Teaching Grammar Guide: Tense vs Aspect

Most ESL teachers have heard about the 12 tenses in English, and of the challenges of teaching the Present Perfect tense. Some teachers may be surprised to learn that there are really only two tenses in English.

What is a Tense? – Teaching Grammar

Technically, tense is a change to a verb to indicate time. In English, we only have two situations in which the based form of a verb is changed to indicate time:

Base form: talk
Present: talk(s)
Past: talked

English has only two tenses: present and past.

Aspect in English – Teaching Grammar

There are four aspects in English:

Simple: expresses single actions, habits and routines
Continuous (or progressive): expresses incomplete/temporary actions or actions in progress at the time of speaking
Perfect: expresses the results of previous actions or states
Perfect Continuous: expresses incomplete/temporary actions or states that began before a specified or implied time

Tense tells us when something happens. Aspect gives us information about how: is it a single event? A series of events over time? An action that is ongoing, and likely to remain so?

Aspect can be expressed in past, present and future time.

What About the Future Tense? – Teaching Grammar

There is no future tense in English. Future time is expressed in many ways. To express future time, we can use the present continuous (I’m going to school tomorrow), modals (I will miss you), and other structures (I’m going to fly to Mexico). We can express future time in English, but we do not express future tense. To express future, we must use a verb phrase of some sort: there is not change to the root form of a verb that indicates future.

Why is This Important? – Teaching Grammar

Grammar books still refer to the ‘present continuous’ and ‘past perfect’ tenses, so why is it important for teachers to understand the difference between tense and aspect?

It may not be something you choose to introduce to your students, but understanding this vital aspect of English grammar can help you better understand the subtle differences between sentences like: “I have worked on the railroad for many years” and “I’ve been working on the railroad for many years”. It can help you understand the reason for the use of ‘do’ and ‘did’ in making questions and negatives in English. The better we understand the language we are teaching, the better we can help our students.

All our TEFL courses include a comprehensive grammar module so you can teach grammar effectively.

Related Reading:

Teaching Grammar Using the Communicative Approach

Teaching Grammar: Elicitation Through Concept Questions

Information Gaps: Grammar and Speaking Skills Activity