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Tense is traditinaly defined as a grammatical feature or (deictic) category expressing a temporal relation between the event described by the verb and the moment of utterance.

Alternatively, tense can be defined as a grammatical feature or (deictic) category encoding a temporal relation between the topic time (Klein 1994) and an extra-linguistic reference point, the time of orientation (Huddleston & Pullum 2002.


Even though grammatical tense marking is found in the majority of the world's languages, there are also languages without grammaticalized tense (cf. Comrie 1985). Tense may either be marked by inflectional morphemes ('synthetic tense marking') or by free morphemes ('analytic tense marking').

Classification of temporal categories

A distinction can be made between (i) absolute tense, (ii) relative tense and (iii) absolute-relative tense (Comrie 1985).


  • Chomsky, N. 1981. Lectures on Government and Binding, Foris, Dordrecht.
  • Giorgi, A. & F. Pianesi 1991. Toward a Syntax of Temporal Representations, Probus 3,
  • Gueron, J. & T. Hoekstra 1988. T-chains and the Constituent Structure of Auxiliaries, in: A. Cardinaletti et al. (eds.) Constituent Structure, Foris, Dordrecht.
  • Hornstein, N. 1990. As time goes by, The MIT Press:Cambridge MA.


Utrecht Lexicon of Linguistics

See also


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