Grammatical Tense

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Tense, Grammatical


a grammatical category that serves to localize the time of the event denoted by the verb or predicate of a sentence: tense forms express the relation between the time of the event and the time of the utterance concerning it—that is, the moment of speech—or, in the case of the so-called relative tense orientation, some other moment apart from the moment of speech.

In modern Russian the forms of the present tense denote the simultaneity of an event and the moment of speech, including such examples as Vrach prinimaet po chetvergam (“The doctor receives patients on Thursdays”) and Okna vykhodiat vo dvor (“The windows open on the yard”), or, in the case of the relative usage, simultaneity with another moment, such as the action of the main clause, as in Emu pokazalos’, chto v dome kto-to khodit (literally “It seemed to him that someone is walking around in the house” [that is, “was walking”]). The forms of the past tense, correspondingly, denote that which is anterior to the moment of speech or some other moment in time, and the forms of the future tense denote that which follows. A special case is represented by the figurative usage of tenses—for example, the “historical present” in narration about the past (Idu ia vchera po ulitse . . . , “I’m walking down the street yesterday . . .”), which is common in many languages.

There are languages in which the system of tenses is less differentiated. Future tense forms are often totally absent. At the same time, in a number of languages there exists a special system of forms for the expression of relative orientation. These are most often relative anterior tenses—for example, the past perfect (pluperfect) in Old Russian or modern German, and the future perfect; there are sometimes also relative tenses of simultaneity, such as a past that is simultaneous with another past, and relative tenses of succession, such as a future in the past. Relative orientation is also typical for nonpredicative forms of the verb (those that do not function as a predicate)—for example, for verbal adverbs in Russian.

In many languages the system of tenses is complicated by the entry into the system of forms that are opposed in terms of aspectual, single-action, and iterative—as well as temporal—meanings. In a number of cases, the characterization of certain forms as temporal or aspectual appears to be linguistically debatable or historically unstable during the development of a given language. Temporal meanings also interact with modal meanings, and in some cases they have developed historically from them. Thus, in Russian the future tense is sometimes used to express supposition (Do okna budet metra dva, “It should be about two meters to the window”), and in English, the Scandinavian languages, and several Slavic languages the future tense forms were derived from combinations that originally expressed obligation or volition.

The means for external expression of the category of tense in the languages of the world include suffixes, prefixes, particular series of endings, alternations in the root, combinations with particles or auxiliary verbs, and a change of tone (such as in some American Indian languages).


Bondarko, A. V., and L. L. Bulanin. Russkii glagol. Leningrad, 1967.
Vinogradov, V. V. Russkii iazyk. Moscow-Leningrad, 1947. Pages 539-80.
Bull, W. Time, Tense and the Verb: A Study of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, With Particular Attention to Spanish. Berkeley-Los Angeles, 1960.


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In particular, this reader would have liked to know more about the use or misuse of grammatical tenses in the way those great writers expressed their concept of temporality.
Patrick's "history" and Patricia's "herstory" are also set in parallel and are given different grammatical tenses, the past and the present respectively.