Recently I was doing some english quiz and was totally knocked out with the folowing phrase: "Would you like a glass of water?" In that quiz I had to determine the tense of this phrase. And was completely lost between Present Simple and Past simple. So what tense is it?

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    A present simple. It's a polite way of asking if you like to have a glass of water. Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 15:42
  • @Man_From_India Although you're right, you should really post an answer instead of an answer as a comment. I'm only saying this because as a new user, I'm seeing a lot of questions answered by short or even extensive comments. The answer box is for answers :) Also, although the meaning might be simple to you, having understanding of it, remember you're talking to someone who doesn't understand it.
    – user20827
    Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 15:45
  • Thank you @TechnikEmpire. I cant write in answer only what I wrote in comment. I need to elaborate the idea, for the OP. But right now I don't have anything to add. I will again come back later. But I am sure by then you will find better answers here :-) (oh the comments here are as helpful as answers. I learned a lot from them too) Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 15:57

3 Answers 3


It is present tense. If the question had said "Would you have liked a glass of water?" then it would be past.


"Would you like" is neither a present nor a past tense, it is conditional (mood), here not for irreality, but for polite questions as in Would you help me, please?

No one would have any problems if English conjugation tables were in this form:

Pr I do

Pt I did

F1 I will do

C1 I would do

For the sake of simplicity I have given only the I-form.

Pr present tense

Pt past tense

F1 future 1 ( simple tense)

C1 conditional 1 ( simple mood)

But English grammars have conjugation tables only with present/past/future tense. Conditional, which is rather frequent, is hidden somewhere, either in the chapter mood or in the chapter modals.

The perfect tenses should be

Pf I have done (done is v3, the verb form 3 of the base forms)

PP I had done

F2 I will have done ( have done is infinitive perfect)

C2 I would have done


I would argue that "Would you like..." is past tense, but "present tense" is perhaps a defensible answer. In reality, the question isn't entirely a sensible one, so in practice, the correct answer would be whatever answer the examiner is expecting or whatever answer you have been taught as part of your course.

What is tense?

Tense is grammatical and primarily inflectional. Tense is not the same thing as time. "I fly to Paris next week" is present tense, but refers to future time. "Every time I see him, I feel angry" is present tense but refers to a repetitive event which is most likely not happening at this moment. "I'm leaving next Sunday" is present tense. In "If I caught you, you would be in trouble", "caught" is past tense, but has nothing to do with past time.

In "Would you like a glass of water?", the reference is to present time. We are asking whether our addressee would like a glass of water now. But, because tense is grammatical and not semantic, the fact that we are asking what they want now is irrelevant to the question about what tense is being used.

How many tenses?

Traditional grammarians and many EFL/ESL courses enumerate a dozen or more tenses. But modern grammar holds that there is no such tense as (for example) "the present perfect". (To be clear, the present perfect exists, but is a construction, not a separate tense in its own right.) The present perfect is, rather, a combination of the present tense with the perfect aspect (according to some) or a combination of the present tense in the primary tense system with the perfect tense in the secondary tense system (according to others); both schools of thought agree that the progressive is a question of aspect, rather than tense. Either way, then, English has two primary (inflectional) tenses, the present and the past (or the present and the preterite, or the nonpast and the past). There is no future, just the use of the modal verb "will" or occasionally "shall" (which are themselves in the present tense or the nonpast tense) followed by infinitives.

Some traditional grammarians would class "I would [+infinitive]" as the "conditional tense" or "conditional mood". Thomson & Martinet's Practical English Grammar (1960) called it the "present conditional tense". This terminology isn't used by modern grammarians. And while it neatly solves the problem of assigning a tense to "would" (see below), it doesn't explain what tense other modals have (for instance, what tense is used in "I might like" or "I must like"?).

The tense of modal verbs

Some people see "could", "should", "would", "might" as the past tenses of "can", "shall", "will", "may". Others prefer to see "could" etc as modal verbs in their own right, at least some of the time. The difficulty is that in many cases the "past" tense modals refer to present time, and the difference between "could" and "can" often has nothing to do with a distinction between present/past. The relationship between "might" and "may" is so weak that some native speakers may be unaware of it.

Then again, as I've argued, tense is a grammatical feature and does not necessarily reflect semantics. If "could" and "would" are treated as verbs in their own right, then they have no meaningful present/past distinction and the question about the tense of "Would you like" becomes irrelevant due to modals lacking tense - whereas if they are treated as the past of "can" and "will", clearly they are in the past tense.

Note: it has been argued that the past tense of "I would like" is "I would have liked". This is fallacious. "I would have liked" combines the modal "would" with a perfect infinitive ("[to] have liked"). We often use these modal plus perfect infinitive combinations to discuss the past, but they are not grammatically the past tense, any more than the present perfect is. Moreover, we don't use these perfect constructions every time a modal is used to discuss the past. For example, in the sentence "He asked me if I would like a cup of tea", it is entirely correct that we have written "would like", not "would have liked". We would only use "would have liked" here if he had been asking about a past liking - not if we were recounting a past event in which he asked what we wanted at the time.

  • Thank you very much for a superb answer. This supplements the comment about aspect and tense you made earlier on very nicely. Could you please suggest further material (books, online material, etc.) on verbs and tense? @rjpond.
    – user126190
    Commented Apr 19, 2021 at 12:53
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    The following may be worth a look: ucl.ac.uk/internet-grammar/verbs/tense.htm ; cs.bham.ac.uk/~pxc/nlp/Eng-Verbs.html ; learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/english-grammar-reference/… ; Biber, Conrad & Leech, Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English.
    – rjpond
    Commented Apr 19, 2021 at 13:30
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    The view of the perfect as a secondary tense system is put forward by Huddleston & Pullum in their comprehensive grammar as well as in A Student's Introduction to English Grammar. It's summarised here: glottopedia.org/index.php/…
    – rjpond
    Commented Apr 19, 2021 at 13:44
  • Thank you very much, @rjpond.
    – user126190
    Commented Apr 20, 2021 at 6:12

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