Most linguists recognize two tenses in English, present and past, although other verb forms are often mistakenly described as tenses. I walk is present tense and I walked is past tense. A form such as I am walking would be described not as the present progressive tense, but as a construction expressing progressive aspect, and made up of the present tense of be and the –ing form of walk. In other words, to qualify as a tense, an English verb form has to show inflectional variation.

Books for foreign learners of French, in my experience, describe as tenses all finite verb forms, even though, in the indicative, only the present, the future, the conditional and the past historic show inflectional variation. Here’s my question. Do French professional linguists also describe all verb forms as tenses, or do they recognize that J’ai marché, for example, is best understood in terms of aspect?

2 Answers 2


I am not a professionnal linguist but I'll have a go.
The notion of aspect used to be ignored at secondary level whether teaching French to natives or FLE (FSL). But it has always been recognized and studied at university level. Things are changing though, I've come across this extract of a French grammar book in which the notion of aspect is explained to 14 year old secondary students.

To answer your question, yes J'ai marché will be described in terms of aspect by linguists : the compound verb here expresses an accomplished action. Or I should say that it was described as such decades ago when I was at university, in case things are different now.

But in French we also use the notion of grammatical mood, which I do not think is used to such an extent when describing the English language. « Temps, modes et aspects » are usually studied together by linguists.

  • Thank you, @Laure. That extract is impressive. That approach doesn't seem to have worked its way through to books for foreigne learners of French. Equally, it is not found in books for foreign learners of English. English has indicative, subjunctive and imperative moods, but we express modality through modal verbs. Commented Nov 20, 2011 at 15:43

The "Passé composé" (ex: J'ai marché) is definitly seen as a tense.

However, in French too, there are some construction to express tense, which are not recognized as tense:

Je vais manger. (I am going to eat.)

Je viens de manger. (I just ate.)

Je suis en train de manger. (I am eating.)

Je suis sur le point de manger. (I am about to eat.)

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    Well, no. In grammaire traditionnelle du Français standard yes, but modern linguists would glose the passé composé as présent accompli.
    – Evpok
    Commented Nov 20, 2011 at 11:28
  • @Evpok: But do they call it a tense? Commented Nov 20, 2011 at 15:36
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    @BarrieEngland They call it tense and aspect, e.g. if they were to ask the question to a student they would go as “Quels sont le temps et l'aspect de ce verbe ?”, “Which tense and aspect is this verb?”.
    – Evpok
    Commented Nov 20, 2011 at 18:20
  • I see, thank you. According to the reference @Laure has provided, I assume that the tense of 'J'ai mangé', would be described as ‘passé composé’ and its aspect as ‘accompli’. Is that right? In my terms, ‘j’ai mangé’ isn’t a tense, but a construction formed of the present tense of ‘avoir’ and the past participle of ‘manger’ used to express perfect aspect. Unlike the English ‘I’ve eaten’, ‘j’ai mangé’ does not necessarily, as I understand it, have relevance at the time of speaking. Commented Nov 20, 2011 at 18:58
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    Actually its tense would be présent and its aspect accompli. J'ai mangé means “Now that I speak, I have finished to eat” présent standing for now that I speak and accompli for I have finished to.
    – Evpok
    Commented Nov 20, 2011 at 20:05

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