In English there are twelve tenses (or forms). Each one is characterized by its tense (past, present, or future) and its aspect (simple, continuous, perfect, or perfect continuous).
Native speakers intuitively grasp which tense is correct. ESL students have a much harder time. However, everyone can benefit from understanding what makes each tense unique.
The following chart breaks down all twelve tenses (with links to the relevant lessons). For the examples we’ve used the regular verb to walk and the irregular verb to sing:
I walked / I sang
I walk / I sing
I will walk / I will sing
I was walking / I was singing
I am walking / I am singing
I will be walking / I will be singing
I had walked / I had sung
I have walked / I have sung
I will have walked / I will have sung
|Past Perfect Continuous
I had been walking / I had been singing
|Present Perfect Continuous
I have been walking / I have been singing
|Future Perfect Continuous
I will have been walking / I will have been singing
Note that another name for the continuous is the progressive tense.
While there are twelve tenses, we also use the word tense to refer specifically to the present, past, and future tense.
The way to think about these tenses is that they are the point in time from which an action is measured. The action might take longer, and its actual timing may even surprise you, but the tense makes sense from the perspective of the speaker.
For instance, if you say “I have been studying guitar” (present perfect continuous), then the action clearly happened in the past, but it is being measured in relation to the present moment. It may even spill over in the present, as the speaker is likely still studying the guitar.
Similarly, if you say “I am leaving soon” (present continuous) you are using the present tense, even though you are describing an action that will take place in the future.
In other words, the concept of tense is flexible, so be prepared for some odd uses.
The aspect of a verb refers to how the action relates to time. Some actions happen just once, others are repeated, and still others extend over a longer period of time. The aspect indicates how the action extends over time.
The simple aspect describes a simple fact:
I love chocolate.
The simple aspect doesn’t say anything about whether the action is finished or continued for a certain amount of time. That’s why the simple aspect is not all that specific, and we often have to add more context to make sense of what is going on:
He drove for an hour before I took the wheel.
The continuous or progressive aspect describes actions that take place over a period of time and may be unfinished:
I am writing a book about Mozart.
In this example, the act of writing is a process that is incomplete and takes a certain amount of time.
To form the continuous aspect, use a present participle and one or two helping verbs. Note, however, that not all verbs have a continuous forms. For more information, check out our lesson on stative and dynamic verbs.
The perfect aspect describes a completed action:
We had performed a funny skit.
She will have finished her course by then.
To form the continuous aspect, use a past participle and one or two helping verbs.
The perfect continuous combines elements of the previous two aspects. The action has an element of continuation, but it also has an end point. It is a completed action that takes place over a certain amount of time:
We had been watching Youtube videos, when suddenly the teacher walked in.
You can form the perfect continuous by combining the present participle with a number of helping verbs.
For more information, please check out the individual lessons for each verb tense.