Verbs: Tenses

Introduction

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.

Twelve Tenses

The following chart breaks down all twelve tenses. For the examples we’ve used the regular verb to walk and the irregular verb to sing:

Past Present Future
Past Simple

I walked / I sang

Present Simple

I walk / I sing

Future Simple

I will walk / I will sing

Past Continuous

I was walking / I was singing

Present Continuous

I am walking / I am singing

Future Continuous

I will be walking / I will be singing

Past Perfect

I had walked / I had sung

Present Perfect

I have walked / I have sung

Future Perfect

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.

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 make 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.

Aspect

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.

Simple

The simple aspect describes a simple fact:

He drove.

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.

Continuous

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.

Perfect

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.

Perfect Continuous

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.

More Information

For more information, please check out the individual pages for each verb tense (by clicking on the tense of your choice):

Past Present Future
Past Simple

I walked / I sang

Present Simple

I walk / I sing

Future Simple

I will walk / I will sing

Past Continuous

I was walking / I was singing

Present Continuous

I am walking / I am singing

Future Continuous

I will be walking / I will be singing

Past Perfect

I had walked / I had sung

Present Perfect

I have walked / I have sung

Future Perfect

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

 

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