Huddleston and Pullum's (2002) analysis of tense

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According to Huddelston and Pullum (2002), English has a two-dimensional systems of temporal reference which comprises the categories primary tense and secondary tense. Primary tenses express the distinction between past and present time. For example, "She went to school" contains a verb in the preterite tense (went). In "She goes to school" the tense of the verb is present (cf. Huddleston and Pullum 20022: 116).

Secondary tense distinguishes perfect from non-perfect forms, the former being marked with the auxiliary have. For example, "He may have known her" is a perfect form, whereas "He may know her" is unmarked (Huddleston and Pullum 20022: 116).

Tense is regarded as a relationship between the time referred to and the time of orientation.

Primary Tense

Parameters of analysis

  • Time referred to (Tr): time span about which information is provided
  • Time of orientation (To): reference point, usually time of utterance/ moment of speech
  • Time of the situation (Tsit): time span covered by the situation
  • Deictic time (Td): type of encoding or decoding, normally the moment of utterance

Relationship between Tr and T0

  • past time Tr < To (anterior)
  • present time Tr = To (simultaneous)
  • future time Tr > To (posterior)


(1) I met Michael at seven in the morning. (Tr < To)

(2) I hereby confirm you husband and wife. (Tr = To)

(3) I’ll take a nap at ten. (Tr > To)

  • Time of situation (Tsit) is not necessarily identical to time referred to (Tr)

(4) What did you do between four and five o’clock?
(4a) I was sleeping.
(4b) I slept.

  • Present tense: In most cases To is contained in Tsit

(5) I live in Jena.

  • Deictic time is usually the moment of utterance. Under specific circumstances it can be shifted to the ‘decoding time’:

(6) You are now leaving West Berlin.

Secondary Tense: The perfect

Parameters of analysis: the same parameters as for primary tense

The perfect as a ‘non-deictic past tense’

  • it is a past tense because it is used when Tr <To;
  • it is non-deictic because To is not (necessarily) identified with Td.

(1) He was believed [to have written it the previous week]. Tr <To (past)

(2) He is believed [to have written it last week] Tr <To (present)

(3) He hopes [to have written it by next week]. Tr <To (future)

  • One To functions as a time of orientation for a given Tr; this Tr is at the same time the To for another Tr.

(4) Yesterday, he was believed to have written it the previous week. (Huddelston and Pullum 2002: 140).

Uses the of the perfect

  • The continuative perfect/universal (=states)

(5) She has lived in Berlin ever since she married.

  • The experiential perfect/existential (= occurrences within the time span up to now)

(6) His sister has been up Mont Blanc twice.

  • The resultative perfect (=change of state)

(7) She has broken her leg.

  • The perfect of recent past (=news announcements)

(8) She has recently/just been to Paris. (Huddleston and Pullum 2002: 141f).


  • Huddleston, Rodney D., Pullum, Geoffrey K. (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge: CUP.