Linguistics professionals maintain that there are only two "tenses" in English. The linguistics definition of tense is quite specific, by which is meant morphological tenses. I have no problem with that.

Almost everybody else in the world believes that any time expression is a "tense": present progressive, future perfect, what have you. So their understanding of the term is a lot looser. I have no problem with this, either.

Yet we find ourselves in a situation here on ELU where people ask questions about tenses, as they understand them, and to answer such a question is to invite the scorn of linguists who admit only the narrow, specific sense of the term, even though most dictionaries have entries that cover both its specific and the general senses. And so long comment battles ensue, to the benefit of nobody.

It's getting so that I don't even want to answer a question about time expressions anymore because the OP used the word "tense" in the question. Is there any way to get past this? How can we all lay down our arms and reason together graciously?

  • I wouldn't class myself as a "linguist", but I'm well aware of the fact that English has only two tenses that "conjugate" (at the simple morphological level of I walk, I walked). In some contexts it's relevant to point this out (esp. to non-native speakers), but that doesn't imply any and all such comments are "scornful". Commented Jan 1, 2015 at 13:18
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    Votaire supposedly observed that the the Holy Roman Empire was by his day not holy nor Roman nor an empire. Other worthies have noted that the Irish elk was neither Irish nor an elk. And yet neither Holy Roman Empire nor Irish elk is worthless as an identifier. Despite being flawed terms, they are actually pretty useful for specifying the things that they refer to. I think future tense falls into the same camp: experts know the term is flawed and they may have a more accurate name for the entity in question, but non-experts use the term often and understand each other. I can accept that.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Apr 25, 2017 at 1:49

2 Answers 2


TL;DR Most people will use 'tense' in the non-morphological sense. So answerers should accept that.

Longer detailed answer: I'm just trying to justify what I think is a bizarre technical usage. So really there's not much more.

  • Most people would describe the sun as rising and setting. So we should use those terms to explain how things actually work? Or should we explain why although useful for some purposes, they can't really be part of the explanation? If this is to be a serious site about language surely it can't just perpetuate people's myths about language just because lots of people hold them.
    – Alan Munn
    Commented Jan 1, 2015 at 22:15
  • Doesn't 'will' give the future tense in English? Or does that not count because it is not an inflection?
    – Mitch
    Commented Jan 2, 2015 at 1:14
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    No, will is a modal auxiliary verb. And although the 'will' vs. 'would' contrast doesn't correspond directly to present and past, it can be argued that 'would' is the past form of 'will', and 'will' (and 'would') always contribute modal meaning and not just future meaning.
    – Alan Munn
    Commented Jan 2, 2015 at 1:30
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    @AlanMunn I think the point that Mitch is trying to make is that "tense" does not mean the same thing to, for example, people in the ESL world, and linguists. However, that is about the meaning of the word tense. So these might be definition 1 and definition 2 in a dictionary. No person who uses tense in the non-morphological way is trying to say that there is more than one type of inflection for a verb. The sun analogy is not apt here - nobody is necessarily disagreeing about the facts, they're arguing over the ownership of the term. I say this as a morphologically minded tense person. Commented Jan 6, 2015 at 0:14
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    I'm with you on this question (I think). I find it odd that linguistics experts who are in many respects hostile to prescriptivist approaches to English usage are in this instance so inflexible in refusing to recognize what a typical nonexpert poster means when he or she uses the word tense. Also, phenomenologically, the sun does rise in the east and set in the west—which is why people say that it does. It just doesn't (from an astrophysical perspective) revolve around the earth in space when doing so.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Apr 25, 2017 at 1:32

As long as your question's accepted answer is the only question/answer ever askable on ELU regarding tense, there will be only the boilerplate stamping "Duplicate" and thus it is, thus it will ever be.

Also, I'm referencing my meta question's accepted answer from @tchrist, quote:

Arguably, it’s also yet another candidate to be marked a duplicate of our number-one most frequently asked question of all time, “How do the tenses and aspects in English correspond temporally to one another?”, itself something of a catch-all for the infinitely many questions that ask about how this or that one verbal form differs from or is similar to that or this other verbal form.

And yes, there really are infinitely many such duplicate tense-and-aspect questions from people who can’t be bothered to use a basic grammar book. Such questions are simply far too basic, and too repetitive, to be interesting to etymologists, linguists, and serious language enthusiasts.

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