I have this:

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That is 3 tenses, but a total of 4 5 4 = 13 "subcategories".

This boils down to more abstract concepts such as continuity and completeness. This is a nice table:

enter image description here

Could there be 16, 24, 32 different configurations, beyond my 13? If so, what are they at a glance? What is the general framework for thinking about all of them, taking cross-language thinking into account?

  • 2
    This is starting to sound like a broken record, but if you want to understand the diversity of how the world's languages handle these things, you really need to look at something other than English.
    – Draconis
    Commented Aug 16, 2023 at 1:18
  • @Draconis I am looking into languages without full immersion, I don't have time to fully learn a new language, there is too much else to do in life. So I have to find shortcuts. Closest I will get is learning Chinese, extremely slowly over the next 10+ years.
    – Lance
    Commented Aug 16, 2023 at 3:47
  • If I could, I would learn Chinese, Vietnamese, Hebrew, Tibetan, Sanskrit, and Arabic at least, but that's totally unrealistic it would take at least 5 years to become any good at any of them in my experience, doing alongside the rest of life's tasks.
    – Lance
    Commented Aug 16, 2023 at 3:50
  • 1
    You don't necessarily need full immersion, just proper study. If you're trying to create a conlang while only knowing English, the result will always be basically a reskin of English (a "relex"), since you haven't internalized any other way of doing things besides the English way.
    – Draconis
    Commented Aug 16, 2023 at 3:51
  • 1
    Do what everybody else does: start with linguistics 101, then read up on syntax and morphology, and see if you can get your hands on reference grammars, not teaching grammars. Try interlibrary loan, or check out LCS's library. Finally, there's linguistics papers. Check scihub for those.
    – kaleissin
    Commented Aug 19, 2023 at 9:51

2 Answers 2


There are a lot of different things you can mark on a verb, including tense (setting a sort of temporal reference point), aspect (the relationship of the action to that reference point), mood (the relationship of the action to objective reality), and evidentiality (the source of your knowledge of the action). Some languages have these as separate, independent categories that you can mix and match; others have a certain fixed set of combinations you can choose from.

In Ancient Greek, there are three tenses (past, present, future) and three aspects (aoristic, imperfective, perfective). The aoristic aspect treats the action as a single point; the imperfective aspect indicates that it happened for a long time or was repeated or habitual; the perfective aspect means the aspect is over and done by the time of the reference point and the aftereffects are what matter. Present perfective, for example, corresponds to English "he has eaten" (so he's no longer hungry now): you're talking about the present, and what's relevant are the aftereffects of something that's over and done.

Almost all of these combinations of tense and aspect get their own special marking, though a couple are combined: present aoristic and present imperfective, for example, look the same. (Latin has the same set of three tenses and three aspects but combines them differently; in Latin the past aoristic and present perfective look the same, in Ancient Greek they don't.) But Ancient Greek also indicates mood—is this a real event, something possible, something hoped for, something commanded to happen, etc?—and in some of these moods, tense is not marked, only aspect. Commands, for example, only have aspect, not tense.

In Lingála, there's tense, aspect, and mood (no evidentiality), but only certain combinations are possible:

  • Present, future, recent past, distant past, ultimate past (something that's happened and can never be undone)
  • Imperative (commands), habitual (something that happens over and over), imperative habitual (something that should happen over and over)
  • Subjunctive (something that's possible), gnomic (something that is eternally and universally true)

There's no such thing as a habitual subjunctive, for example; it's just not one of the combinations that exist.

In Hittite, there are only two aspects and no tense. You indicate whether the action has been completed or not, and that's it.

In English, you can combine aspects ("she has been working out" is talking about the aftereffects of something happening for a long time), but can't combine moods or tenses (*"she might can did that"). Syntactically, there's only one slot for the tense and mood, which is traditionally called the "T" or "I" position, but multiple slots for the aspect.

  • I don't understand why you'd want/need to encode "the source of your knowledge of the action" into a special form, why not just use extra words... Maybe that's what they do 😂
    – Lance
    Commented Aug 16, 2023 at 3:49
  • 6
    @Lance Why would you want/need to encode the time of the action into a special form, when you could just use extra words like "previously" or "tomorrow"? That's what Mandarin does. There's nothing fundamentally more natural about what English chooses to encode than what other languages choose to encode; you're just more used to it.
    – Draconis
    Commented Aug 16, 2023 at 3:52

Actually, there can be a lot more tenses than the usual three, and also languages with no tense at all or only two tenses (past and non-past or, more rarely, future and non-future) exist. The Wikipedia article on Grammatical tense has some examples of additional tenses like Remote Past, Remote future, Hodiernal Past, Hodiernal Future (Past/Future, but today).

The subclassification inside the tenses are known as Grammatical Aspect, again, the languages of the world provide more possible aspects beyond English's simple, continuous, and perfect aspects. Examples of other types of aspects are completive and incompletive (denoting the completion or non-completionof an action), inceptive (beginning of an action), prospective (preparation of an action), and habitual Grammatical aspect is different from Lexical Aspect or Aktionsart that is determined by the semantics of the verb.

Finally, linguists often consider Tense, Aspect, Mood as an intertwined system of grammatical categories to be viewed together. These categories may be incremented by Evidentiallity and Polarity.

Postscript: You also may want to look at Reichenbach's theory of tense, introducing new tenses like the Posterior Past and Posterior Future.


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