Tense: definition

From Teflpedia

Here are listed, in chronological order, some of the definitions of the word tense written over the last 2,400 years.

(d.322BC) Aristotle: A verb is a (…) significant sound, marking time. For “man” or “white” does not express the idea of “when”; but “walks” or “has walked “ does connote time, present or past.

(1586) Bullokar, William: Thér be threʾ Týmƺ calʾed Tencʾeƺ. The tým that iƺ Now, calʾed the Preſent-Tencʾ: aƺ, I lou. The tým Paſt, calʾed the Preter-Tencʾ: aƺ, I loued. The tým Too Com, calʾed the Futur-Tencʾ: aƺ, I ſhalʾ or wilʾ lou.

(1617) Hume, Alexander: Tyme is an affliction of the verb, noating the differences of tyme, and is either Present, past, or to cum.

(1653) Wallis Johannis: Nos duo tantum habemus Tempora in quovis verba, Præſens & Præteritum Imperfectum.

(1660) Arnauld A. and Lancelot C.: Vne autre choſe que nous auons dit auoir eſté jointe à l'affirmation du Verbe eſt la ſignification du Temps [...] Il n'y a que trois temps ſimples; le Preʃent, comme amo, j'ayme; Le Paʃʃé, comme amaui, j'aay aymé & le Futur, comme amabo, j'aymeray.

1685) Cooper, C: Verbis attinent 1. Modi. 2. tempora. 3.Numeri. 4. perſonæ

(1711) Gildon, Charles and Brightland, John: Two Times the Engliſh Language only knows, The firʃt, the preſent,next the paſſing ʃhows.

(1737). Greenwood, James: Tenʃe is the Time of the Verb....... There are in Engliʃh two Tenʃes or Times, the Preʃent Time, and the Preter Time.

(1751) Harris, James: The tenʃes are used to mark preʃent, paſt and future time.

(1755) Johnson, Samuel: [In grammar.] Tenʃe, in ſtrict ſpeaking, is only a variation of the verb to ſignify time.

(1761) Priestley, Joseph: Verbs have two TENSES; the PRESENT TENSE, denoting the time preʃent and the PRETER TENSE, which expreſſes the time paʃt.

(1762): Lowth, Robert: In a Verb are to be conſidered the Perſon, the Number, the Time, and (…)

(1784) Webster, Noah: How many times or tenses are there? Three; preʃen, paʃt and future.

(1785) Ash, John: There are five Tenſes, or Times.

(1794) Murray, Lindlay: TENSE, being the distinction of time, ... .

(1823) Cobbett, William: I will now lay before you then the conjugation of the Verb to work, exhibiting that Verb in all its persons, numbers, times and modes.

(1870) Angus, Joseph: Tense (from the Latin 'tempus' through the French 'temps') means time, and the word is used to mark that form of the verb which shows the time in which the action is performed.

(1877) Peile, J: The verb was further distinguished in our group of languages by its capacity of expressing different times of action – present, past, and future.( …) All these tenses (…)

(1882) Mason, C. P.: Tenses (Latin tempus, 'time') are varieties of form in verbs, or compound verbal phrases made with the help of auxiliary verbs, which indicate partly the time to which an action or event is referred, and partly the completeness or incompleteness of the event at the time referred to.

(1890) Morris, Dr R.: The form or modification of the verb used to indicate time is called Tense (Fr. temps. Lat. tempus).

(1891-8) Sweet, Henry: Tense is primarily the grammatical expression of distinctions of time.

20th century to present[edit]

(1904) Daniel, Rev. Canon Evan: Tense (Lat tempus, time) is that form which a verb assumes to indicate (1) the time of the action or state denoted by the verb and (2) the completeness or incompleteness of the action or state.

(1909-1949) Jespersen, Otto: Tense (…) is the linguistic expression of time-relations, so far as these are expressed in verb forms.

(1913) Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary: .) One of the forms which a verb takes by inflection or by adding auxiliary words, so as to indicate the time of the action or event signified; the modification which verbs undergo for the indication of time. The primary simple tenses are three: those which express time past, present, and future; but these admit of modifications, which differ in different languages.

(1916) de Saussure, Ferdinand: Distinctions of time, which are so familiar to us, are unknown in certain languages…. Proto-Germanic has no special form for the future.

(1931) Curme, George O.: There are four absolute tenses [...], which express time from the standpoint in which the speaker is speaking without reference to some other act; and two relative tenses [...], which express time relatively to the preceding absolute tenses.

(1954) Hornby, A. S.: The word TENSE stands for a verb form or series of verb forms used to express a time relation.

(1954) Wood, Frederick T: TENSE is the word we use to denote the "time element" expressed in a particular form of a verb.

(1957) Whatmough, Joshua: TENSE time of action as he lives (present): preterite he lived or future he will live.

(1957) Vendler, Zeno: The fact that verbs have tenses indicates that considerations involving the concept of time are relevant to their use.

(1961) Webster's Third: 1: a distinction of form in a verb to express past, present or future time, or duration of the action or state it denotes. 2a: a set of inflectional forms of a verb that express distinctions of time (….) b: a particular inflectional form of a verb expressing a specific time distinction. (…) 3: the part of the meaning of a verb that consists of the expression of a time distinction. 4: a verb phrase that includes a tense auxiliary.

(1962) Close, R. A.: In what are generally called the tenses we are concerned with aspects of activity and of time.

(1969) Christophersen, P. and Sandved A. O.: Tense is a set of grammatical forms bearing some relation to the notional category of time

(1971) Crystal, David: If we stick to a traditional concept of tense, then the hypothesis ‘tense in language signals time’ is likely to be accepted without question. (…) But the hypotheses can be shown to be false.

(1971) Palmer, Frank R.: Most European languages have special forms of the verb to mark tense – past present and future. But it would be a mistake to think in terms of some universal characteristic of time-markers in the verb.

(1972) Quirk, R. et al: In our use of language (…) we make use of these extra-linguistic realities (ie past, present and future time) by means of the language-specific category of tense.

(1974) Palmer, Frank R.: Tense appears to have three distinct functions, first to mark purely temporal relation of past and present time, secondly in the sequence of tenses that is mainly relevant for reported speech and thirdly to mark ‘unreality’, particularly in conditional clauses and wishes.

(1975) Leech, Geoffrey and Svartik, Jan: Tense and aspect relate the happening described by the verb to time in the past, present, or future.

(1982) Seaton, B.: tense - The form of a verb that indicates the time of an action, the continuity of an action and the completeness or incompleteness of an action.

(1983) Celce-Murcia, Marianne and Larsen-Freeman, Diane: The tense forms of any language are a selective rendering of the temporal distinctions one can logically make with reference to time in the real world.

(1985) Comrie, Bernard: [...] tense is grammaticalised expression of location in time.

(1985) Lewis, Michael: Time is not the same thing as tense. The importance of the distinction cannot be overestimated. (….) it is easy to think of the present tense having something to do with present time, or the past tense with past time. Examples soon show us that this is not true.

(1988) Alexander, L. G.: Verbs are used to express distinctions in time (past, present, future) through tense.

(1989) Oxford English Dictionary: 2a. Gram. Any one of the different forms or modifications (or word-groups) in the conjugation of a verb which indicate the different times (past, present or future) at which the action or state denoted by it is viewed as happening or existing, and also (by extension) the different nature of such action or state, as continuing (imperfect) or completed (perfect).

(1990) Sinclair, J. et al.: A set of verb forms that indicate a particular point in time or period of time in the past, present, or future is called a tense.

(1992) Richards, Jack C. et al.: tense - the relationship of the verb and the time of the action or state it describes.

(1994) Pinker, Steven: tense. Relative time of occurrence of the event described by the sentence, the moment at which the speaker utters the sentence and, often, some third reference point: present (he eats), past (he ate), future (he will eat). Other so-called tenses such as the perfect (he has eaten) involve a combination of tense and aspect.[1]

(1998) Yule, George: To describe the different forms of the verb, we need to talk about TENSE, which often has to do with the location of a situation in time.

(1999) Biber, Douglas et al.: From a semantic point of view, both tense and aspect relate primarily to time distinctions in the verb-phrase.

(2000) Parrot, Martin: This book follows most modern course books in using the word (i.e. tense) more generally to refer to the large variety of forms we use to refer to different aspects of time.

(2006) Declerck, Renaat: TENSE is a linguistic concept: it defines the form taken by the verb to locate the situation referred to in time.


  1. Pinker, S., (1994) The Language Instinct, p. 515. HarperPerennial Modern Classics

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