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Scott Thornbury: Does aspect make you tense?

Scott Thornbury grammar tense

Scott Thornbury is a guest tutor on our Trinity DipTESOL course and will be speaking at the next Innovate ELT conference hosted and co-organised by Oxford TEFL Barcelona. He also teaches on an online MA TESOL program for The New School in New York. His latest book is Scott Thornbury’s 101 Grammar Questions (Cambridge University Press). In this blog post he explores aspect and tense.

How would you respond to a learner who might question these (authentic) examples of the present progressive and the present perfect, respectively?[i]

1. If it’s raining, it’s a chore to walk the dogs.
2. I’ll have a shower when you’ve finished in there.

Well, first of all, why would they question them? Because example (1) doesn’t fit the rule that we use the present progressive for actions happening at the time of speaking, and example (2) doesn’t fit the rule that we use the present perfect to refer to an event occurring either at an indefinite past time or continuously from a point in past time to the present. Are they exceptions, then? I would argue that they are not exceptions. If anything, they embody the essence of these two constructions much better than the kind of invented coursebook examples that are typically used to teach them, e.g. She’s having a shower. He’s been to Kenya.

Why? First of all, they display the intrinsic meaning of what we call aspect, of which there are two in English: progressive and perfect. (I’ll remind you of these meanings shortly). And, importantly, they refute the widely-held belief that aspect is defined in terms of ‘time of occurrence’. In fact, the time is immaterial: in both examples the tense is the present, but the actual time of occurrence is inferable only from the context: an extended indefinite present time in the case of ‘it’s raining’ in example (1), and the future in the case of example (2): ‘you’ve finished’. Here’s another real example which reinforces the argument that time is not a determining factor in choosing between simple or progressive forms:

3. It’s dark in the morning when I go into work and it’s dark when I’m going home in the evenings.

The difference between I go and I’m going has nothing to do with the fact that one is in the morning and the other is in the evening, or that the journey home is longer than the journey to work, or that one journey is finished and the other is not. The difference is simply one of aspect – not when the event occurred but how we envisage it.

So, how do we envisage it?  If aspect is not time related, what is the meaning that it adds to the verb phrase?  The clue is in the name – at least for the progressive. Like all –ing forms, progressive aspect adds the sense of an activity being in progress – not in progress now, necessarily, but in progress at the time indicated by the tense of the auxiliary verb and whatever can be inferred from the context. In the following examples the tense is the present throughout, but the actual time is indicated by adverbials (underlined):

4. And right now he’s working on a ‘silent’ movie with Eric Sykes.
5. My daughter is working in India quite a lot.
6. She’s always working. Pam don’t stop working.
7. And I’m not working next year anyway cos I’ve done it for two years on the run.
8. There is some fella he’s working in his back yard and he’s hammering all day.

Despite the different time references, all the above examples view the activity as being in progress, dynamic, unfolding, having stages. This aspectual meaning can be appreciated in other constructions that allow both unmarked and -ing forms. Compare, for example:

9. Susan had entered quietly, and stood looking over his shoulder, watching him work.
10. She had watched him working delicately on the door.

This basic meaning of an activity being ‘in progress’ may, in turn, have implications of incompleteness, temporariness, or repetition, but these implications will depend on factors such as context and the inherent meaning of the verb itself. The following contrastive pairs (BNC examples on the left) are all plausible and do not imply a significant difference in time:

11. At that time I was working for the LNER./ At that time I worked for the LNER.
12. The grill of our cooker isn’t working./The grill of our cooker doesn’t work.
13. Everyone will be working for free. /Everyone will work for free.

If the progressive adds an element of dynamism, the perfect adds an element of retrospection, i.e. the event is viewed retrospectively from the point indicated by the context:

14. I have worked for the Health Service for twenty six years. (= retrospective to now).
15. He is one of the best players I have ever worked with. (= retrospective to now)
16. Before becoming a merchant banker, he had worked as a barman. (= retrospective to then)

(Example 2 above can be explained in similar terms). Take away the retrospective viewpoint and we are left with events detached from the point of reference: I worked for the Health Service for twenty six years…. etc. Again, implications of incompleteness, recency, present relevance and so on will depend on factors apart from the perfect itself.

Moreover, the two aspects can, of course, combine, each contributing its respective element of meaning, i.e. retrospection + progression:

17. I have been working for a moment like this for nine years and finally it has arrived.
18. In 1911 Wren had been working in India for less than eight years.

So, how would you convey all this to learners? This is the kind of question that a teacher development course (of the type that Oxford TEFL has just launched) would be well-placed to consider. In the meantime, can I throw out some suggestions?

First of all, in an ideal world, I would dispense with labels like ‘present continuous’, ‘past progressive’, ‘ future perfect’,  etc. once and for all. They simply reify these constructions as if they were separate tenses, defined purely in terms of time relations. The important thing  would be to establish (a) that the -ing form (in whatever construction it is found) is indelibly associated with ‘ongoing activity’ and (b) that what we call the present perfect is a present tense, but with a ‘backward glance’.

I would introduce these meanings initially through formulaic/ high-frequency and high-utility expressions, e.g.:

progressive perfect
Keep going.
Start writing.
Stop talking.
Where are you going?
What are you doing?
You’re joking!
I was thinking…
I’ve finished.
It’s gone. They’ve gone.
Have you finished?
I’ve just had one.
I’ve lost my…
Where’ve you been?
Have you heard?


Then I would want to associate these aspect constructions with particular pragmatic uses, as in:


I’m just getting off/on the train/bus etc.
It’s raining.
It’s getting dark.
What’s going on?
How are you feeling?
I’m not enjoying this X

framing past events:

It was snowing…
We were having dinner [when]…
X was telling me…


What are you doing (now/later…)?
I’m seeing/meeting X (at Y)


They’re always eating/fighting/texting etc
I never/always do X when I’m working/playing/ etc
What have you been doing?


They’ve  X-ed the Y (e.g. They’ve painted the school)
What have you done to your X?
You’ve –ed!


Have you ever…?
I’ve never…
It’s the first time I’ve ever…


How long have you…?
Have you been waiting long?

I would extend this approach into associating these constructions with particular text-types/genres, such as texting (commentary), narration, making appointments, job interviews etc.

I would also use texts like the following[i], as examples of how tense and aspect are used by speakers and writers to create particular effects:

Eyewitness Don Kohles said he saw the car the suspect was driving crash into what was a fire hydrant or a utility pole.

“Then this guy comes out of the car and starts running toward TJs,” Mr Kohles told CNN.

“I look behind me and there were two police guys coming with heavy guns, then boom boom boom boom, so I go into TJ’s and I see this guy and he comes in.

“And I see the two front glass doors shot out. I look around and I see a TJ’s employee laying on the ground…”

Finally, but only after sustained exposure, I would challenge the learners to provided extended contexts to sentence pairs of the type that follow, in order to tease out their differences (but not to imply that one is correct and the other is wrong):

Nowadays he walks to work.
Nowadays he’s walking to work.

I never went to Mexico.
I’ve never been to Mexico.

Did it rain this morning?
Has it rained this morning?

Someone shouted and a dog barked.
Someone was shouting and a dog was barking.

What would it take to get coursebooks to adopt the same or similar approach?

If you are thinking about advancing your career in ELT, you could consider our internationally-recognised Trinity DipTESOL course or one of our recently launched online and face to face teacher development courses.

[i] All numbered examples are taken from Davies, M. (2004-) BYU-BNC. (Based on the British National Corpus from Oxford University Press). Available online at https://corpus.byu.edu/bnc/.

[ii] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-44914323

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