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There is an example sentence from http://maggiesensei.com/ that has been bothering me for a while:

あの子はだんだん可愛くなってくるね。

This is translated as "She has been getting cuter and cuter. (until now and maybe in future as well)"

But isn't なってくる in the present/future? Does it mean she's "been getting" or "will get"?

If it was "been getting", wouldn't it be なってきた?

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It really does mean she has been getting cuter, despite the present/future tense. The key is the note in the parentheses that she may get cuter in the future too.

Which tense you use with -てくる or -ていく depends on when the change starts and ends.

-てくる - became cute in the past, will continue getting cuter in the future
-ていく - became cute now, and will continue getting cuter into the future
-てきた - became cute in the past, stopped now
-ていった - became cute in the past, stopped sometime in the past

As you can see, neither past tense one will continue into the future, whereas both the present tense ones do. So if you'd used きた instead, it would imply that she would stop getting cuter now. Since the author meant (in the parentheses) that the action might continue into the future, she used the present tense to indicate so rather than the past.

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  • Thanks for the awesome answer! I think its much more clear to me now. A little counter intuitive having a sentence that is not in the past, having something to do with the past, but I'll get the hang of it. Jul 29, 2016 at 17:07
  • If I recall correctly, in Japanese the same tense is used for both present and future. Context seems to determine which it is, again if I recall correctly.
    – nijineko
    Jul 30, 2016 at 1:05
  • てくる and ていく don't necessarily mean that something has been so or it happens in the moment. てきた and ていった don't particularly refer to if it has ceased but that doesn't necessarily mean it has actually ceased. ていった's open-ended nuance often implies that it has no longer something to do with the present time, which is a difference between てきた. But, as for てくる and ていく, they objectively mean the same thing.
    – user4092
    Jul 30, 2016 at 4:42

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