When Differences in Aspect Aren’t So Simple

It’s usually easy to explain why we need a verb in a certain time frame: We use the past tense for past actions (I studied law) and the present tense for present actions (I study law). A future time frame allows for more choices, but with sufficient practice students pick up on how to use will, be going to, and even the present tense for future plans or scheduled events (e.g. I’m going to leave tonight. My flight is at 7.)

Verb forms become trickier when we throw in the concept of aspect. It’s not difficult to grasp the idea of a finished action or an action in progress; the challenge is understanding how simple and progressive verbs overlap. There’s overlap with simple and perfect verbs, too. So just how similar can they be, and if there are differences, what are they?

I bet they’re feeling really tired after a long day at work.

Imagine a group of workers heading home on the commuter train. I can observe, “They‘re tired. That’s why they’re sleeping.” We initially teach students the guideline that present states use the simple present: They are tired. or They feel tired. And yet it’s also acceptable for one of those workers to comment, “I‘m feeling really tired. I need to close my eyes for a bit.”

NOTE 1: We can express an emotion or condition with a progressive verb if it’s temporary and/or not usual. 

A similar overlap occurs with other states:  I live with my parents. vs. I’m living with my parents. Both are correct, but the second suggests a temporary situation. It’s important to realize, however, that sometimes there’s little difference at all, especially with action verbs using the perfect aspect: I’ve skated since childhood. / I’ve been skating since childhood. 

NOTE 2: A progressive verb doesn’t necessarily imply a temporary situation. With the perfect aspect, the progressive form may simply express an ongoing action. 

The present perfect can help us talk about recent past actions, and the addition of adverbs such as “just” and “recently” only emphasize this: I’ve (just) received word from Mary. She’s in London now. In American English we can opt to use the simple past to express the same ideas, but then we must use adverbs to emphasize how recent these events were: I just received word from Mary.  

NOTE 3: The simple past along with an adverb of time can substitute the present perfect when we wish to express a recent past action or event.

Not all differences in aspect are connected to time. The future progressive allows us to

Will you be attending the banquet?

increase our level of formality, especially in questions: Will you attend the banquet? (neutral) vs. Will you be attending the banquet? (more polite) Likewise, you can also hear a more respectful tone in the question Will you be offering any tutoring after school? compared to Are you going to offer any tutoring?

NOTE 4: The future progressive raises the level of formality in questions compared to questions asked with only will or be going to. 

What notes have you made for students who wish to understand and master aspect?

Photo credits:

Tired (2012, May 29) by Steven Lilley. Retrieved from the Creative Common Commons on Flickr.

2014 Puterbaugh Banquet (2014, March 28) by Word Literature Today. Retrieved from the Creative Commons on Flickr.


5 Comments Add yours

  1. yasser mohamed says:

    Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android

  2. Leo Gomez says:

    Teach them the difference between aspect and tense

    1. Yes, upper level students can talk about this.

  3. Jean C. Dub says:

    Excellent examples of various tenses of grammar and how they are used more effectively.

    1. Thank you for checking out this post, Jean. Regards!

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