We only need the Past Tense, Present Tense & Future Tense. (This is more than enough to express any type of situation.)

But tenses are subdivided into so many forms like Animal Kingdom Classification in Biology.

Why is this so?

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    Why does any language have an characteristic. There is no answer to this. Romance languages have many more tenses.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 12:11
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    Related: english.stackexchange.com/questions/91122/…
    – Chenmunka
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 12:12
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    This is a ploy by English teachers, to earn more money. Romance language teachers are even more tricky. Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 12:14
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    Hey, awesome, I get to say this before the real linguists show up: English has only two tenses, present and past. Future activity is expressed through modal verbs and auxiliaries. Everything else you've been taught as a "tense" actually falls under either mood or aspect. As for why there are so many combinations: well you nailed it on the head with your taxonomy analogy. English is a naturally evolved language without external control, oversight, or governance, and just as animals and other living things do, has over the years grown so many limbs, eyeballs, etc to suit its needs.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 12:46
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    @BillJ The deflocculated franistan eschews all association with any presterial remodification. This leads inexorably to the non-preterite, and a dependent colactical and anamorphic instability which demorgasizes the remaining borogroves. Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 19:48

2 Answers 2


Well, with only a single past tense, you could not express something like this:

I had gone to the park when John called me.

This allows me to easily communicate to someone that first I went to the park, and then after I arrived at the park, John called me.

I went to the park when John called me.

Here, it sounds like John called you and then you went to the park, and there is an implication that John somehow caused you to go to the park. Of course, you can always be extra verbose to make things clear:

I went to the park and then after I arrived at the park, John called me.

But see how wordy that is?

Without continuous/progressive tenses, you couldn't say this easily:

While I was walking to the park, John called me.

This means John called you while you were enroute to the park. With only simple past, you would have to say something like this:

I walked to the park, and during my walk to the park, John called me.

I'm betting you are finding all the modals of English and the subtleties between things like would, should, and could difficult to understand. One reason why there is a lot of subtlety with these words in my opinion is because they are used to politely request things of people, or send strong hints to get other people to do things. You can always use the normal imperative form for requests:

Walk to the park with me

but this can come off as very demanding if you aren't familiar with the person. All of these are far "softer":

Will you walk to the park with me?

Could you walk to the park with me?

I'm going to take a walk, you should join me.

I'm going for a walk, won't you join me?

It's a beautiful day, you simply must walk with me.

And then there is "conditional" tense/mood which is also needed to express things like:

If we set this house on fire, then it would burn down.

Without would, you will sound very strange because we don't know you're referring to a "virtual" or conditional activity.

If we set this house on fire, then it burns down.

If we set this house on fire, then it burned down.

The only "useless" tense/mood/form in English IMHO is subjunctive.

I think that if I were a famous celebrity then I would be happy.

I think that if I was a famous celebrity then I would be happy. (Sounds wrong but really were doesn't add any information.)

But you're going to have to use it anyway if you want to "sound right" and educated to English speakers/writers.

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    RE: "Well, with only a single past tense, you could not express something like this:" This is simply not true. Other languages (Chinese, for example) don't even have the past tense, and they manage to express past events and even past events preceding other past events just fine. For example they can use helper verbs like we do to express future actions.
    – The Photon
    Commented Jul 20, 2016 at 2:17

I can understand that learning all the tenses can be confusing. But past, present, and future are NOT enough to describe all possible situations.

Consider the simple sentence, "I have been waiting since noon." Note present continuous tense. This is not at all the same as, "I was waiting at noon." A past tense would indicate that I am not waiting any more. Nor is it the same as, "I am waiting." This says I am waiting now, but doesn't say anything about how long I have been waiting.

I suppose you could add additional words to the sentence to explain that the action began in the past and continues into the present. But then you've just re-invented the present continuous tense.

Any time something is complex, there's a perfectly legitimate desire by some to ask if we cannot eliminate or combine some of the cases. Like one could ask, "Why do we need so many names for colors? Black, white, red, blue, green, yellow, and purple are plenty of names to describe any color." But of course the answer is no, they're not. In some cases, saying "both those things are red" would be fine. But I'm sure an interior decorator or clothing designer would be baffled or horrified at the thought of eliminating the words crimson, burgundy, maroon, rose, ruby, etc. How could you possibly say this dress matches those shoes just because they're both "red", when one is burgundy and the other is maroon?

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