Tenses in English

…but first some physics

The space-time continuum manages with one time and three space dimensions. M-string theory expands the physics model to an unimaginable nine spatial dimensions, but keeps time linear.

Soft watch at the moment of the first explosion - Salvador Dali (1954)
Soft watch at the moment of the first explosion – Salvador Dali (1954)

Unlike exact sciences, English grammar textbooks use a two-dimensional time paradigm, ruthlessly breaking our attempts to comprehend such a representation of the traditional three-by-four tense table.

Unlike physics, in English grammar, time is represented as two-dimensional

After several years of study, most technical specialists give up further attempts to find a physical correspondence with the English grammar and limit themselves to a modest set of the most common tenses, coupled with memorized clichés. Masterfully operating with the most complex technical systems and creating them in dozens of programming languages, the minds of the analytical warehouse give in to the English language with its surrealism of the future-in-past perfect continuous tense.

What is wrong with the two-dimensional representation of time in English?

Two-dimensional time rendering finds its most common use in science fiction literature, bringing to life unrealistic plots and introducing fascinating paradoxes into the familiar linear flow of time. This literary device also has the opposite effect – any two-dimensional representation of time creates a slight feeling of unreality and gives a touch of excessive fantasy to the everydayness of grammatical constructions.

Traditional table of English tenses
Traditional table of English tenses

The traditional table of English tenses has two dimensions:

  • the first completely coincides with the linear representation of time in Russian. This dimension has three possible coordinates, extending from the past through the present to the future;

  • the second dimension divides the space of time into four non-obvious categories, called in English “aspects”.

Four categories in three time coordinates give rise to 12 possible forms, which are collectively called “tenses”

Strictly speaking, the concept of “time” in English corresponds to “time”, while “tense” is an artificial composite construction, which is translated into Russian only as “species-temporal form”, combining in its name the two coordinates mentioned above: view (category, “aspect”) and time (“time”).

It is precisely the attempts to comprehend the English two-dimensional “temporal form” through a single coordinate — “time” that are a priori doomed to failure, and the point here is not at all the presence or absence of abilities for languages.

And the casket just opened

In the fable of Ivan Andreevich Krylov, famous for its winged final phrase, a certain “mechanics sage” tried to find a way to open the chest by declassifying the secret lock mechanism, which was actually missing. An engineer accustomed to complex technical solutions was looking for a hidden mechanism in a chest with a simple hinged lid.


Again and again like the “wise man” from the fable, we are looking for a non-existent mechanism in twelve English aspectual forms.

The English cognitive grammar “Method 12” helped me stop this futile search and understand the simplicity and harmony of the tense system through a few simple postulates:

  • the purpose of the category is to communicate additional meaning (meta-sense) to the lexical meaning of words through grammar;

  • the use of one of the four categories is mandatory for all English utterances and is determined by the speaker’s intention to convey the metasense of the chosen category;

  • the category is not a second dimension of time, but is a full-fledged sublanguage with its own simple set of grammatical structures;

  • in each individual category, time again becomes habitually linear.

Consciousness happily returns to the native harbor of one-dimensional time with the understanding that categories in English grammar are not temporal paradoxes, but semantic nuances conveyed in the Russian language by the form of words, additional words, or even omitted altogether.

Indeed, in Russian, the textbook expressions “I go to school” and “I go to school” convey semantic nuances that are understandable to us by using two synonymous verbs “I go” and “I go” (synthetic way). In the English translation, two categories are used to convey the same meta-senses and, accordingly, different grammatical constructions “I am going” and “I go” (analytical method):



I I’m going to school

I am going to school

I I go to school

I go to school

Both statements use the same tense (present), and the transfer of metasense in Russian and English is carried out in two different ways – synthetic and analytical, which is typical for these languages ​​in general due to their different morphological typology.

Our consciousness must be taught to isolate and translate meta-meanings using both methods of transmission.

Free juggling of meta-meanings is what is usually lacking for fluency in English, even with rich vocabulary, memorized grammar and perfect pronunciation

Separating the flies from the meatballs of time from the metasense makes it possible to eliminate the complexity of the English species-temporal system created out of the blue and open the treasured chest.

Four basic metasenses

Unlike the unnamed “sage mechanic” from Krylov’s fable, the name of the mechanic who created the de facto standard for the visual representation of an ordered set of tasks is widely known. The diagrams, developed over a hundred years ago by mechanical engineer Henry Laurence Gantt, make it possible to visualize one of the most important resources – time, and thus closely touch the declared theme of English times.

Gantt Chart Example
Gantt Chart Example

I dare to hope that the Gantt charts are well known to the reader. I will briefly describe only the main characteristics transmitted visually through the diagrams.

The time axis on the charts is usually located at the top, cutting the chart with vertical time slices, among which the today’s slice stands out in particular. Tasks are represented by horizontal segments, which are located to the left or to the right along the time axis relative to the present moment.

Vertical time slices, by their intersections with segments, make it easy to see which tasks are, were or will be active at a selected moment.

Following the example above, formwork, rebar tying, soil removal, and concrete pouring are in the future, but only rebar tying will be active on the July 11 time frame.

The duration of each task is visually represented in the diagram as a horizontal bar. The length of the segment from the beginning of the activity to the vertical slice that intersects it illustrates the amount of time spent on the task to the selected moment.

Again following our example, it can be seen that earthworks have been going on for the third day, and the marking of the construction site took two days by the time the earthworks began.

Finally, the tasks are related to each other logically, which is reflected in the diagram by connecting arrows. The logical connection of two tasks in the most common case means that the dependent task cannot be started before the blocking task has completed. Another common case relates the completion of a task to some set deadline (milestone, deadline).

Before the formwork begins, earthworks will be completed, and nothing else. In turn, earthworks began after the construction site was marked out. The marking of the construction site has already been completed by now, and by the set date of July 15, all work, including pouring of concrete, will be completed.

In addition to the linear time scale, the Gantt chart visually conveys four meta-meanings

These four basic metasenses and their corresponding sublanguages ​​can be defined thus:




The location of the action on the time axis in relation to the current moment


Activity active at the selected point in time

Perfect Simple

Completion of the action by the selected point in time

Perfect Progressive

The amount of time it took to complete an action

Four meta-senses in English

As we noted above, any English expression necessarily conveys one of the four basic meta-senses.

The choice of one or another sublanguage is determined by the speaker himself. It is noteworthy that a priori there is no right or wrong choice of sublanguage that collectively describes different aspects of the same action. By his very choice, the speaker only emphasizes the importance of one or another side of the described action.

A good illustration is the Gantt chart. One and the same task can be viewed through the prism of different aspects, which, in fact, is the difference between a diagram and a simple calendar plan.

If the choice of the sublanguage and, accordingly, the grammatical formula is determined by the speaker, then a possible grammatical error will be an incorrectly transmitted metasense.

A simple example to explain such a mistake: when asked if you completed the task yesterday, you answer that you were actively working on the task yesterday, leaving the questioner confused about your performance and the real state of the task. And the incorrect use of the meta-sense of the time spent in answering this question in general can give the impression of your lamentations about the futility of efforts and mediocrely wasted time.

The usual reaction of the interlocutor to an error in the transfer of metasense is an unconscious underestimation of the speaker’s cognitive abilities.

Our consciousness, which grew up in a Russian-speaking environment, is not accustomed to every minute trying on the role of a project manager and automatically thinking in project categories, considering them unimportant for understanding the general meaning and in most cases ignoring meta-meanings in English speech.

Let me offer you a task to train the skill of distinguishing four meta-senses: try using Russian to describe the reality around you, using all four categories and visualizing it using a Gantt chart.

The skill of distinguishing the four meta-senses is the first step to the correct use of English grammar.

One often hears the objection that the English do not use all twelve aspectual forms, that their very number is excessive. I hope that the esteemed reader will be able to independently recognize the incorrectness of posing such a question about redundancy.

It should also be noted that only basic metasenses were considered in the article. A conscious change in basic grammatical formulas, often mistaken for evidence that “the English themselves do not adhere to their own rules”, in fact, gives rise to a large number of derivative or, if you like, complementary meta-senses that fill the English language with depth and beauty. Consideration of complementary metasenses and the mechanisms of their formation, alas, is beyond the scope of this article.


  • English uses the same linear time as Russian;

  • Every action in English has a meta-meaning conveyed through grammar;

  • Metameanings can be visually illustrated with a Gantt chart;

  • The skill of automatic work with metasenses is necessary for fluency in English.

In continuation of this article, I announce the following topics:

  • formulas for constructing the grammar of the four sublanguages;

  • the use of combinatorics in the construction of English sentences;

  • mechanisms for the transmission of complementary metasenses.