Some languages around the globe do not require verb tenses to show when an action happens. Nor do they demand a different verb form for each specific pronoun.
Afrikaans, Scandinavian languages and Mandarin Chinese are just a few languages whose verbs do not change form, either in conjugation or for any tenses.
Is your native language among those whose verb forms don't change, no matter the subject or the time the action occurred?
If so, the need to constantly alter the verb when speaking and writing English must be bewildering, especially because there are several ways to mark time in the English language.
We'd like to explore them with you.
Before Delving into the Topic
Linguists are currently debating about whether the English language actually uses verb tenses, and if so, how many.
Some contend that grammar rules for verbs are actually aspects rather than tenses.
The aspect of a verb is determined by whether the action is ongoing or completed.
Grammar aspects fall along the traditional lines of verb tenses:
- Simple Aspect – also known as the indefinite aspect.
- Perfect Aspect – also known as the completed aspect.
- Progressive Aspect – also known as the continuing aspect.
- Perfect Progressive Aspect – a continuing-complete aspect.
Verb tenses are more commonly known: Simple, Perfect, Progressive (or continuous) and Perfect Progressive.
These categories are each subdivided into past, present and future, yielding twelve common tenses used when speaking English.
He studied English is an example of the simple aspect, using past tense.
He had sat for IELTS before traveling to England. This sentence is written in perfect aspect.
She was studying for the ESOL exam when I arrived. Progressive aspect.
She had been practising her spoken English until her Esl teacher called. Perfect Progressive aspect.
Can you identify the verb phrases by their commonly known tenses?
Doing it Like Other Tongues
Bahasha Indonesia uses neither tenses nor conjugation.
Reminder: verb conjugation means changing the form of the verb to suit the pronoun.
As in Chinese – the most oft-cited language when comparing these grammar structures, time in Indonesia is indicated by writing when the action or event happened at the start of the sentence:
Yesterday I go to learn English.
Tomorrow I continue to study English.
We can see that the idea of time is effectively conveyed, in spite of the fact that the verb remains in its basic form.
Neglecting to use proper verb endings and tenses is a common error many non native English speakers make.
In part because basic level English learners and intermediate level English speakers tend to translate from their native language word for word, these language learners have an inclination to overlook standard grammatical constructions and other rules when speaking English.
Translating from one's native language is generally not a problem, provided his/her native language verbs also change form when conjugated, and uses a tense/aspect to indicate when the action or event took place.
If you are such a student of English, with some adjustment, it could be easy for you to adapt your mother tongue's grammar system to the English language skills you are working so hard to acquire.
However, if you are learning English based on a language that has no similar verb rules, you might consider targeting your English learning to understanding verbs and how to use them.
Check for ESOL classes here.
Why doesn't English Today Adapt to a Simpler System?
To some who are learning English as a second language, the system of verb tenses and pronouns can seem, at best, redundant because it doesn't exist in their language, yet nobody has any trouble understanding when actions are being performed, and by who.
At worst, grammar in English is considered overly complicated: why a different form for third person singular when all other pronouns seem to work no change on the verb?
Your English teacher might have told you: the English language is cobbled together from several other languages. The heaviest influences are German and French.
As you learn English vocabulary, you may well come across words with their roots in those languages.
Check out our blog on words with multiple meanings in English.
Verb conjugation in those languages is much more complicated than in English: each pronoun dictates a different verb end, no matter what tense the speaker is using.
Furthermore, as the tense changes, so does the verb form – to include a completely different set of endings. Find out more about English language style and form in our dedicated blog.
The good news is that English verbs mostly conjugate the same way.
Irregular verbs tend to pose a problem because they deviate from the norm. However, even irregular verbs in English provide a fail-safe: they all conjugate the same way.
Fortunately, the list of irregular verbs in English is relatively short.
By contrast, the list of irregular verbs in Spanish or French is hundreds long – enough to fill several pages.
Want to practice your English grammar further? Check out these English Grammar exercises.
Why Time Descriptions Are Not Needed in English
Surely you have heard, over and over, in your English classes: listen for context clues.
Perhaps your teacher means for you to hone your listening skills and reading comprehension by pointing out that context gives meaning.
Check out these ESL classes online on Superprof.
Regardless of any possible ulterior motive, the one teaching English to you is absolutely correct: language nuance exists within the context of what is written or being said.
The information you can find through context includes when actions happen, and the general tone or mood of the piece.
We will discuss mood in our next section.
Verb tenses are the best indicators of time in the English language.
Consider the three simple tenses: past, present and future. Using one or the other to describe when an action happens provides the reader/listener with enough information to determine the timing of the action or event.
Perhaps that is why so many people who are learning English as a foreign language content themselves with using only the three simple tenses.
However, verb tenses go further to give a broader picture - more context.
- The progressive tenses indicate something currently happening (until the action was interrupted).
- The continuous tenses signal something ongoing
- The perfect-progressive tenses give emphasis on the result of an action.
Verb tenses help the speaker/listener give actions definitive time frames.
Setting the Mood
In English, verb constructions can be used to set a mood – a tone that gives further meaning to a sentence or paragraph.
There are a total of five moods, but here, we focus on only one: the subjunctive mood.
This type of phrasing is usually found in more formal English constructions. You might have read a sentence like this:
To gain fluency in the language, it is recommended that the English learner practise speaking skills daily.
Subjunctive mood uses: a dependent clause + passive voice + conjunction + independent clause (with modified verb, to suit the mood)
Typically used verbs for this construction include: suggest, demand, insist, recommend, and ask.
Can you write a subjunctive mood sentence?
Learn more about English Grammar Clauses in our dedicated blog.
A Note on Passive Voice
Subjunctive mood sentences include the use of a passive voice clause, as shown above. What is meant by passive voice?
This sentence construction puts the focus of the phrase on the object, rather than on the subject.
Today's English lesson was taught by Mr. Smith – passive voice.
Standard English sentences call for focus on the subject, like so:
Mr. Smith taught today's English lesson.
Active voice is a much more direct way – the recommended way to express oneself in English.
We will discuss passive voice in depth in our next Daily Dose of English Learning article.
Getting Back to That Debate
Earlier in this article, we mentioned that grammaticians of British and American English are hotly debating whether verbs in English actually use any tenses at all.
The general consensus seems to be that English only uses two tenses: past and present.
In fact, that agreement extends to the belief that fewer than half of the world's languages actually use clearly defined tenses, as opposed to aspects.
What does that matter to you, who is taking English courses in London?
Not much, other than you will most likely have to recognize and identify verb tenses on any English test you take.
Developing your English skills should be less a matter of books and theory, and more a proposition of speaking the language as much and as often as possible.
Although an understanding of English grammar is most certainly important, it is not necessary to know every single aspect and rule in order to speak everyday English.
In fact, the more you speak, the more the language constructs will naturally come to you, with no special effort on your part.
To truly improve your English, we suggest that you focus on your English pronunciation and vocabulary, learn to use English words in proper context, develop strong writing skills and overall literacy, in addition to your grammar lessons.
What mood is that sentence written in?
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