From the Cambridge Dictionary

main: larger, more important, or having more influence than others of the same type src

major: more important, bigger, or more serious than others of the same type src

I understand the difference between them explained in a post. However, I don't really understand the difference in the following context.

From a VOA tutorial

There are three main verb tenses in English: present, past and future. The present, past and future tenses are divided into four aspects: the simple, progressive, perfect and perfect progressive.

There are 12 major verb tenses that English learners should know.

I guess it dose not imply that "main" is more import than "major" and vice versa.

Does it mean the "main" part is more general than the "major" part, as "present tense" is more general than "Present Continuous tense".

Is my understanding correct?

Another example, major film genres vs Main Film Genres. The latter is used by AMC while Ngram Viewer doesn't even have a hit of it.

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  • If I had written that tutorial, I would have avoided using both "main" and "major" to simply mean important, without comparing them to something less important. So I tend to only use "major" if there are others of the same category that I explicitly or implicitly state to be "minor", less important. So reading that tutorial I was waiting for what they thought were minor verb tenses. Of course, that never came and now I'm frustrated by their use of "major" haha. Commented Jun 19, 2020 at 3:14

1 Answer 1


In this context, we have a group of things, “English-language verb tenses.” Three members of that group are referred to as “main,” and twelve are considered “major”—and the “main” tenses are presumably found among the “major” ones.

From that context, in this discussion, “main” seems to be more significant than “major,” simply because the “main” tenses is the more exclusive group.

This has little to do with the actual meaning of those words, which aren’t particularly related to one another though they can operate as synonyms. Readers were expected to understand it from context and not from the definitions of those words.

That said, most English speakers/writers would make the same choice in this situation. Assuming you decide to use “main” and “major” as your two terms and are making a distinction between them, the “main” ones are probably going to be more important than the “major” ones. For example, “main characters” in fiction are the stars—the lead protagonists and the lead antagonists—while “major characters” will also include any number of other characters that have significant roles but aren’t the ones that the story revolves around.

  • +1 Agreed. Hadn't thought about "main characters" vs "major characters" but I agree that if someone said "she is a major character in the story", then I would ask myself "Why didn't they say 'main' character?" And then I would realize they mean less important than "main". So I wonder if that is only for cases where "main" is commonly used and expected in the phrase. Otherwise, I don't think that is inherently understood between the two words in general. Commented Jun 19, 2020 at 3:26
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    Thinking of other examples, "main role" vs "major role" or "main issue" vs "major issue", is there an understanding that major is less important than main? Now that I think of it, "main" tends to be stated as "THE main..." while major tends to be "A major..." which places the importance indication on the articles more than the words "main" and "major". I'm not necessarily disagreeing with you, just found myself fascinated by the question and really analyzing how I understand the subtle differences between the words. Commented Jun 19, 2020 at 3:32
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    @JayA.Little I had the exact same thought about the versus a, and struggled mightily with how to express that. Articles are already a notorious source of difficulty for learning the English language, so I wasn’t sure it would be helpful even if I could wrangle a way to articulate what I meant. And yeah, I initially was like “no, they have nothing to do with one another, it was just something the authors chose to do here” and then was like “but wait... it would be wrong to do it the other way around, wouldn’t it?”
    – KRyan
    Commented Jun 19, 2020 at 3:34
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    The other problem though is that these 3 and 12 items are not 15 separate things, but are actually 3 sets, with 12 subsets. So there should be better words to describe the importance and also that relationship, perhaps "3 primary verb tenses" and "12 secondary verb tenses". I think I've fallen into a nerdy rabbit hole haha. Commented Jun 19, 2020 at 3:50
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    @RobertH “Significance” is highly context dependent. In this case, it’s probably most accurate to say that the “main” tenses are more fundamental than the “major” tenses, because the main tenses are the bigger, broader categories and the major tenses all fit under one of the main tenses.
    – KRyan
    Commented Jun 20, 2020 at 13:37

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