Tenses cannot always be translated from one language to another. While verbs in all languages have typical forms by which they are identified and indexed in dictionaries, usually the most common present tense or an infinitive, their meanings vary among languages.
There are languages (such as isolating languages, like Chinese) in which tense is not used, but implied in temporal adverbs when needed, and some (such as Japanese) in which temporal information appears in the inflection of adjectives, lending them a verb-like quality. In some languages (such as Russian) a simple verb may indicate aspect and tense.
The number of tenses in a language may be controversial, since its verbs may indicate qualities of uncertainty, frequency, completion, duration, possibility, and even whether information derives from experience or hearsay.
The following chart shows how TAM (tense/aspect/mood) is expressed in English:
| -Ø (nonpast) |
| Ø (none) |
| Ø (none) |
have -en (perfect)
| Ø (none) |
be -ing (progressive)
Grammarians and linguists typically consider will to be a future marker and give English two non-inflected tenses, a future tense and a future-in-past tense, marked by will and would respectively. In general parlance, all combinations of aspects, moods, and tenses are often referred to as "tenses".
|Present simple||I go.||Jag går.||Téim.||(Io) vado.||(Yo) voy.||(Аз) отивам.|
(Аз да) отида.
|(Minä) menen.||In most languages this is used for most present indicative uses. In English, it is used mainly to express habit or ability (I play the guitar).|
|Present continuous||I am going.||''Jag är gående2||Tá mé ag dul.||(Io) sto andando.||(Yo) estoy yendo.||(Аз) отивам.||(Minä) olen menossa.||This form is prevalent in English to express current action, but is absent or rarer in other Indo-European languages, which prefer the simple present tense. The continuous is more an aspect than a tense and is included here only because of its prevalence in English to substitute for the simple present.|
|Present perfect||I have gone.||Jag har gått.||Tá me i ndiaidh dul.||(Io) sono andato.||(Yo) he ido.||Аз съм отишъл.|
Аз съм отивал.
|(Minä) olen mennyt.||Common past compound tense. In some languages indicates recent past, in others indicates an unknown past time.|
|Preterite/Aorist||I went.||Jag gick.||Chuaigh mé.||(Io) andai.||(Yo) fui.||(Аз) отидох.|
|(Minä) menin.||In English, unlike other languages with aorist tenses, this implies that the action took place in the past and that it is not taking place now.|
|Imperfect||I used to go.||Théinn.||(Io) andavo.||(Yo) iba.||(Аз) отивах.|
(Аз да) отидех.
|The English construction I used to go has a very restricted use, compared to the imperfect tenses of other languages, which often translate better as I was going, I would go, or even I went. Although not shown here, both Finnish and Swedish can explicitly express a habit (Swedish jag brukade gå, Finnish tapasin mennä).|
|Past continuous||I was going.||Jag var gående2||Bhí mé ag dul.||(Io) stavo andando.||(Yo) estaba yendo.||(Аз) отивах.||(Minä) olin menossa.|
|Conditional||I would go.||Jag skulle gå||Rachainn.||(Io) andrei.||(Yo) iría.||(Аз) бих отишъл.|
(Аз) бих отивал.
|(Minä) menisin.||The conditional is regarded as a tense in the grammars of some languages, although others treat it as a mood. Notice that it can refer to the past, for example in reported speech: I warned him that I would call the Police if he did not turn down the music.|
|Pluperfect (past perfect)||I had gone.||Jag hade gått.||Bhí mé i ndiaidh dul.||(Io) ero andato.||(Yo) había ido.||(Аз) бях отишъл.|
(Аз) бях отивал.
|(Minä) olin mennyt.||This expresses a past action that was completed before some other past event.|
|Future||I will go.||Jag ska gå.3||Rachaidh mé.||(Io) andrò.||(Yo) iré.||(Аз) ще отида.|
(Аз) ще отивам.
|Tulen menemään.4||This can be used to express intention, prediction, and other senses.|
|Future perfect||I will have gone.||Jag kommer att ha gått.||Beidh mé i ndiaidh dul.||(Io) sarò andato.||(Yo) habré ido.||(Аз) ще съм отишъл.|
(Аз) ще съм отивал.
|This expresses a future action that will be completed before another future action. As Finnish has no future tense, the present perfect is used instead.|
Going even further, there's an ongoing dispute among modern English grammarians (see English grammar) regarding whether tense can only refer to inflected forms. In Germanic languages there are very few tenses (often only two) formed strictly by inflection, and one school contends that all complex or periphrastic time-formations are aspects rather than tenses.
The abbreviation TAM, T/A/M or TMA is sometimes found when dealing with verbal morphemes that combine tense, aspect and mood information.
In some languages, tense and other TAM information may be marked on a noun, rather than a verb. This is called nominal TAM.
Tenses can be broadly classified as:
All of the following tenses may occur in either an absolute or a relative frame.
Tenses can be quite finely distinguished from one another, although no language will express simply all of these distinctions. As we will see, some of these tenses in fact involve elements of modality (e.g. predictive and not-yet tenses), but they are difficult to classify clearly as either tenses or moods.
Many languages define tense not just in terms of past/future/present, but also in terms of how far into the past or future they are. Thus they introduce concepts of closeness or remoteness, or tenses that are relevant to the measurement of time into days (hodiernal or hesternal tenses).
Some languages also distinguish not just between past, present, and future, but also nonpast, nonpresent, nonfuture. Each of these latter tenses incorporates two of the former, without specifying which.