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English tenses in Arabic – a comprehensive guide

The English tenses are not always easy to translate into Arabic. An overview of all English tenses and moods and how to express them in Arabic.

Last updated: September 23, 2022

Tenses are among the most difficult things in most lan­guages – but not in Arabic. In French, for example, expressing an act or event in the past can rather be complicated as you need to choose from l’imparfait, le passé simple, le passé com­posé, le plus-que-parfait, le passé an­térieur. And in Arabic?

First of all, basically you can translate any idea, thought or concept into other languages. But you may need quite complex constructions or additional information where other languages only need a word. In this article, I will give an overview of the English “tenses” and present some ideas how we could express them in Arabic.

The concept of tenses in Arabic and English

It might be surprising, but Arabic and English work pretty similar re­garding tenses and time. In Arabic as well as in English, there is only one form for the past and one for the present tense.

Wait – but what about the future, the conditional, … in English? Germanic languages exhibit only two tense forms. English is a Germanic lan­guage. In French or Spanish, this is different.

The key word is form. Tense in English is a form as well as an idea. The future is formed by making the main verb condi­tional and by adding an adverb of time to the sentence. We need to introduce two linguistic terms in order to un­derstand the concept of tenses in Arabic:

Arabic does not have accurate time-points as French. The imparfait in French, for example, is used for incomplete actions; it explains what was happening, with no indication of when or even if it ended. If you want to translate an Arabic sentence, you have to understand the situation of an event and context to find an appropriate English translation.

Tense and aspect

We need to introduce two linguistic terms in order to un­derstand the concept of tenses in Arabic:

  • Tense: a form of the verb which usually indicates the time when an action happened – in relation to the speaker.
  • Aspect: deals with the degree of completeness of an action or state. Is the action completed, ongoing, or yet to happen?

When I use tense, I mean the basic form of the verb and not the actual time of the event. Arabic doesn’t have accurate time-points. In French, the impar­fait clearly describes a continuing state or action in the past. If you translate an Arabic sentence, you have to un­derstand the situa­tion of an event. Otherwise, you can’t find an appro­priate tense for the translation.

I also use the term tense because I don’t want to confuse readers. In Arabic, there are two main “tenses”:

The two Arabic tenses

  • The past tense or perfect tense (الْماضِي). It denotes that the action is completed at the time to which reference is being made.
  • The present tense or imperfect (الْمُضارِعُ). It is used for incomplete or yet to happen actions.

Now, what should we do if we want to express the past perfect tense, a verb tense which is used to talk about actions that were completed before some point in the past?

We use a com­bination of verbs or devices to express the idea. Here is a list of the most important English tenses and how they may be expressed in Arabic. Watch out for the mood markers! Note that there are other solutions as well.

Present tense

Arabic: الْمُضارِعُ الْبَسِيطُ

he doesيَفْعَلُ
he does indeedلَيَفْعَلَنَّ
he doesn’tلا يَفْعَلُ
he doesn’t; rarely usedما يَفْعَلُ

Present progressive tense

Arabic: الْمُضارِعُ الْمُسْتَمِرُّ

In English: to be plus -ing. The present continuous is used to talk about something that is happening at the time of speaking. In most situations, you can use an active participle (اِسْمُ فاعِلٍ). Sometimes, the simple present tense (الْمُضارِعُ) would do the job as well plus an adverb of time, e.g., now (الْآنَ).

She is studying now.إِنَّها تُذاكِرُ الْآنَ
He is coming.هُوَ قادِمٌ
I am not studying now.لا أَدْرُسُ الْآنَ

Past tense

Arabic: الْماضِي الْبَسِيطُ

To make sure that you are talking about an event in the past, you could add an adverb of time like yesterday (أَمْسِ). The negation is done with the particle لَمْ plus verb in the jussive mood (مَجْزُومٌ).

he did/he has doneفَعَلَ
he has already done; he had doneقَدْ فَعَلَ
he (indeed) did; he (indeed) has doneلَقَدْ فَعَلَ
he did not do; he has not doneلَمْ يَفْعَلْ
he did not do; he has not doneما فَعَلَ
he has not done yetلَمْ يَفْعَلْ بَعْدُ

Past tense progressive

Arabic: الْماضِي الْمُسْتَمِرُّ

In English: was or were plus -ing. It is used to express an action that was going on during a cer­tain time in the past or when another action took place.

he was doingكانَ يَفْعَلُ
he was (still) doingظَلَّ يَفْعَلُ
he was not doing* (negation of فَعَلَ)كانَ لا يَفْعَلُ
he was not doing (negation of كانَ)لَمْ يَكُنْ يَفْعَلُ
* The negation of فَعَلَ is more common than the negation of كانَ.
He was traveling.كانَ مُسافِرًا
I was going to say that……كُنْتُ سَأَقُولُ إِنَّ
I was writing the letter when the telephone rang.كُنْتُ أَكْتُبُ الْخِطابَ عِنْدَما دَقَّ جَرَسُ التِّلِيفُون
While I was walking, I fell down.بَيْنَما كُنْتُ أَسِيرُ وَقَعْتُ عَلَى الْأَرْضِ

Past perfect tense; pluperfect

Arabic: صِيغةُ الْماضِي التَّامِّ or just الْماضِي الْبَعِيدُ

This tense is not common in Arabic. It is used to express two actions: one has happened before the other. You have several options to express this idea in Arabic:

You use قَدْ كانَ in the first event and عِنْدَما before the second event.

You connect both actions with after (بَعْدَ ما + past tense verb; also بَعْدَ أَنْ + past to paraphrase the pluperfect).

It may be even enough to just use the simple past tense since the notion of time is un­derstood from the context.

he had done itكانَ قَدْ فَعَلَ
he had not done it* (negation of كانَ)ما كانَ قَدْ فَعَلَ or لَمْ يَكُنْ قَدْ فَعَلَ
he had not done it (negation of فَعَلَ)كانَ ما فَعَلَ or كانَ لَمْ يَفْعَلْ
* The negation of كانَ is more common than the negation of فَعَلَ.
After I had studied my lesson, I played soccer.بَعْدَ ما ذاكَرْتُ دَرْسِي لَعِبْتُ كُرةَ الْقَدَمِ
After we had left we realized that…بَعْدَ ما غادَرْنا أَدْرَكْنا أنَّ
They didn’t call the police after you explained the situation.لَمْ يَتَّصِلُوا بالشُّرْطةِ بَعْدَ ما شَرَحْتَ الْمَوْقِفَ
She had told him.كانَتْ قَدْ أَبْلَغَتْهُ

Past perfect continuous

Arabic: الْماضِي التّامُّ الْمُسْتَمِرُّ

In Eng­lish: had + been + participle. This tense is used to express the duration of an action up to a certain time in the past. In Arabic, you can just use the past tense progressive (4). The notion of time is usually understood from the context.

Su‘ād told me that she had been trying to get me on the phone three times.أَخْبَرَتْنِي سُعادُ أَنَّها حاوَلَتْ أَنْ تَتَّصِلَ بِي ثَلاثَ مَرّاتٍ بِالتِّلِيفُون

Future tense I

Arabic: الْمُسْتَقْبَلُ

You use the future particle سَ for the near future and سَوْفَ for the distant future plus a verb in the present tense indicative (الْمُضارِعُ). The negation is done with the particle لَنْ plus verb in the subjunctive (مَنْصُوبٌ).

he will do (in near future)سَيَفْعَلُ
he will do (distant future)سَوْفَ يَفْعَلُ
he will not do (near future)لَنْ يَفْعَلَ
he will not do (distant future)سَوْفَ لا يَفْعَلُ

Remark: In English, the immediate future is expressed by the present progressive (to be + -ing). In Arabic, we use the simple future tense with the prefix س.

She is coming here next month.إِنَّها سَتَأْتِي هُنا الشَّهْرَ الْقادِمَ
We are going out at five.سَنَخْرُجُ السَّاعَةَ الْخامِسَةَ

Future tense progressive

Arabic: الْمُسْتَقْبَلُ الْمُسْتَمِرُّ

he will be doingسَيَظَلُّ يَفْعَلُ
OR: يَكُونُ + active participle or يَكُونُ +فِي + ال + مَصْدَرٌ
Okay, I will be waiting.حَسَنًا, سأَكُونُ فِي الْانْتِظارِ
He will be traveling.يَكثونُ مُسافِرًا

In English, you often express the definite future with the future continuous tense. In Arabic, you just use the simple future (7). It is understood from the context.

Hurry up! The bus will be leav­ing in a few minutes!اِسْرَعْ! سَيَرْحَلُ الْأُوتُوبِيسُ خِلالَ بَعْضِ دَقائِقَ

Future perfect/future II

Arabic: الْمُسْتَقْبَلُ التّامُّ

This is very rare in Arabic.

he will have done itكانَ سَوْفَ يَفْعَلُ
he will have done itسَيَكُونُ (قَدْ) فَعَلَ
he will not have done it* (neg. of كانَ)سَوْفَ لا يَكُونُ (قَدْ) فَعَلَ or لَنْ يَكُونَ (قَدْ) فَعَلَ
he will not have done it (neg. of فَعَلَ)كانَ سَوْفَ لا يَفْعَلُ or كانَ لَنْ يَفْعَلَ
The negation of كانَ is more common than the negation of فَعَلَ.
He will have contacted us tomorrow.سَيَكُونُ قَدْ اِتَّصَلَ بِنا غَدًا
She will have finished the job.تَكُونَ قَدْ اِنْتَهَت الْعَمَلَ

Watch out: You may use قَدْ plus past tense verb (الْماضِي) to distinguish the future perfect (will have done it) from the subjunctive (would have done it).

The German Konjunktiv I

In German, it is mainly used for reporting indirect speech and old-fashioned or polite commands and requests (er möge bitte warten). There is no real equivalent to that in Arabic. Besides, you don’t need that mood form if you convert a direct speech into the reported speech – see Arabic for Nerds 2, quest. #267.

Past subjunctive (Konjunktiv II)

should, would, could

The past subjunctive mood of I want is I would; of I can is I could. In English, this mood is used for hypothetical situations and to express doubt or wishes; for situations when the standard mood (indicative) – I want – would sound rude or boring.

In many situations, you use a conditional sentence (جُمْلةُ الشَّرْطِ). If you want to express something im­possible, you usually have two ingredients: لَوْ and ‎لَ‎. You have many options regarding the appropriate tense as the meaning mostly depends on the context.

Imperative

Arabic: الْأَمْرُ

The imperative is derived from the present tense of the verb with some modifications. It always receives the jussive mood ending (مَجْزُومٌ).


sing. m.sing. f.dual m./f.plural m.plural f.
do!اِفْعَلْاِفْعَلِياِفْعَلااِفْعَلُوااِفْعَلْنَ
don’t do!لا تَفْعَلْلا تَفْعَلِيلا تَفْعَلالا تَفْعَلُوالا تَفْعَلْنَ

In the books Arabic for Nerds 1 and 2 I will analyze all the tenses in more detail, for example, how to express the conditional, etc.

picture credit: Matej ; Pexels, pixabay (anncapictures)

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