Comparing Tense Systems: the Primacy of the Pres/Past Opposition


  • Olga Borik Utrecht University
  • Paz González Utrecht University
  • Henk Verkuyl Utrecht University



Aspect, Compositionality, Crosslinguistic Analysis, Tense


A way of improving on the description of the English tense system in Reichenbach [1947] is achieved by changing its matrix 3x3 design into a 2x2x2 set up, formed by 3 basic oppositions:
  1. present vs. past
  2. synchronous vs. posterior
  3. incompleted vs. completed action
The advantages of the binary system over the Reichenbachian ternary system are the following:
  1. the binary system is completely compositional;
  2. there is no tripartition between Past, Present and Future, but only the basic opposition between Past and Present remains. As we intend to show later, this is empirically supported by the Russian and Polish data;
  3. some concrete problems, for instance, the ambiguity of past perfect with temporal adverbials or more then one configuration for the same tense form [Future Perfect [will have written] or Past Future tense [would write]] do not arise.
The binary system can be naturally extended to apply for the tense systems of different groups of languages. Along with Germanic, we will consider two more groups of languages: Romance [e.g., French and Spanish] and Slavic [e.g., Russian and Polish]. The binary system, we will show, has the potential to be extended in order to capture the Romance data or shrunk to account for the Slavic data. The connection between tense and aspect, especially in Slavic languages is also described in this paper. Both temporal and aspectual differences in Slavic can be essentially captured by the same mechanism provided by the binary system. Some empirical facts, like, for instance, the absence of the present tense interpretation with perfective verb forms, will fall out naturally.