Tense and Auxiliary Verbs

When we examined the structure of verb phrases, we looked at phrases that contained only one verb. This simplification let us understand the basic structure of complements like direct objects, subject complements, and so forth, without unnecessary complications, but many verb phrases are more complex, containing multiple verbs. For example, in a sentence like (1), there are two verbs, has and eaten, in the same phrase (1) Jonathan has eaten my sandwich The verb has in this sentence is a member of a subset of verbs called auxiliary verbs.[1] The purpose of this chapter is to explore the system behind these auxiliary verbs, and particularly how these auxiliary verbs relate to the concept of tense. ------ Notes [1] Grammar books designed for younger students often call auxiliary verbs "helping verbs."


At some point in your schooling, you were almost certainly introduced to verb tenses. We'll develop a precise understanding of tense in a moment, but for now, think back to what you were taught. What is tense? How many different tenses can you remember learning for English? Take a moment to jot down what you can remember before continuing.

I have asked these questions of many students over the years. By far the most common answers are that tense has something to do with the time of the sentence and that there are three tenses: past, present, and future. Some people, perhaps remembering their foreign-language classes, will list more tenses, with names like pluperfect and so on. Some grammar books have long lists of inflections of verbs with names like the past perfect tense (for example, "had played"), or the future progressive tense (for example, "will be playing").

If you never could keep all these straight, you are not alone. One reason you may have problems is that the story that most schoolbook grammars tell about tense is not particularly accurate. These books are frequently vague about just what tense is, and they implicitly lump together separate elements of the verb phrase into this single category. One consequence of this muddled pedagogy is that students come away with the sense that anything having to do with the verb should be called a tense. It is easy, for example, to find instances of journalists or other educated people talking about the "passive tense" (it's actually a voice, as we will see in a later chapter).[1]

Before I reveal how we will actually treat tense, I would like to step you through a short exercise that will show some of the problems with the traditional conception of tense. To begin, fill in the sentence "Marissa ________ her dog" with the form of the verb walk that is appropriate for each of the three primary tenses that you were taught: past, present, and future. Write these down so you will have something to refer to as you look at the next set of examples.

Form used in the present tense: ________________
Form used in the past tense: ________________
Form used in the future tense: ________________

Pay attention in particular to what distinguishes one form of the verb from another. (Note that the form of the present-tense verb that you wrote could have been different if we had used a different subject, for example, they. This difference is separate from tense, and so to keep things simple, all of the examples that follow will use will employ similar subjects so that we only need to consider one form for each tense.)

Now consider the following sentences. For each one, look at the underlined verb. What tense does each one have? Don't be distracted by the meaning of the sentence. Just look at the form to answer this.

(2) My flight leaves at 10 pm.
(3) Marissa walks her dog each evening.
(4) Your mother tells me you plan to go to law school.
(5) Sherry will be sorry that she missed seeing you this evening.
(6) If he studied, he could pass the upcoming test.

Now look at the time of the action to which each verb refers. Do you see the problem?

In sentence (2), you may have been tempted to declare leaves a future-tense verb, but compare the form to our previous list. It is actually a present-tense form, although the sentence refers to a future event. In sentence (3), walks is a present-tense verb, but notice that the time it describes is not really now. This statement can be true even if the dog-walking is not occurring at the moment of the statement, for example if it's morning. Sentence (4) also contains a present-tense verb, tells, but the act of telling clearly took place before the statement, and so refers to past-time. In sentence (5), missed is in the past tense, but notice that this event (the missing) is ongoing during the time that the sentence is being uttered. From the frame of the speaker, it occurs in the present time. In sentence (6), the proposed action (studying), along with the test, lies in the future, but studied is a past-tense form.

What is going on here?

These examples illustrate that tense does not always equate simply with time. When we use the term tense, we are referring to a grammatical form. Time, however, is a semantic concept that can be expressed in ways other than a grammatical marking of the verb. In sentence (2), for example, the futurity of the action is conveyed not by the verb but by the prepositional phrase at 10 pm. Further, tense can be used, in extended senses, to convey meanings other than time. In sentence (6), the past tense marks not past time but the speaker's opinion that the subject is unlikely to actually study and that the situation is therefore a hypothetical one.

Once we appreciate this crucial distinction between form and meaning, we are ready to look at exactly what tense is. As we will define it, tense refers to a grammatical form, or system of forms, whose primary function is to refer to a point in time.

This definition of tense is narrower than the one typically given in schoolbooks. Note in particular that while pointing to a time is the primary function of tense, it is not the only function. Further, this function doesn't involve every possible aspect of time, only reference to basic points in time. As we will discover shortly, there are other features of a temporal situation that are conveyed with different means.

How many tenses does English have? By now, I hope I have convinced you to mistrust the simple explanations of the schoolbooks. Let's return to the examples of the basic tenses that we produced before:

Tense according to the schoolbooks:

Tense Example
Present walks
Past walked
Future will walk

Looking at these forms, the future seems very different While the present and the past are formed synthetically, that is by means of an inflection, the future is formed analytically, that is by means of an auxiliary verb. By itself, that difference may not be decisive—the comparative degree of adjectives, for example, can be expressed either synthetically (quieter) or analytically (more pleasant)—but enough differences distinguish the traditional future tense from the present and past tense forms that it does not make much sense to lump them together.

First, in terms of grammatical structure, will is not unique. It operates like many other auxiliary verbs, verbs which are sometimes called conditionals, but which we will call modal verbs. Examples of other modal verbs are can, may, should, or must. These verbs will be the subject of the next section, but for now notice that each of these combines with another verb in exactly the same way: the auxiliary is followed by the bare form of the verb:

(7a) Marissa will walk her dog.
(7b) Marissa can walk her dog.
(7c) Marissa may walk her dog.
(7d) Marissa should walk her dog.
(7e) Marissa must walk her dog.

In terms of the semantics, there are various shades of meaning conveyed by the different modal verbs. Sentences 7a-e differ in the degrees of possibility or obligation that they express, but all of these sentences refer in some way to an event that has not yet occurred. In other words, the situation is located in the future. Thus will is not unique in picking out a future time. Moreover, there are some contexts in which will is not the normal way we refer to a future action. For example, suppose you have plans to go to a party tomorrow, and a friend asks you to see a movie with her. Which response would be normal to decline that invitation?

(8a) Sorry, I will go to the party.
(8b) Sorry, I'm going to the party.

Sentence (8b), of course, would be the normal response. English speakers regularly use the second form to refer to future action when there is a definite plan. Indeed, if we think about the contexts in which (8a) might be acceptable, we can see that (8a) expresses more than just the future time of an event. It also conveys the speaker's firm determination. You might say it, for example, in response to someone who has told you that you should stay home and study. ("Sorry, I WILL go to the party.") This additional element, telling us something about the speaker's attitude in addition to the time, is frequently conveyed by other modal auxiliaries.

(9) She must have been drunk.

As in (8a), sentence (9) expresses a conclusion about the speaker's attitude or understanding of a situation. As we will see shortly, expressing this sort of meaning is one of the common functions of modal auxiliaries.

Finally, and perhaps most strikingly, in sentences with multiple verbs, will appears in contexts with present-tense verbs. Conversely, the closely related would appears in contexts with past-tense verbs.

(10a) Scientists predict that the volcano, which has been inactive for many years, will erupt at any moment.
(10b) Scientists predicted that the volcano, which had been inactive for many years, would erupt at any moment.

Notice that the highlighted verbs in (10a) are present tense, and the highlighted verbs in (10b) are past tense. Moreover, we cannot substitute would for will or vice versa.

(10c) *Scientists predict that the volcano, which has been inactive for many years, would erupt at any moment.
(10d) *Scientists predicted that the volcano, which had been inactive for many years, will erupt at any moment.

Sentences (10a) and (10b) illustrate the tendency of tense consistency. In other words, unless there is some overriding reason to switch tenses, the basic tense of a sentence will remain consistent throughout. In short, will is consistent with present-tense verbs and inconsistent with past-tense verbs.

Taken together, all these observations lead to a surprising conclusion: English does not have a future tense. English tenses are expressed by inflections on the verb. That means that English has only two tenses: present and past. Will is an auxiliary and part of a different verbal system, that of mood. Will does have a tense, but as examples 10a-d show, it is a present-tense verb.

This conclusion differs dramatically from what is typically taught in schoolbook grammars, but it is not new-fangled linguistics. The two-tense nature of English, and of other Germanic languages,[2] was first recognized in the early nineteenth century, and is currently the standard account in the reference works used by professional linguists. That so many books used in primary and secondary education still cling to an outdated description is scandalous but unfortunately typical of the disconnect between the authors of such books and linguistic scholarship.


[1] As far as I know, no grammar book actually calls the passive voice a tense. The problem, in this instance, is not with the actual labels used but with the failure to teach how the overall system actually works in a way that students retain.

[2] English is classified as a Germanic language because, despite heavy later borrowings of French, Latin, and Greek words, its core words and grammar are most closely related to languages like German, Dutch, Swedish, etc., all of which belong to the Germanic family of languages.

What do you mean there's no future tense?

Some people have trouble accepting that English lacks a future tense. If you are in that group, there are several points to keep in mind. First, remember that tense is not the same as time. To say that English lacks a future tense does not mean that it has no way of referring to the future. It has many ways to do that. In English, the future is a time-reference, but not a tense. Second, English may lack a future tense, but other languages do have one, particularly languages you are likely to have studied in school, such as Spanish, French, or Latin. Indeed, the tense system of Latin is partly at fault for the way that tense is taught today. When the early grammarians sat down to write the first grammars of English, they took Latin as the model, and simply filled in the categories that worked for Latin with their nearest English equivalents. It should not be surprising that different languages should vary in how many tenses they have. After all, one of the reason that languages are different is because they follow different sets of rules. There is nothing logically necessary about dividing time up into past, present, and future, and even given a three-fold distinction, there is no logical requirement that each distinction must be expressed through tense.


In the previous section, I briefly introduced you to the modal auxiliaries when I argued that will does not constitute a separate tense marker. To understand the function of modal auxiliaries, you need to know two related terms: modality and mood.

Modality refers to a set of related concepts primarily involving the attitude of the speaker of a sentence towards the reality of a particular assertion. What exactly that means is complicated and best illustrated with an example:

(12a) Tad programs computers for a living.
(12b) Tad must program computers for a living.

In sentence (12a), the speaker asserts the truth of a proposition. In (12b), by contrast, the speaker qualifies the proposition. The situation is presented not as one the speaker knows directly but as one the speaker has inferred. In other words, in (12b), must indicates something about the speaker's mental state. These sentences, therefore, contrast in their modality.

Mood refers to a grammatical system that is primarily used to convey modality. The difference between mood and modality is parallel to the difference between tense and time. Like time, modality is a semantic concept; like tense, mood is a grammatical realization of a concept. For the most part, English expresses mood analytically, through a system of modal auxiliaries.[1] As with tense, mood does not always correspond in a simple fashion with modality. One modal verb can express several different modalities, depending on the context. And just as time can be expressed in different parts of a sentence, for example by prepositional phrases, modality can be indicated with things other than auxiliary verbs:

(13) I heard his supposed apology.

In sentence (13) the adjective supposed expresses the speaker's conclusion that the apology is not a valid one, for example because it lacks sincerity. Words such as supposed, then, express modality, but not mood.

Sentence (12a) represents the default situation, one without a modal verb, in which the speaker simply indicates that something is true. This unmarked situation is called the indicative mood, although since this is the ordinary case, we usually don't mention it unless we're contrasting it with another mood.

In some grammar books, the presence of a modal auxiliary is said to mark the conditional mood. This label reflects the fact that modal auxiliaries commonly appear in sentences that express a condition:

(14) If you build it, they will come.

However, the label conditional is not ideal. There are many other situations in which modal auxiliaries appear other than the conditional structure. Further, many conditional sentences do not use modal auxiliaries:

(15) If he got a ticket to the concert, he was lucky.

Because modal auxiliaries express a variety of different modalities, we will not try to lump them all into a single mood. Instead, we will simply call such verb phrases modal, and if we need to distinguish among them, we will do so by their meaning.


[1] Exceptions to the analytical nature of English mood are the constructions traditionally called the "subjunctive", which are marked on the verb itself. They play a fairly small role in the grammar of English, but are more prominent in languages like Spanish, French, or Latin.

Characteristics of Modal Verbs

There are a small number of modal verbs, and they display distinct features that set them apart from other auxiliary verbs.

The Principal Modal Auxiliaries:

Present Tense Past Tense
can could
may might
must --
ought --
shall should
will would

This set of verbs differs from other auxiliaries in the following ways:

  • They do not agree in the third-person singular, as do other auxiliaries and lexical verbs.

    (16) *She cans play the piano beautifully.

  • They are followed by a bare infinitive form of another verb. Most other verbs use the infinitive with to. Ought is an exception to this rule. It does require a to-infinitive but otherwise behaves like other modal verbs.

    (17a) *They must to work on the project.
    (17b) They want to work on the project.
    (17c) They ought to work on the project.

  • They have no non-finite forms (present participle, past participle or infinitive). As a consequence, they cannot appear in places in the verb phrase where one of these forms would be required:

    (18) *Robertson was shoulding here tonight.
    (19) *The Senate has mayed ignore its own rules.
    (20) *I would like to will take you out to dinner.

A different way putting this last point would be to say that all the modal verbs have an inherent tense, as indicated in the table above. That table is organized in two columns to show you the relationship between present and past tense forms. In other words, would is the past-tense of will, could the past tense of can, etc.

Because modal verbs are specialized function words, the formal realization of tense may not always correspond with time reference. We frequently use all of these verbs to discuss future or potential events, and so these verbs may not intuitively feel like normal present or past tense verbs. But there are important ways in which the tense of these modals remains relevant.

Sentences with multiple verb phrases often establish a consistent tense, either present or past. As we saw in the previous section, the pair will/would participates regularly in this sequence of tenses. So does can/could:

Past-tense Sequence:
(21a) Scientists said that the volcano, which had been dormant for many years, could erupt at any time.
(21b) *Scientists said that the volcano, which had been dormant for many years, can erupt at any time.

Present-tense Sequence:
(21c) Scientist say that the volcano, which has been dormant for many years, can erupt at any time.
(21d) *Scientist say that the volcano, which has been dormant for many years, could erupt at any time.

The situation is more complicated with the pairs shall/should and may/might. In earlier stages of the language, these verbs were once used systematically just as the other two pairs still are. In contemporary English, however, other factors to make the relationship more complex.

Shall, for example, is rare apart from formal contexts, and should has developed uses that are unrelated to its past-tense status. But shall is incompatible with past-tense sequences, and should substitutes for shall in such contexts.

(22a) We shall read Austen during the course.
(22b) We know that we shall read Austen during the course.
(22c) *We knew that we shall read Austen during the course.
(22d) We knew that we should read Austen during the course.
(22e) We know that we should read Austen during the course.

Sentence (22a) is certainly formal, but it is a possible sentence, and when we add another present-tense verb, as in (22b), shall remains a possibility. But when we add a past-tense verb, as in (22c) and (22d), only should is grammatical.

Sentences like (22e) complicate the analysis. In this case, we have should, which I have been arguing is a past-tense verb, in a sequence with present-tense know. In this case, however, should takes on a different meaning. In (22a), shall is more or less equivalent to will. In (22e), it is essentially equivalent to ought to. Notice that (22d) can support either meaning. In the first sense, it indicates future in the past, equivalent to would (i.e., will + the past tense); in the second, it indicates what the speaker believes the right course of action is. This other use for should has no present-tense equivalent, and can be used in either context. There is no particular reason to think that should somehow shifts its tense when it has the meaning ought to and maintains its traditional tense in other cases. Rather, this is the a case of an idiomatic usage that overrides the ordinary patterns of tense usage. Such irregularities are, from the perspective of someone trying to learn the language, unfortunate, but they are a reality in all languages.

The usage of may and might is currently in flux. The traditional distinction, using might as a past-tense equivalent to may persists in some varieties of English. In others, however, speakers have reanalyzed the two verbs as separate, unrelated forms. To tell which variety you speak, examine the following sentences. How would you judge the grammaticality of (23a)?

(23a) ?I knew he may let us down.
(23b) I knew he might let us down.

If (23a) sounds strange to you, your variety of English still preserves, at least in some contexts, might as a past-tense equivalent of may. If they both sound acceptable, then your variety of English no longer treats these verbs as a related pair. The fact that sentences like (23a) were historically, and for many speakers still are, ungrammatical is sufficient evidence for us to continue to classify may and might as related pairs. Lending further support to this choice, there are some uses of might that reflect "modal remoteness", a concept that will be explained in the next section.

The remaining two verbs in our list, must and ought have no past-tense equivalents, so they do not participate at all in the alternation of tenses described above for the other modal verbs. One interesting point to note about both verbs is that historically, they derive from the past tenses of other verbs. Over time, however, speakers of English have reanalyzed them so that now they behave purely as present-tense verbs.

(24a) *She must finish the project two days ago.
(25a) *You ought to visit your mother last week.

Neither verb is compatible with a past-time reference by itself. If we want to use must or ought in a past-time context, we have to use an alternate method of indicating past time:

(24b) She must have finished the project two days ago.
(25b) You ought to have visited your mother last week.

This method, known as the perfect, will be explained later in the chapter.


Consider the difference between the following sentences: (33a) Cerise worked efficiently (33b) Cerise was working efficiently Sentence 33a, which uses the simple past tense, refers in general to a completed action. Sentence 33b refers to the action as being in progress at some particular time. The construction illustrated in 33b is known as the progressive. It is formed with a form of the verb BE and a form of verb ending in -ing. Although some schoolbook grammars call this construction a tense, that label is not accurate. Notice that 33a and 33b do not make a distinction in the time of the event. They could well describe the same action. The sentences differ in how they view the action’s internal structure, a feature of language known as aspectuality. So instead of speaking of a "progressive tense," we will talk of a "progressive aspect."

Aspect and Aspectuality

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Present Participles

A form of the verb ending in -ing is traditionally called a present participle, or occasionally an -ing participle. Although we will use the traditional term, note that "present" does not mean that the participle has a tense of its own. Phrases formed with present participles are not limited to appearing in present-tense sequences: (36) Reaching the summit of the mountain, Bob let out a shout of triumph. In the example above, the act of reaching the summit does not occur in the present. It occurs simultaneously with the action of shouting, which is in the past tense. To form a present participle, all you need to do is take the base form of the verb and add –ing: spend + -ing = spending be + -ing = being make + -ing = making As the final example shows, there may be a minor spelling change, but that should not obscure the basic regularity of the whole process. Present participles are completely regular in English. Every verb forms it exactly the same way, even the so-called irregular ones. Although every present participle ends in -ing, not every word that ends in -ing is a present participle: (37) The painting on the wall is a copy of a Rembrandt. (Noun) (38) The host was charming to her guests. (Adjective) (39) Veronica was charming her guests. (Participle) While painting in the first sentence is clearly a noun (among other things, it follows a determiner), the other two may need glossing. In the second sentence, charming is an adjective. It denotes a quality of the host, and thus the verb is simply was. In the final example, Veronica is doing something to her audience; i.e., charm is a transitive verb. Notice that while you can add the degree adverb very to the adjective in (38), you cannot do so to the participle in (39): (38b) The host was very charming to her guests. (39b) *Veronica was very charming her guests.

Meaning and Use of the Progressive

The progressive is most commonly used to indicate a temporary condition, namely that: 1. the event takes time to occur, rather than happening all at once; 2. the event lasts for a limited time. With some verbs, the progressive shows that the event is not necessarily complete: (40) Simple past: I read Margaret Atwood's latest novel yesterday. (41) Past progressive: I was reading Margaret Atwood's latest novel yesterday. Because progressives specify a block of time, they are frequently used for actions that overlap some other point in time: (42) When Mark came home he found that his girlfriend was throwing all his belongings out of the window. Because the simple present often implies habitual action, the present progressive is typically used to refer to an individual event that has a present time referent: (43a) What does Mark do over there in the corner? (43b) What is Mark doing over there in the corner? Sentence 43a only makes sense if Mark performs some action regularly in the corner. For this reason, a number of ESL textbooks call the present progressive the "present tense," a potential source of confusion for ESL learners. Because the progressive stresses a temporary state, it generally cannot be used with verbs that describe a permanent quality or state of being: (44) *He is knowing English very well. (45) *She is being from Guatemala. (46) *Norma is having red hair. The progressive can be used with some state verbs to imply a temporary state. In the a-versions of the sentences below, the situation is permanent, where the b-version implies that the state has a finite duration. Simple present: (47a) The Lees live in Kwangju. (48a) Bart is a brat. Present progressive: (47b) The Lees are living in Kwangju this summer. (48b) Bart is being a brat.


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Auxiliary Phrase Structure

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