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A Bit of Grammar: Verb Tense and Aspect

timelineToday I’m going to put on my bossy grammar hat and talk about a misconception that was brought to my attention the other day during a chat with my critique group. One member asked if the verb “to stand” was passive in the sentence: “He was standing in the doorway.” Another member said yes, it is passive. And I said no, it is not.

Why isn’t it passive? It has the conjugated form of the verb ‘to be’ followed by the present participle ‘standing’ – aren’t those instances of passive voice? In short, no. Not every verb paired with some version of ‘is’,  ‘was’, ‘has been’ or ‘had been’ is passive.

What they confused for passive voice is actually the past progressive form of the verb. But to understand what exactly that means, I’ll have to start from the beginning.

Grammatical Categories

Verbs in English have several grammatical categories: person (1st, 2nd, 3rd), number (singular, plural), voice (active, passive), and then, tense, aspect, and mood. What does this mean? That depending on what you’re trying to say, you use these categories to convey your intended meaning. Who is doing the action? How many people/things are doing the action? When is/was the action done? In the past? Now? How long does the subject do the action? Is the action completed? Is the action given as a command, a hypothesis, or a fact? Without knowing it, every time you write a sentence, you convey all of this information to your reader.

Today I want to go over tense and aspect, as they seem to cause some confusion. I know this is technical, but I’ll try to break it down as best as I can.

Tense

The first grammatical verb category is tense, which references time: the past, the present, or the future. English only has two morphological tenses: present and past. The future tense is formed with the aid of modal verbs such as auxiliaries (will, shall) or from context (with adverbs), but English itself has no morphological future tense (unlike French). When I say “morphological tenses,” I mean that we do not conjugate the verbs into a specific form to indicate the future.

  1. Present tense: He stands in the doorway.
  2. Past tense: He stood in the doorway.
  3. Future tense expressed with auxiliary: He will stand in the doorway.

Aspect

The second category, aspect, expresses the frequency, duration, or the completion of an action and works, more or less, as a modifier of tense. The progressive aspect is used for an action that is ongoing, while the perfect aspect is used  for an action that has been completed.

When dealing with aspect, it’s easier (for me) to think of events occurring on a timeline. Does the action start and stop at a specific point on that line? Is it still ongoing? Has it been recently completed but still have some influence over the future? If you have two verbs, how do their actions interact with one another on that timeline? Does one action occur and end before the other starts? If so, this will have to be conveyed in your writing as a means of orientation for your reader.

The four aspects of the present tense:

  1. The present (tense) simple (zero aspect): “He stands in the doorway.”
  2. The present (tense) progressive (aspect): “He is standing in the doorway.”
  3. The present (tense) perfect (aspect): “He has already stood in the doorway for two hours.”
  4. The present (tense) perfect progressive (aspect): “He has been standing in the doorway for two hours.”

In sentence (1), there is no progressive or perfect aspect. The verb states a fact — that the action is occurring. According to Katie Wales (2001), the present progressive is used much more often than the simple present when describing actions done at the present time. This may be a stylistic choice, but I won’t get into that now. In sentence (2) the progressive aspect shows that the action is still ongoing and has not yet been completed by the subject. In sentence (3), the perfect aspect illustrates that the action has already been completed before a certain point in time but may still have some effect on the future. Sentence (4) combines both the perfect and the progressive aspects (called the present perfect progressive) to specify that the action has been completed up until a certain point but is still ongoing at the present moment.

The four aspects of the past tense:

  1. The past (tense) simple (zero aspect): “He stood in the doorway.”
  2. The past (tense) progressive (aspect): “He was standing in the doorway when I entered the room.”
  3. The past (tense) perfect (aspect): “He had stood in the doorway for two hours to await Mary’s arrival.”
  4. The past (tense) perfect progressive (aspect): “He had been standing in the doorway for two hours by the time Mary arrived.”

Just as with the present progressive and perfect, the past progressive and perfect also deal with duration, frequency, and whether or not the action has been completed. In this case, however, we have simply shifted backwards in time (changed tenses). Sentence (1), gives no temporal information. In sentence (2), the “I” subject does not know how long “he” has been standing in the doorway, but the action of standing is still ongoing even when “I” enters the room, so the action is not completed.

Issues with the past perfect (Sentence 3) come up a lot when I’m editing. The example sentence needs a bit more context to show its relationship to the current temporal setting, but I used it to show the structure. The past perfect is an indication of something that has happened (and been completed) at some point in time before the current moment of the narrative (usually the simple past) but which may still be relevant to the future (to that point beyond the current moment in the narrative).

Sentence (4) is an action completed up until a certain point in the past but which is still ongoing at the moment (in relation to the simple past). The subject “he” has completed some of the action of standing in the doorway (in other words, he has already been there for a while before the point on the timeline when Mary arrives), but the action itself is still ongoing in relation to the current moment of the narrative (the point when Mary arrives).

The perfect and simple past tenses have a complicated relationship, but Wales (2001) argues (and I agree) that in narratives where the past tense is (arguably) more widely used, the “significance of the (past) perfect is apparent.” Therefore, as a writer, there will be moments when you must clarify whether the actions have occurred or are still occurring. In these cases, it is imperative to use aspect to orientate your reader. (The same goes for present tense progressive and perfect aspects if your story is in the present tense.)

Final thoughts . . .

Don’t mistake the progressive or perfect aspects for passive voice. The English progressive and perfect forms are completely natural (and necessary) for expressing actions in relation to time — whether they’ve been completed, whether they’re ongoing, whether they are only partially completed.

In order to make the original sentence in question passive (He was standing in the doorway), it would need to be worded (that was passive) like this: “He was being stood in the doorway.” Now it has the past tense, progressive aspect, and passive voice. The subject is no longer the one doing the action; the action is done instead by an external unnamed agent.

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If this post was helpful, check out my post on passive and active voice:

A Bit of Grammar: Passive and Active Voice

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Questions? Comments? Concerns? Do you have issues with aspect or tense? Was this confusing? Does it help at all? Let me know below!

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Sources:
Wales, Katie. A Dictionary of Stylistics. Pearson Education Limited, 2001. (pg. 31, 389)
Delatour, Y.; etc. Nouvelle Grammaire du Français. Cours de Civilisation Française de la Sorbonne. Hachette Livre, 2004.
My brain (for what it is worth).

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14 thoughts on “A Bit of Grammar: Verb Tense and Aspect

  1. Reblogged this on Words and Wanderings and commented:

    My weekly post at The Sarcastic Muse delves into some common grammatical issues I run into when I’m editing. What do you think about the tense and aspect of verbs? Is this difficult for you?

    • The passive has its time and place, of course. I used it in this post quite a bit, but it was necessary for my approach, and I was aware that I was using it. My main grievances stem from the misuse (lack of use) of the past perfect when it is clearly needed and the mistaking of progressive or perfect aspects as some kind of passive voice.

      Since I was challenged and was witnessing firsthand the spread of misinformation, I had the logical INTJ response: I bristled a bit, brought out the grammar books, and then started writing an essay with explicit examples, quotes, and information on just how I was right.

      I feel so much better now. 😉

  2. Wow, Michelle. Were you an English teacher in a previous life? This was very well written and educational. Thanks for the lesson…

    • Thank you for the compliment! I’m glad that it was helpful. I know that we (as native English speakers) don’t always know the science behind what we’re actually saying, so it’s good to take a step back and see how our language works every once and a while. 🙂

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    • Thanks for stopping by and letting me know that you liked the post! Glad I could help in some way! 🙂

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  7. This clinches it: I totally earn my writing geek card, because I loved this post, even though it brought back nightmares from some of the sentences I saw when I taught writing. I did have one question, though: What is the pluperfect and how does it relate to these tenses? Or did I just make that word up?

    • Sorry, I’m just now getting to this comment. I’m really glad you liked this post. I remember spending a lot of time on it (and was a bit afraid people would find it too technical and not read it).

      That question I can answer! Pluperfect. Never fear, you did not make it up! In English it’s synonymous with the past perfect. But in some other languages (Estonian is one of them actually), pluperfect is classified as a tense (grouped with present, future, past, etc) rather than as an aspect. Estonian expresses aspect in a number of ways (through the object nouns, for instance, or with verbal particles), but it doesn’t have a specific grammatical form for it. In English past perfect seems to work better as a term as it combines tense (past) with the aspect (perfect), but pluperfect works as well. 🙂

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