What’s in a verb?

In Tense and Tensibility, we discussed the need and implication of having tense. In essence, tense gives us information on when an event or action takes place. However, the meaning of what we commonly call ‘tense’ in English is actually quite fluid.  A ‘tense’, or a tense form, oftens gives much more information than merely the temporal location of an action. We are going to look into this matter, dissect the structure of the verbal phrase and discuss these other dimensions of verbal information.

Let’s first consider the following sentences:

  1. Samual has been to Italy.
  2. The conference was disrupted by the violent protest.
  3. God bless you.
  4. Queenie may come to the party tomorrow.

In (1), although the action (be to Italy) is understood to take place in the past, the present perfect tense is used. The present perfect has a number of meanings. Here it provides an experiential reading, not only telling the reader that something happened in the past, but emphasizing on the fact that Samual has had the experience of going to Italy.

In (2), in addition to the past tense, the verbal phrase was disrupted tells us that the subject (the conference) is affected by the action rather than initiates it.

In (3), the verb bless does not indicate an action taking place. Instead, it tells us about the wish of the speaker that the action would take place.

In (4), may come tells us that an action takes place, but this time the speaker is not so sure about it, and does not wish to commit himself to it. In other words, the speaker only suggests a possibility here.

The four examples above demonstrate four different types of verbal information, namely aspect, voice, modality and mood. Together with tense, these five dimensions are in principle independent. In reality, they are all squeezed and fused into a single ‘tense form’ in English.


Tense specifies when the action concerned takes place, whether it is in the past, the present or the future*.


Aspect provides information on the temporal structure of an event. In other words, whereas tense gives information on where an action is on a timeline, aspect specifies how the action looks on it. To better illustrate this, let’s take a look at the timelines describing past actions below.

Past Tenses

Past Tenses

In the case of the past simple, the blue dot simply indicates that the action takes place in the past. In the past continuous and the past perfect, however, there are two components. The orange dot indicates a reference point or a viewpoint, and the blue area indicates the actual event in focus. For the past continuous, the action starts from sometime before the reference point (the orange dot) and is assumed to continue after it. The past perfect, on the other hand, focuses on what has happened before the reference point and its relation to the relevant event at the reference point. 

  1. I went to the stadium yesterday.
  2. I was going to the stadium when Joe called me.
  3. I had gone to the stadium when Zoe came home.

In principle, we can shift all these events from the past to the future and still keep their temporal structures unchanged. Then we have the following ‘tenses’.

Future Tenses

Future Tenses

  1. I will go to the stadium tomorrow.
  2. I will be going to the stadium when Joe calls me.
  3. I will have gone to the stadium when Zoe comes home.

It should thus be clear by now that tense and aspect are two separate dimensions of verbal information. In linguistics, the “continuous tense” is more often referred as the progressive aspect, and the “perfect tense” the perfect aspect. In English, it is also possible to have a perfect progressive aspect, which stresses both on the duration and the reference-point-relevance of the event.


Voice tells us about the relation between the subject, the object and the verb. Normally, the subject is the one who initiates the action denoted by the verb, and the object is the one affected by this action. In this case, the verb is said to be in the active voice. If the verb is in such a form which indicates the subject is in fact the one affected by the action, then it is said to be in the passive voice.

  1. The dog bit the man. (active)
  2. The man was bitten by the dog. (passive)


The mood of a verb specifies the type of information it is trying to convey. In other words, it tells us about the function of a sentence; or putting it differently, it tells us whether a sentence is a statement, or a question, or a request, an order, a wish, a condition, so on and so forth.

In English, different moods manifest themselves in various different ways. The indicative mood is assumed when no special marking on the verb is present, telling us that a certain action takes place. The interrogative mood, formed by a subject/verb inversion, is used to form a question. To form a request or an order, we use the infinitive form of the verb without a subject (or, in the case of the first personal plural imperative, we use let’s before the infinitive verb), to show the imperative mood. We also use various tense forms to show the subjunctive mood, which expresses imaginative conditions or wishes.

  1. Dylan has finished the homework. (indicative)
  2. Has Dylan finished the homework? (interrogative)
  3. Finish the homework. (imperative)
  4. I requested that Dylan finish the homework. (subjunctive)

As we can see from the examples above, there is no one-to-one correspondance between tense form and mood. The subjunctive mood, in particular, can show itself in different tense forms.

  1. Peace be with you.
  2. It is time we went home.
  3. If Jim had come earlier, we could have met.


Modality has to do with the degree of certainty or firmness that a speaker asserts in a sentence. It can be further classified into two types, namely deontic modality and epistemic modality. Deontic modality is used when the speaker wants to tell the listener something that ought to be done. In other words, it has to do with obligation and necessity. On the other hand, if the speaker wants to convey how certain or how probable a statement is, epistemic modality is used.

Modality is most commonly shown using modal verbs such as must, can, may, will, should and so on. In fact, most sentences that make use of these modal verbs have two readings, one deontic and one epistemic.

  1. Jane may join us for the trip.
  2. Timothy should be studying at school now.

Example (i) can mean either it is possible for Jane to join us, or Jane has been permitted to join us. Similarly, (ii) can mean it is Timothy’s obligation to be studying now, or it is very probable that he is studying now.

English has offered a rather large supply of modal verbs to convey different degrees of obligation or probability, from the less committing might and could to the firmest will and must.

Structure of the Verbal Phrase

Many of the properties discussed above manifest themselves directly in the structure of the verbal phrase. If we analyze how different tense forms are formed, we can find that every word in a complex tense form maps to a certain grammatical function. The following table illustrates the different possible tense structures a verb may have, using the verb sing in the third person singular form. We can clearly see that modality, aspect and voice are all marked by individual words. Tense is always marked on the first word in a verbal phrase. Mood, on the other hand, is not explicitly expressed.

What is not mentioned above is the auxiliary verb do. In English, when we use the negative form of a verb we need to insert do in front of the main verb, this is called do-support. It also has an emphatic use in the positive form. Note that when forming the negative form, the word not is always inserted after the first auxiliary (does, is, has, may).

  Modality Aspect Voice do-Support Main Verb
  Modal Perfect Progressive Passive    
1           sings
2         does sing
3       is   sung
4     is     singing
5     is being   sung
6   has       sung
7   has   been   sung
8   has been     singing
9   has been being    sung
10 may         sing
11 may     be   sung
12 may   be     singing
13 may   be being   sung
14 may have       sung
15 may have   been   sung
16 may have been     singing
17 may have been being   sung
tensed infinitive present participle past participle

For those of you who find this verbal structure neat and perhaps even amazingly beautiful, you may take the challenge to figure out why some words are used in the infinitive form, some in the present participle and some in the past participle (i.e. precisely what determines which form to use for each of the words in a verbal phrase). Once you find the patterns hidden in words which you speak daily more or less unconsciously, you’ll realize how awesome languages can be!


* Formally there are only two tenses in English, the past and the nonpast. The future tense does not exist in a separate morphological form but is often expressed with the modal will.