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How do I differentiate between future tense and present tense. For example, the sentence:

私は魚を食べる

If I am not mistaken, the above sentence can either mean "I will eat fish" or "I eat fish".

Also, if I am not mistaken, conjugating the verb to the ます form only aims to make the sentence polite and doesn't actually change the tense or meaning. For the case of the example above, the sentence becomes 私は魚を食べます, which can again either mean "I will eat fish" or "I eat fish" in polite form.

I have read that generally, context will tell me whether the sentence is referring to the present or future tense. But take the example above, from just that one sentence (assuming someone tells me just that one sentence in the example), how do I determine what the tense of the sentence is?

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I think @Eiríkr Útlendi's answer gives a good general answer.

If we look at 私は魚を食べる specifically: if it's said without anything else, I would interpret it as an explanation of what the speaker does (usually) ("I eat fish (in general)"), because it's uncommon to say 私は if you are not generalizing.

If it's literally only 魚を食べる, I would think it's creating a context for what comes next in a narration etc. (a rhetorical technique). E.g.: 魚を食べる。自然との対話である。. This is because not abbreviating を is uncommon if you are just stating your intent (but it is common in the mentioned context).

If you want to say you are eating a fish right now, then it would be 魚を食べている. If someone wants to say they will eat a fish, they would say 魚食べる (which is equivalent to 魚を食べる - but abbreviating を is more common in this context). This will imply it's in the future (as you are not eating the fish right now).

So in conclusion: the most frequent form you hear would be 魚食べる, and if I hear that in complete isolation my bet would be that the person intends to eat a fish in the near future. The next likely meaning would be a general statement, like if they were asked a question (「アザラシって何食べるの?」).

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If I am not mistaken, the above sentence can either mean "I will eat fish" or "I eat fish".

Correct.

... conjugating the verb to the ます form only aims to make the sentence polite and doesn't actually change the tense or meaning.

Correct. ます is a conjugation form that affects the social context of the sentence (indicating details about who is speaking and who is listening, and also sometimes who the sentence is about), but not the tense (i.e. the time when the action occurs) or aspect (i.e. the completedness, repetitiveness, etc. of the action).

... from just that one sentence (assuming someone tells me just that one sentence in the example), how do I determine what the tense of the sentence is?

Japanese has no future tense. It just doesn't exist as a feature of the language. Japanese is often described as having a past tense, where verbs end in -ta, and a non-past tense, where verbs end in -u. So in answer to your question, that one sentence is in the non-past tense.

Note that past tense itself is sometimes the wrong term for words ending in -ta. Consider a sentence like: 明日、このプロジェクトが‍終わった‍後、(なにか)しましょう / "Tomorrow, after this project has finished, let's do (something)." Here, 終わった clearly has the -ta ending, but we're talking about tomorrow, so it can't be about the past. This is where we instead have to talk about aspect: in this case, the -ta ending doesn't describe tense, or when the action happens, but rather aspect, which could be various other dimensions of verb-ness: completion, repetition, ongoing state, so-called "telic" action with distinct before-and-after states (like "change" or "pick up") or "atelic" action with no such clear distinction (like "work" or "sleep"), etc. etc.

More at Wikipedia about grammatical aspect, grammatical tense, and the non-past tense.

Update

In response to a comment, let's look again at the core questions:

How do I differentiate between future tense and present tense?

Context. Grammatically, there is no difference between future and present tense in Japanese. See the older portions of this post above for further details on that.

But take the example above, from just that one sentence (assuming someone tells me just that one sentence in the example), how do I determine what the tense of the sentence is?

You don't.

If you're translating into English, your options are to either pick a tense, or translate in both tenses and add an explanatory note.

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    Your example has to be 明日(には)このプロジェクトは終わっているはずだ. Perhaps you want to replace it with something like 明日このプロジェクトが終わったらパーティーをしよう. – naruto Oct 30 '18 at 2:53
  • @naruto: Dough mow. :) – Eiríkr Útlendi Oct 30 '18 at 3:27
  • @Eiríkr Útlendi Thanks for the insight especially on the -ta ending and it's aspect. Regarding the 3rd point related to non-past tense verb, using the same example above, if a guy were to tell me that sentence (私は魚を食べります) and nothing else, it can either mean “he eats fish”(not a vegan maybe?) or “he will eat fish” (sometime in the future). Is there no way to ascertain whether what he meant was the former or the latter, without adding context, say without prefixing 明日? – Newbie Oct 30 '18 at 10:29
  • While the answer does provide a good insight, it still doesn't really answer the main question, and therefore I can't accept it yet – Newbie Jul 25 at 18:51
  • @Newbie, I've added a portion to more explicitly address your questions as stated. – Eiríkr Útlendi Jul 26 at 5:07

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