Teaching tenses

This is how I often picture tenses for students. The secondary tense (on the right) construes some kind of change:


Verbal Group 5 – finite tenses

The distinction between the finite tenses in the verbal group is, I think, one of recursive delicacy. But this is not to say that it may continue indefinitely. There are stop rules (where α = primary tense):

  1. Apart from α, future on occurs once.
  2. Apart from α, present only occurs once, and always at the deepest level.
  3. Apart from α, the same tense does not occur twice consecutively.

Taking these stop rules into account gives us a total of 36 tenses in English:

  1. past (took/did take)
  2. present (takes/does take)
  3. future (will take)
  4. past-in past (had taken)
  5. past-in present (has taken)
  6. past-in future (will have taken)
  7. present-in past (was taking)
  8. present-in present (is taking)
  9. present-in future (will be taking)
  10. future-in past (was going to take)
  11. future-in present (is going to take)
  12. future-in future (will be going to take)
  13. past-in future-in past (was going to have taken)
  14. past-in future-in present (is going to have taken)
  15. past-in future-in future (will be going to have taken)
  16. present-in past-in past (had been taking)
  17. present-in past-in present (has been taking)
  18. present-in past-in future (will have been taking)
  19. present-in future-in past (was going to be taking)
  20. present-in future-in present (is going to be taking)
  21. present-in future-in future (will be going to be taking)
  22. future-in past-in past (had been going to take)
  23. future-in past-in present (has been going to take)
  24. future-in past-in future (will have been going to take)
  25. past-in future-in past-in past (had been going to have taken)
  26. past-in future-in past-in present (has been going to have taken)
  27. past-in future-in past-in future (will have been going to have taken)
  28. present-in past-in future-in past (had been going to have been taking)
  29. present-in past-in future-in present (has been going to have been taking)
  30. present-in past-in future-in future (will be going to have been taking)
  31. present-in future-in past-in past (had been going to be taking)
  32. present-in future-in past-in present (has been going to be taking)
  33. present-in future-in past-in future (will have been going to be taking)
  34. present-in past-in future-in past-in past (had been going to have been taking)
  35. present-in past-in future-in past-in present (has been going to have been taking)
  36. present-in past-in future-in past-in future (will have been going to have been taking)

(H & M, p/339-342)


Activity: Verbal group, discourse and Harry Potter

If we teach ‘the tenses’ separately, I think students might not get the interaction between them and how they are used in discourse for different effects. Here is an activity I’ve used with Upper Intermediate – Advanced students, though you could use it in a more simplified form for lower levels. The activity compares the first paragraph of each of the Harry Potter novels and the tense choices made for each one and why.

Here is the first book:

Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

Here we can see it is the primary past that is mainly used, with one modal ‘would’. Taking it a rank up to clause, we can also see that it is mainly relational clauses. The first book of a series like this establishes the tone and introduces the characters. The Dursleys are ‘proud’, ‘normal’ and not ‘strange or mysterious’, to be compared of course with the characters to come. The opening establishes a simple tension between the two worlds.

The second book is slightly different:

Not for the first time, an argument had broken out over breakfast at number four, Privet Drive. Mr Vernon Dursley had been woken in the early hours of the morning by a loud, hooting noise from his nephew Harry’s room.

Here the past-in past is mainly used. The tense choice in the opening here provides a continuity link between the action in the first book (secondary past) and the action to come (primary past). On a higher rank, we have also shifted from relational clauses (establishing character) to material clauses (continuing story).

Here is the third opening:

Harry Potter was a highly unusual boy in many ways. For one thing, he hated the summer holidays more than any other time of year. For another, he really wanted to do his homework, but was forced to do it in secret, in the dead of night. And he also happened to be a wizard.

Here we have a much more complicated interplay of primary past and hypotactic expansion of the verbal group. Whereas the first book introduced the characters and the second built on the story, the third book now expands on the character of Harry, reflected in the language choices. Notice also the shift from relational ‘was’ to mental processes ‘hated’, ‘wanted’.

By the fourth book, the characters, story and Harry are fully established and so there is a shift in tone from this narrow focus to introduce the wider wizarding community and the larger story arc that is to come:

The villagers of Little Hangleton still called it ‘the Riddle House’, even though it had been many years since the Riddle family had lived there. It stood on a hill overlooking the village, some of its windows boarded, tiles missing from its roof, and ivy spreading unchecked over its face. Once a fine-looking manor, and easily the largest and grandest building for miles around, the Riddle house was now damp, derelict and unoccupied.

Here we have an interaction between the main action of the story (primary past) and its causes (past-in past). This presages the story arc of Dumbledore delving into Tom Riddle’s past and his evolution into Voldemort.

Book Five sees a pause in the story and back to the Dursley’s:

The hottest day of the summer so far was drawing to a close and a drowsy silence lay over the large, square houses of Privet Drive. Cars that were usually gleaming stood dusty in their drives and lawns that were once emerald lay parched and yellowing – for the use of hosepipes had been banned due to drought. Deprived of their usual car-washing and lawn-mowing pursuits, the inhabitants of Privet Drive had retreated into the shade of their cool houses, windows thrown open in the hope of tempting in a non-existent breeze. The only person left outdoors was a teenage boy who was lying flat on his back in a flowerbed outside number four.

After all the Horwarts action of the first four books and battle within the wizarding world that is to come, here is the mid-point between them. The past-in present takes us out of the main story and gives us a respite away from all the drama, almost like taking a breather before your second wind. Literally the calm before the storm.

Here is the penultimate sixth book:

It was nearing midnight and the Prime Minister was sitting alone in his office, reading a long memo that was slipping through his brain without leaving the slightest trace of meaning behind. He was waiting for a call from the president of a far-distant country, and between wondering when the wretched man would telephone, and trying to suppress unpleasant memories of what had been a long, tiring and difficult week, there was not much space in his head for anything else. The more he attempted to focus on the print on the page before him, the more clearly the Prime Minister could see the gloating face of one of his political opponents. This particular opponent had appeared on the news that very day, not only to enumerate all the terrible things that had happened last week (as though anyone needed reminding) but also to explain why every one of them was the government’s fault.

In this book, all the various strands of the story that have been introduced so far come together and move towards the final denouement and showdown with Voldemort that will come in the final book. Here also, all of the primary and secondary tense choices, as well as expansion, that have been made previously are used in one long passage. This almost creates a kind of exophoric cohesive tie to the other six books – not of reference or collocation but of tense choice.

The seventh book is the final battle:

The two men appeared out of nowhere, a few yards apart in the narrow, moonlit lane. For a second they stood quite still, wands directed at each other’s chest; then, recognizing each other, they stowed their wands beneath their cloaks and started walking briskly in the same direction.

Here we have the primary past. It is literally and metaphorically a final showdown. We have no more need of background. Only the primary past is needed.

I think this exercise is useful for demonstrating that tense choices are also discourse choices and it is the interaction of these choices that is important. Notice also how the passages get progressively longer, reflecting the increasing ages of the characters and the increasing complexity of the story.


Verbal group 4: tense, discourse and trains.

When teaching the future tenses it’s very common to talk about ‘present tense as scheduled future’. For example, ‘The train leaves at 7.30′. Personally, however, I think this might be somewhat misleading. The present tense is the present tense. Importantly, this is the eternal present. I believe, then, that the trains in ‘The train leaves at 7.30‘ and ‘The train will leave at 7.30‘ actually refer to two different trains. The first is an idealized, scheduled train that may, or may not in the case of Sydney trains, actually exist. The second, however, refers to an actual train.

Here is an advertisement from the BNC:

A special ” Victorian Belle ” period costume evening train will also be run over the line on Saturday July 4 headed by ” City of Truro “. Dining accommodation for this train is already fully booked, but ordinary seating is still available for this 40-mile special run, price £6.00 per head. A commemorative headboard will be carried featuring the Taunton 150 logo and the train leaves Bishops Lydeard at 19.15. Trade stands, ephemera stalls and a real ale/cider bar tent, including a limited anniversary beverage, will also add to the carnival atmosphere of this event.

Here we can see both the primary present and future used, and I think there is a subtle difference between them. The first is referenced by a long noun group describing an actual train, ‘A special ” Victorian Belle ” period costume evening train’, while the second, ‘the train’, refers to the scheduled time that this particular train is supposed to leave. Notice, also, that all other references to the event itself carry future tense.
So as I said I think the ‘simple present describing future event’ is a bit misleading. It is a future event but that does really help explain why we might use that form and not use future ‘will’. Another common example is ‘I catch the 4.30 train tomorrow‘ but I think this actually carries a meaning of ‘I am scheduled to catch the 4.30 train tomorrow’ so we are, in fact, talking about the present state of the schedule and not really the future event.


Verbal group 3 – tense and discourse

Here is a picture of two people on a date:

The language we use to represent the picture depends upon discourse choices. The picture may be represented as a series of completed events or, in other words, a story. In this case the primary tense would mainly be used:

Last week, Jun and Mae went on their first date. First, they went to a fancy Chinese restaurant in Yokohama for dinner. After dinner, they left the restaurant and walked arm-in-arm through the colourful streets of China Town. It was still quite early so they went to a coffee shop and talked for hours.

On the other hand, it may also be represented as a series of interconnected events that unfold through time. For example, if the photographer were describing the picture:

Here’s a photo of my friends on their first date. They look cute together, don’t they! I think they were walking through China Town, in Yokohama here. I think so. Yeah, they had just finished dinner and were walking through China Town to a coffee shop where they were going to have coffee.

Of course, it may also be possible to combine the two, in which case the primary tense unfolds the main events while the secondary tense adds more detail:

Last week, Jun and Mae went on their first date. They had met at a lecture in college three months before and had been flirting ever since. First, they went for dinner to a fancy Chinese restaurant in Yokohama – it had even appeared on TV. After dinner, they left the restaurant and walked arm-in-arm through the colourful streets of China Town. Lots of other couples were walking there too. It was still quite early so they went to a nice coffee shop that they had noticed before and talked there for hours.

The choice of tense, then, is not so much a function of time but one of discourse – it is a realization of how the speaker of writer wishes to represent the event.



Verbal Group 2 – time and space

The tenses are usually presented as a time line where each tense can be named separately yet this is somewhat misleading, or “distorted” as H & M put it (p.345). I think it might be more useful to think in three-dimensional terms of time and space. Take a simple example of these two sentences:

  1. Do you want a copy?
  2. Did you want a copy?

The second is seen as more ‘polite’, not through any inherent semantic marker of politeness but from the fact that the past tense is (metaphorically) distanced from the speaker. It opens a space between the event and the speaker through language.

I think for EFL it can be useful then to ‘picture’ the tenses in terms of this space-time. Here is two people on a date:

The primary event here is the date, so we could say:

  • They are on a date.

This is the primary present tense. We might want to also “narrow down and sharpen the focus” (H & M, p.346) of this primary event by making increasingly delicate distinctions as the date progresses. At the time of the picture, they might have had dinner already and are now walking around looking for a good place for coffee. It still looks early so it’s possible they have been walking for 20 minutes enjoying the summer evening.  These are the secondary tenses. We might then picture it as below:

The primary tense used alone, being deictic, construes the event as suggesting some truth or fact about the world whereas the secondary tenses, being relative to that event, suggest the possibility of change. This might be why we say “we are dating“, with a possibility of it ending at some point, and then “we are married“, construed as a permanent state. We can also see this in the distinction between “you are silly“, which suggests a permanent character flaw, and “you are being silly“, which a parent might say to stop some temporary behaviour in a child.

I think from this we can also see that there is some overlap between the tenses rather than the traditional naming. As H & M put it, listing tenses “suggests that there is a clear-cut distinction between those tenses that exist and others that don’t, whereas the system varies for different speakers” (p. 346). Using a visual representation of this might help students ‘see’ how the tenses interact and form a system of choices that enable speakers to construe events in different ways.



The compositional structure of language (the stratification of Content and Expression) comprises a small number of “compositional layers…organised by the relationship of ‘is a part of'” (H & M, p.20). This ordering is termed rank. The rank scale for the grammar of English is:

  • clause (little miss muffet sat on a tuffet + eating her curds and whey);
  • phrase or group (eating + her curds and whey);
  • word (eating + her + curds + whey);
  • morpheme (eat + ing).

Thus “each rank consists of one or more units of the rank next below…units of every rank may form complexes…there is the potential for rank shift…[and] it is possible for one unit to be enclosed within another” (H & M, p.10).

Within my own EFL classes I try to introduce the concept of rank for even very low level classes as it is a fundamental concept of understanding the system as a whole and why certain choices are made within the lexico-grammar. As an example, a common exercise for beginner classes is to introduce basic personal information:

  • This is Jane. She is 42 years old. She lives in Tokyo. She is a doctor.

By this, we are construing the information as four separate units of information of equal importance linked textually through reference (Jane – she – she – she). Whe can, however, construe it as two units of information by rank-shifting to form two sentences with two clause complexes:

  • This is Jane who is 42 years old. She is a doctor living in Tokyo.

We could then take this further and construe it as one unit of information with three clauses by rank-shifting to form noun groups (note the change from 42 years old as a separate Participant to 42-year old as a rank-shifted Qualifier):

  • This is Jane who is a 42-year old doctor living in Tokyo.

In this case there are three clauses that are being modified (This is – Jane who – doctor living). We could, however, additionally construe the information as one unit with only two Particpants (an Identified and an Identifier) by rank-shifting who is a doctor and living in Tokyo from clause level down to noun group level:

  • Jane is a 42-year old doctor in Tokyo.