One of the problems encountered by students of English as a foreign language, whose level is more or less quite high, is more to do with accurately and consistently applying the grammar rules that they would have learnt in the past than with actually being aware of the rules themselves. It is, therefore, for this reason that teachers and linguists all over the world have come up with the following system to simply and to try and make this concept more logical.

The starting point is to simply keep in mind that English tenses can be divided into two elements of meaning, namely time and aspect. The following table illustrates this very clearly.


This basically implies that Time refers to WHEN an action takes place (whether it takes place in the present, past or future), whereas Aspect refers to HOW the speaker sees the event or action. Assuming that the Time element is quite straightforward, the next part of this discussion will mainly focus on Aspect.

The Simple Aspect

The Simple Aspect is used to describe actions or events which are seen to be completed. For this reason one must use the Simple tenses (not the Continuous), such as the Present Simple, the Past Simple, the Future Simple and so forth. These can be events which are permanent, complete, habitual or mere facts. Here are a few examples:

Water boils at 100 degrees Celsius. (permanent / fact)
We went to the cinema yesterday. (complete action)
John wakes up at 6am every day. (habitual)

The Continuous Aspect

The Continuous Aspect is used to describe actions or events which are temporary or still in progress. It is for this reason that we are required to use the Continuous tenses, such as the Present Continuous or the Past Continuous. It is also important to note that the duration of an action is a very important issue is the continuous aspect. The examples below illustrate this.

I’m currently living in Cyprus. (temporary – at the moment)
I’ve been learning English for eight years. (action in progress – I am still learning English now)
Jane was sleeping when the phone rang. (long action interrupted by a short action)

The Perfect Aspect

The Perfect Aspect is used to express two different times. Very often one action would have been completed before the other one. Here are some examples to illustrate this point.

Milly has already read that book. (some time before now – two times)
By the time you arrived they had left. (some time before then – two times)
I will have done the ironing by the time you phone me. (some time before you phone me – two times)

Therefore, in conclusion, it is possible to say that time and aspect go hand in hand in English tenses, however, by analysing them individually one can see how they are combined in order to form the various tenses that the English tense system is made up of.

Courtesy of Elanguest Language School