tense [O.Fr., from Lat., = time], in the grammar of many languages, a category of time distinctions expressed by any conjugated form of a verb. In Latin inflection the tense of a verb is indicated by a suffix that also indicates the verb's voice, mood, person, and number. Tense specifies whether the verb refers to action in the past, present, or future. A tenselike distinction found in many languages (e.g., Russian and Hebrew) is that of aspect, by which verbs specify whether or not the action has been completed; thus, he is risen might be translated by a verb in the perfective aspect, and he is rising by the same verb in the imperfective aspect. Aspect also refers to the distinction that a verb can make between repeated or ongoing action ( he ran daily ) and an event represented as occurring at a single point in time ( he ran that race ). Some terms borrowed from Greek grammar into English suggest aspectlike differences of meaning; these are imperfect ( I was reading when … ), perfect ( I've read the book ), and aorist ( I read it last year ). English tenses can also be classified as simple (e.g., look and looked ) or compound (e.g., have looked, am looking, and will look ). Any conjugated form of a verb that indicates tense is said to be finite; the infinitive is a special verb form that lacks all tense (as well as mood, person, and number), although it may indicate the active ( to read ) or passive ( to be read ) voice.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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