Let's take a couple of quotes from the Wikipedia article:

The past tense is a grammatical tense whose function is to place an action or situation in past time.

In some languages, the grammatical expression of past tense is combined with the expression of other categories such as Grammatical and aspect (see tense–aspect).

The European continent is heavily dominated by Indo-European languages, all of which have a past tense.

"Past tense" looks like an uncountable noun to me. As such zero article sounds appropriate. Definite article probably might make some sense, although I don't really understand why they sometimes use it, and sometimes not. And the indefinite article is of the highest mystery. How do I count tense?

In other words, when do I use each of those articles with "past tense," and why?

2 Answers 2


Usage is changing over time in this context, which just goes to show that classifying nouns as "countable" or "uncountable" isn't always particularly useful...

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So far as I'm concerned, all three of OP's highlighted instances of past tense can validly be preceded by all three "articles" (that's to say, a, the and the "zero article" are all syntactically fine in each case). It's primarily a stylistic choice which kind of article to use in any given context.

About the only semantic difference I can see is that if you choose to use the indefinite article (a), the implication for OP's first two examples is that the current contextually relevant language (or some languages in #2) has more than one type of past tense verb form.

But the indefinite article as actually used in example #3 strongly implies that Indo-European languages only have one past tense verb form (which I don't think is true! :)

  • About stylistic choice, is that so with "past tense," or generally? I believe there are cases where you've got to use some particular article. Also, can't "past tense" be used to mean all past forms of a language? Then example #3 would probably be correct.
    – x-yuri
    Commented Mar 1, 2021 at 22:01
  • If you already "believe there are cases where you've got to use some particular article", why didn't you post examples where we could either agree or disagree with your position. I'm not saying there aren't any such contexts (I haven't even thought about that yet) - just saying that for the three examples in your question, all three types of article (definite, indefinite, and zero) are syntactically valid. And sometimes (not always) the choice makes a difference to the meaning, as pointed out above. Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 12:12
  • I just wanted you to clarify one particular sentence ("It's primarily a stylistic choice..."). You did. About the rest, I'm not sure if we're talking about sentences with "past tense," or about arbitrary sentences. By "I believe..." I meant, "There must be sentences, particularly those w/o the phrase 'past tense,' where given that you want to convey a particular meaning, you've got to use a particular article. Or maybe most of the sentences are like so."
    – x-yuri
    Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 15:47
  • 1
    Ah. It sounds like you're thinking of the general case (not just the specific noun phrase "past tense") for whether and which kind of article to use. Yes, sometimes it makes a lot of difference to the meaning, and/or some combinations are not acceptable at all. But I don't think all of that could be adequately covered in a single ELL Answer, let alone a comment! I will just say that I personally would probably have written Let's take a couple of quotes from a Wikipedia article at the start of your question text. Your the has slightly different implications. Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 17:15
  • 1
    I described two possible differences in meaning in the final two paragraphs of my answer (differences between the nine possible permutations of 3 examples and 3 "article types"). Note that these are not "absolute" (not everyone would recognise my distinctions), so some people might not like certain article types at all in certain contexts, AND / OR people might disagree over whether or not there's a difference in meaning for any given "stylistic choice". But there can be a lot of flexibility, and usages do change over time as well. Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 17:41

I'd use the the articles shown in the examples. In my head, there are definite semantic differences between their uses.

In the first case (The past tense is a grammatical tense, ...) the sentence is describing the specific past tense that exists in the English language. There's only one, that's what's being described

In the second case (In some languages, the grammatical expression of past tense is combined ...), the concept of a past tense is being discussed, not any particular language-specific instance of a past tense.

In the third case (... Indo-European languages, all of which have a past tense). the sentence is talking about several languages, each of which have their own, different, past tense. It's not a specific one, it's one per language.

Note: I'm a native English speaker, raised in Canada but a resident of the US for 20 years. I can barely spell linguistics.

  • My understanding is, the first example is about languages in general. It's the beginning of the corresponding article.
    – x-yuri
    Commented Mar 1, 2021 at 22:11

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