, and mood values are referred to as 'screeves' - see the 'Screeve' entry in this Inventory.

Neutralisations of temporal distinctions have the effect of segmenting the time axis in different ways:

  • No division - neutralisation of all temporal distinctions corresponds to the lack of grammaticalisation of the category of tense (as in, e.g. Burmese, Dyirbal, see Comrie 1985:50-52; also §6 below).
  • Two-way division - a division of the axis into two corresponds to a binary distinction, such as past versus non-past (as in many European languages) or future versus non-future (as in Hua, a dialect of the Yagaria language of Papua New Guinea) (Comrie 1985:48-50, after Haiman 1980:140-144). It is interesting to note that, despite lexical possibilities of referring to present versus non-present (e.g. English now versus then i.e. not-now), no language has been found to grammaticalise not-now as a single tense, which suggests that tenses have to refer to a continuous time segment (Comrie 1985:15,50; but see also §6 below).
  • Three-way division - this type of division of the time axis corresponds to the widespread grammaticalisation of now as present tense as distinct from past and future tenses.

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5. Oddly behaving tense markers

A flag icon Occasionally, tense markers can be found outside the domain of the verb. For example, in Malagasy, Malayo-Polynesian, certain spatial adverbs (locatives), temporal adverbs, and prepositions obligatorily agree in tense with the verb (Comrie 1985:13, after Randriamasimanana 1981:355-367; also Keenan & Polinsky 1998:566-567). Semantically tense is not a property of these elements, but rather of the verb phrase or the clause. Therefore, this can be analysed as an instance of multiple marking of the tense value on more than one element in the clause, as was discussed in §3.

A flag icon Even more interesting instances of the occurrence of tense markers outside the verbal domain are when tense markers appear on noun phrases. This phenomenon has been referred to as nominal tense. Nordlinger & Sadler (2004) provide a detailed survey of the phenomenon of nominal TAM (tense-aspect-mood) and its properties in a variety of the world's languages. They argue that the core cases of nominal TAM share (at least) the following characteristics (2004:778):

  1. nouns (or other NP/DP constituents) show a distinction in one or more of the categories of tense, aspect and mood, where these categories are standardly defined as they would be for verbs (e.g. Crystal 1997);
  2. this TAM distinction is productive across the whole word class, and not simply restricted to a small subset of forms;
  3. the TAM distinction is not restricted to nominals functioning as predicates of verbless clauses, but is encoded on arguments and/or adjunct NP/DPs in clauses headed by verbs;
  4. the TAM marker is a morphological category of the nominal word class, and cannot be treated as a syntactic clitic that merely attaches to the NP/DP phonologically.

Nordlinger & Sadler demonstrate that the encoding of TAM on nominals can have one of two broad functions (2004:778-779ff):

  • 'Independent nominal TAM' specifies information intrinsic to the nominal itself, independently of the TAM of the clause; it locates the time at which the property denoted by the nominal holds of the referent, or, in the case of possessive phrases, the time at which the possessive relation holds; it is found across a range of languages including many from North and South America, e.g. Tariana (an Arawak language from north-west Amazonia, Brazil), Guaraní (a Tupí-Guaraní language spoken in Paraguay), and a number of North American languages including Potawatomi (Algonquian), Kwakw'ala and Halkomelem Salish (see Nordlinger & Sadler 2004 for details and references; for earlier discussion of Nootka, a Wakashan language of Canada, see Comrie 1985:13, after Sapir 1921:133-134). 'Independent nominal TAM' may be marked multiply within the noun phrase, as in Somali (Cushitic) (Nordlinger & Sadler 2004:787).
  • 'Propositional nominal TAM' provides TAM information for the whole proposition, often (but not always) in conjunction with the TAM of the verb; examples are found in Australian languages and in Africa (see Nordlinger & Sadler 2004 for details and references). In some languages propositional nominal TAM can be the only (or primary) exponent of a clause-level TAM category (e.g. in Sirionó, a Tupí-Guaraní language spoken in Bolivia; Nordlinger & Sadler 2004:798-799).

A flag icon In languages of Australia, tense, mood and aspect distinctions are sometimes achieved with the use of selected case markers together with particular verb inflection. In the following examples from Kayardild (Evans 1995:107-108, also cited in Butt 2006:10), the allative (ALL), modal proprietive (MPROP), modal ablative (MALBL) and modal oblique (MOBL) all serve to express tense-aspect-mood distinctions together with particular verb inflections:

(4) ngada warra-ja ngarn-kir
  1.SG.NOM go-ACT beach-ALL
  'I am going/have gone to the beach.'

(5) ngada warra-ju ngarn-kiring-ku
  1.SG.NOM go-POT beach-ALL-MPROP
  'I will go to the beach.'

(6) ngada warra-jarra ngarn-kiring-kina
  1.SG.NOM go-PST beach-ALL-MABL
  'I went to the beach.'

(7) ngada warra-da ngarn-kiring-inj
  1.SG.NOM go-DES beach-ALL-MOBL
  'I would like to go to the beach.'

Specifically, the proprietive, ablative and oblique suffixes here are being used 'modally': the proprietive and the 'potential' verb inflection express futurity; the ablative and the 'past' verb inflection express 'prior occurrence'; and the oblique and the 'desiderative' verb inflection express strong emotion (in this instance desire) towards the event. The allative may also be used modally, as in (5), to express 'that the event is spatially oriented towards the speaker, or that it is just beginning, or just coming into the speaker's awareness' (Evans 1995:108). Butt (2006:10) notes that "this phenomenon is not confined to Australian languages, but that languages like Finnish have also been implicated in this type of case usage."

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6. Problem cases

A question mark icon The question of tenselessness: distinguishing tense from mood and aspect. Burmese and Dyirbal appear to be good examples of tenseless languages, with the grammaticalisation of mood (realis and irrealis) but no grammaticalised time reference (Comrie 1985:50-52). Similarly Manipuri uses realis mood and other temporal means to encode the relationship between speech time and event time, as it does not have a grammatical way of marking tense (Poudel 2007). Lillooet and other Salishan languages spoken in Canada are also reported not to have tense distinctions, although the issue is debated.

Smith (2005) suggests that languages fall into three categories with respect to expressing grammatical tense: (1) there are fully tensed languages in which all main clauses have an obligatory tense marking (as in English, French, German, or Hindi - though all these differ in how aspect is realised); (2) mixed-temporal languages have some of the characteristics of tensed languages: they have inflectional markers and/or temporal particles and clitics that give direct temporal information, but these are syntactically optional; thus, a given sentence may or may not convey temporal information; examples of such languages are Navajo and other Athabaskan; (3) finally, there are languages without temporal inflections or particles, such as Mandarin Chinese and Thai, some Mayan languages, and probably others - the languages in this category are tenseless and use indirect means to locate a situation temporally. See Smith (2005) for an outline of a unified approach to direct and indirect temporal interpretation.

A question mark icon Does English have future tense? Future time reference is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for the use of will in English, as will has a number of other uses, in particular modal ones which do not necessarily have future time reference. See Comrie (1985:46-48) for careful argumentation leading to the tentative conclusion that, despite this, English does have a separate grammatical category of future reference, i.e. a future tense.

A question mark icon Are there languages without both tense and aspect? The following languages have been reported to lack both tense and aspect: Kung-Ekoka, a Khoisan language spoken in Namibia and Angola (Snyman 1970:146 and Bybee et al. 1994:119, cited in Dahl 2001:159), and Bird's Head languages, in particular Maybrat (spoken in Irian Jaya, Indonesia; Dahl 2001, after Reesing 1998:618). See Dahl (2001) for discussion.

A question mark icon Can there be discontinuous tense? Discontinuous tense has been suggested for some Australian and some North American languages. However, it is not clear whether the phenomenon encountered in these languages is really best analysed in this way. Comrie (1985:88-89, citing material from Glasgow 1964 and Dixon 1977:498-500) argues that the apparently discontinuous tenses in Burarra, an Australian language, result from the overlay of the 'present' (today) and 'past' (before today) time frames on the grammaticalised distinction of 'close' and 'remote' (see §4b above).

A question mark icon Should sequence of tenses, as found in English, be analysed as agreement in tense? According to Corbett (2006:29-30), this is hardly justified. In sentences showing sequence of tenses, such as Mary said that John had come (corresponding to: Mary said: 'John has come'), there is no matching of tenses. Rather, the tense in the subordinate clause is shifted back to the pluperfect, and this shift is determined by the past tense in the main clause.

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7. Key literature

  • Comrie, Bernard. 1985. Tense. Cambridge: CUP.
  • Dahl, Östen. 1985. Tense and Aspect Systems.Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Dahl, Östen & Viveka Velupillai. 2005. Tense and aspect. In: Haspelmath, Martin, Matthew S. Dryer, David Gil & Bernard Comrie (eds) The World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS). Oxford: Oxford University Press. 266-272.
  • Mithun, Marianne. 1999. The status of tense within inflection. In: Booij, Geert & Jaap van Marle (eds) Yearbook of Morphology 1998. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers. 23-44.
  • Smith, Carlota. 2005. Time with and without tense. Paper presented at the International Round Table on Tense and Modality, Paris, December 2005. Available at:


  • Aikhenvald, Alexandra. 2006. Serial verb constructions in typological perspective. In: Aikhenvald, Alexandra & R.M.W. Dixon (eds) Serial Verb Constructions: A Cross-linguistic Typology. Oxford: OUP. 1-68.
  • Anderson, Stephen. 1992. A-Morphous Morphology. Cambridge: CUP.
  • Baker, Brett & Mark Harvey (forthcoming) Complex predicate formation.
  • Booij, Geert. 1994. Against split morphology. In: Booij, Geert & Jaap van Marle (eds) Yearbook of Morphology 1993. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers. 27-49.
  • Booij, Geert. 1996. Inherent versus contextual inflection and the split morphology hypothesis. In: Booij, Geert & Jaap van Marle (eds) Yearbook of Morphology 1995. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers. 1-15.
  • Butt, Miriam. 2006. Theories of Case. Cambridge: CUP.
  • Bybee, Joan L., Revere Perkins & William Pagliuca. 1994. The Evolution of Grammar. Tense, Aspect and Modality in the Languages of the World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Comrie, Bernard. 1976. Aspect. Cambridge: CUP.
  • Comrie, Bernard. 1985. Tense. Cambridge: CUP.
  • Corbett, Greville G. 2006. Agreement. Cambridge: CUP.
  • Crowley, Terry. 2002. Serial Verbs in Oceanic: A Descriptive Typology. Oxford: OUP.
  • Dahl, Östen. 1985. Tense and Aspect Systems.Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Dahl, Östen. 2001. Languages without tense and aspect. In: Ebert, Karen H. & Fernando Zúñiga (eds) Aktionsart and Aspectotemporality in Non-European Languages. Zürich: ASAS-Verlag. 159-173.
  • Dahl, Östen & Viveka Velupillai. 2005. Tense and aspect. In: Haspelmath, Martin, Matthew S. Dryer, David Gil & Bernard Comrie (eds) The World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS). Oxford: Oxford University Press. 266-272.
  • Dixon, R.M.W. 1977. A Grammar of Yidiny. Cambridge Studies in Linguistics 19. Cambridge: CUP.
  • Eijk, Jan P. van. 1985. The Lillooet Language: Phonology, Morphology, Syntax. PhD thesis, University of Amsterdam. [Published as van Eijk 1997.]
  • Eijk, Jan P. van. 1997. The Lillooet Language: Phonology, Morphology, Syntax. Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia.
  • Eijk, Jan P. van. 2006. Typological aspects of Lillooet transitive verb inflection. In: Rowicka, Grażyna J. & Elthne B. Carlin (eds) What's in a Verb? (LOT Occasional Series 5). Utrecht: LOT Publications. 29-51. Available at:
  • Evans, Nicholas. 1995. A Grammar of Kayardild, with Historical-Comparative Notes on Tangkic. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Evans, Nicholas. 2003. Typologies of agreement: some problems from Kayardild. In: Brown, Dunstan, Greville G. Corbett & Carole Tiberius (eds) Agreement: A Typological Perspective (Special issue of Transactions of the Philological Society 101/2). Oxford: Blackwell. 203-234.
  • Glasgow, Kathleen. 1964. Frame of reference for two Burera tenses. In: Pittman, Richard & Harland Kerr (eds) Papers on the Languages of the Australian Aborigines. Occasional Papers in Aboriginal Studies 3. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.
  • Haiman, John. 1980. Hua: a Papuan Language of the Eastern Highlands of New Guinea. Studies in Language Companion Series 5. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • Hale, Kenneth. 1973. Person marking in Walbiri. In: Anderson, Stephen R. & Paul Kiparsky (eds) A Festschrift for Morris Halle. New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston. 308-344.
  • Hymes, Dell. 1975. From space to time in tense in Kiksht, International Journal of American Linguistics 41:313-329.
  • Keenan, Edward L. & Maria Polinsky. 1998. Malagasy (Austronesian). In: Spencer, Andrew & Arnold Zwicky (eds) The Handbook of Morphology. Oxford: Blackwell. 563-623.
  • Kibort, Anna. 1997. The Past and the Perfect in English and Polish: a new look at Reichenbach's theory of tense, Working Papers in Linguistics 4:63-89. University of Cambridge.
  • Kibort, Anna. 2009. Modelling 'the perfect', a category between tense and aspect. In: Current Issues in Unity and Diversity of Languages. Collection of the papers selected from the CIL 18th, held at Korea University in Seoul on July 21-26, 2008. Seoul: The Linguistic Society of Korea. 1390-1404. Available at:
  • Kibort, Anna. 2010. Towards a typology of grammatical features. In: Kibort, Anna & Greville G. Corbett (eds) Features: Perspectives on a Key Notion in Linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 64-106.
  • Lyons, John. 1977. Semantics. Cambridge: CUP.
  • Mel'čuk, Igor. 1993. Agreement, government, congruence. Lingvisticae Investigationes 17:307-372.
  • Mithun, Marianne. 1999. The status of tense within inflection. In: Booij, Geert & Jaap van Marle (eds) Yearbook of Morphology 1998. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers. 23-44.
  • Nordlinger, Rachel & Louisa Sadler. 2004. Nominal tense in cross-linguistic perspective, Language 80:776-806.
  • Poudel, Tikaram. 2007. Tense, Aspect and Modality in Nepali and Manipuri. München: Lincom GmbH.
  • Randriamasimanana, Charles. 1981. A study of the causative constructions of Malagasy. PhD thesis, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.
  • Reesing, Ger P. 1998. The Bird's Head as Sprachbund. In: Miedema, Jelle, Cecilia Odé & Rien A.C. Dam (eds) Perspectives of the Bird's Head of Irian Jaya, Indonesia. Proceedings of the Conference, Leiden, 13-17 October 1997. Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi. 603-641.
  • Reichenbach, Hans. 1947. Elements of Symbolic Logic. London: Macmillan.
  • Sapir, Edward. 1921. Language: an Introduction to the Study of Speech. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.
  • Smith, Carlota. 2005. Time with and without tense. Paper presented at the International Round Table on Tense and Modality, Paris, December 2005. Available at:
  • Snyman, J.W. 1970. An Introduction to the !Xu (!Kung) Language. Capetown: A.A. Balkema.
  • Squartini, Mario. 1999. On the semantics of the Pluperfect: Evidence from Germanic and Romance, Linguistic Typology 3:51-89.
  • Thelin, N.B. 1978. Towards a Theory of Aspect, Tense and Actionality in Slavic, Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, Studia Slavica Upsaliensia 18. Uppsala: Almqvist and Wiksell.

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How to cite this entry:

Kibort, Anna. "Tense." Grammatical Features. 7 January 2008.

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