Introduction - English Tense Usage
English tenses have two elements of meaning: TIME and ASPECT.
|The time when the action happens||Our interest in the action, the way we see
The Simple Aspect
It describes an action that is seen to be complete. The action is viewed as a whole unit.
The action can take place in the:
Present (now - the moment of speaking)
Past (before now)
Future (after now or later)
|- A point (moment) or a period of time in which the action is seen to be complete
- Regular or permanent features of one's life
- Events that are always true
- I live in a small town on the south coast. (Present = now; feature of one's life)
- When I've read the book, I'll lend it to you. (Complete action)
- This shop will close at 7.00 this evening (A fact in the future - after now; event depending on a fixed timetable or schedule)
- The Earth goes round the Sun (True statement)
- She has written three letters this morning (Complete action)
The Continuous Aspect
It focuses on the duration of the activity. The activity is not permanent, but we are aware of the passing of time between the beginning and the end of it.
The action can take place in the:
Present (now - the moment of speaking, this week, this period of time we are in)
Past (before now - the duration is expressed for a past activity)
Future (after now)
- We are talking about an action which is unfinished, incomplete. The action can be either in the past or in the present.
- The activity is in progress, temporary and can be interrupted. It is going on during the period of time we are in.
- In the future it indicates that everything is ready for something which will happen soon (see the future)
- What is that music you are playing? (Temporary, I'm playing music now)
- We were walking across a field when we were attacked by a bull (In progress, it can be interrupted)
- I was writing a report on the flight home (The activity may not be complete, I didn't finish the report)
- You never do your homework on time: you are forever making excuses (Temporary, it emphasize a never-ending series of events)
- I've been cutting the grass (Temporary, the action expressed by the verb seems longer or habitual)
- I'm on holiday at the moment, but I'm starting a new course next week (Future plan, everything is settled and ready for the beginning of the course)
The Perfect Aspect
It describes an action that is completed before another time and whose duration is not important.
The action takes place in the:
Past (a time before now, earlier than now)
Future (some time before a specified moment)
- The action is completed before another time
- It describes something which began and ended before the present (it describes a completed act)
- It refers to indefinite, unspecified time. We are usually more interested in the result of the action than in the action itself
- Have you ever been to Norway? (some time before now)
- I'll have finished the report by 10.00 (some time before then)
- When I arrived, Peter had already left (some time before I arrived)
- Somebody has drunk up all my soup! (time is not important; relevant is the fact I see the empty dish, the result)
- I gave my wife the present (action B) which I had bought her the day before (action A) (I want to make it clear that the action A took place in a time before and separate from the time when action B took place)
Active and Passive
When we want to move the focus of attention from the subject of a sentence to the object, we transform it from active to passive.
- Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in 1599. (Shakespeare = subject; Hamlet = object) - The focus of attention is on the writer.
- Hamlet was written in 1599. (The object of the previous sentence - Hamlet - becomes the subject now, because we want to focus the attention on the masterpiece) In this case, the agent (by Shakespeare) can be omitted because it is not important or is understood.
There are other cases in which by and the agent are omitted in passive sentences: it's when our main interested is not in who or what performed the actions. If we were talking about the people or things (agent), we would use the active.
- She was arrested for drink-driving.
- A lot of books have been written about this subject.
- Several shoppers were injured in the explosion.
The use of the active or the passive depends on the emphasis we want to give when talking about the same situation. But not always the passive is used to focus the interest on the subject of the sentence.
1. Sometimes we begin a sentence with what is known and end another sentence with the "news". In the passive, the news can be the agent of the active sentence.
- A - "What a lovely painting!"
- B - "Yes. It was painted by Canaletto (Passive)
2. In informal language, we can use you or they to refer to people in general and to no person in particular. In this way, we avoid using the passive.
- You can buy anything in Harrods. (Active)
3. We use past participles like adjectives to emphasise some elements of the sentence
- I'm very impressed by your work. (Active)