Comrie's (1985) theory of tense

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Absolute and relative tense

According to Comrie (1985), absolute tenses take the present moment as a deictic center, i.e. the time of utterance. The three absolute tenses are 'present', 'past' and 'future'. Relative tenses are defined relative to an additional reference point which does not (necessarily) correspond with the moment of utterance (Comrie 1985:122f). In absolute-relative tenses, the "reference point is established relative to the present moment, and a situation is located in time relative to that reference point" (Comrie 1985:125).

Representation of temporal reference

Comrie adopts Reichenbach’s (1947) primitives 'S' (time of speech), 'E' (time of event) and 'R' (reference point). Unlike Reichenbach, he uses three ordering relations: ‘simul’, ‘before’ and ‘after’ (Comrie 1985:122). Absolute tenses express a relation between S and E. The reference point R only plays a role in the expression of absolute-relative tenses.

Tenses express two types of temporal relations: (i) between R and S, and (ii) between R and E. It is important to note that the relative position of E and S is not specified (Comrie 1985: 125).

Schema Tense Example
1. E simul S present tense I promise you to pay you 10 pounds
2. E before S past tense Five minutes ago John was in the garden.
3. E after S future tense I will become 30 next week
4. E before R before S past perfect John left for the front. By the time he would return, the fields would have been burnt to stubble.
5. E before R after S future perfect In a fortnight I will have left the town.
6. E after R before S future in the past I never thought he would write the best exam.
7. E after R after S future in the future I will be going to buy the book.

A distinction between the English Simple Past and the Present Perfect is not made, so "[i]n terms of location in time, [...] the perfect is not distinct from the past" (Comrie 1985: 78).


  • Comrie, Bernard (1985). Tense. Cambridge: CUP.