StudySmarter - The all-in-one study app.
4.8 • +11k Ratings
More than 3 Million Downloads
Tenses are an important part of English grammar - they indicate when an action, event, thought, or feeling happened or will happen.
Today we will explore the three main tenses: past, present, and future, including their functions and structures. We will also look at a key component of tense, called aspect, as well as how to form tenses using inflections.
Tense is a grammatical term used to describe time; that is, whether an action or state happened in the past, is happening in the present, or will happen in the future. Tense is not limited to this, but these are its basic uses.
We can show different tenses with the use of inflections and auxiliary verbs. We will cover these in detail throughout this article, but let's take a look at some quick definitions of these terms now.
Inflections - A type of morpheme (meaningful group of letters) added to a base word to express a grammatical meaning or change. For example, in terms of tenses, we add the morpheme 'ed' to regular verbs to show that the action happened in the past, e.g. walk becomes walked.
Auxiliary verbs - Verbs used alongside the main verb to add extra information; they are sometimes called 'helping verbs'. For example, we use the auxiliary verb 'will' to express the future tense.
Some grammarians state that the future tense isn't really a tense at all and is just a modification of the present tense. However, it is now widely accepted and taught that the future tense is one of the three main tenses in English.
When we combine the three main tenses with aspects we are left with twelve different tenses. Before we list these twelve tenses, let's take a quick look at aspects.
Grammatical aspects - Aspects are used to show how an action, event, or state extends over a period of time. For example, did the action begin in the past but has still not finished or is it an ongoing action?
The twelve tenses are:
The present simple, present continuous, present perfect, and present perfect continuous.
The past simple, past continuous, past perfect, and past perfect continuous.
The future simple, future continuous, future perfect, and future perfect continuous.
Let's now look at the three main tenses in detail before moving on to tenses and aspects.
The past tense shows that an action (or state of being) happened (or existed) in the past.
We can also use the past tense to talk about habitual actions or events in the past that were repeated or occurred regularly.
We used to go to Scotland at weekends
She would always fall asleep at school
Let's look at some examples of different variations of the past tense.
I hiked up Everest yesterday
She had danced all night
We went to London for New Years' Eve
James had been walking for miles
I walk → I walked
I stay → I stayed
I like → I liked
I use → I used
Things are a bit more tricky with irregular verbs, such as 'run → ran' and 'be → was/were/been' which don't follow the same inflectional rule. We just have to memorise the spellings for these irregular verbs.
We will cover irregular verbs in more detail later on!
The present tense shows that an action (or state of being) is happening (or exists) in the present (e.g. 'I'm going to the shops' or 'I live in Liverpool').
It can also be used to talk about the future (e.g.' The train leaves at 10 pm tonight' ) or about the past (e.g. 'So, the other day I'm walking down the road when I see this dog running towards me' ). We can also refer to a habitual action or event using the present tense. This is something that is repeated or happens regularly. For example, 'I normally go to the library on a Wednesday'.
In literature, the present tense can be used to make the reader feel more connected to the story. Take this sentence for example: 'Joe feels a sense of dread as he walks slowly over to the shadow lurking in the distance'. As the story is happening in the present, you feel the suspense and the unfolding plot in 'real-time'.
Let's look at some examples of some variations of the present tense.
I play the piano
Sarah is coming to dinner tonight
He has been to the cinema today
I am going to the zoo to see the tigers
Ritchie has been building a wall
We must add the inflection -s when using the third person singular (he/she/it).
I play → He plays
I understand → She understands
I dance → It dances
We can also add the infection -ing to base verbs to form the present continuous tense (sometimes called the progressive tense). We use this verb pattern to talk about an ongoing action in the present or to discuss future plans.
We are learning about tenses.
I am reading.
I'm seeing my friend tomorrow.
The future tense is used to express an action (or state of being) that has not yet happened but is expected to happen in the future.
Let's look at some examples of different variations of the future tense.
We're going to Edinburgh together.
They will have cooked dinner by the time we're home.
Sam will be a good doctor when he's older
Ben will have been teaching for 5 years in September.
As we previously mentioned, some grammarians argue that there is no future tense, just ways of expressing the future using combinations of other tenses and aspects. This is because inflections aren't added to the base verb to form something called the 'future tense', as they are for the present and past tenses. Instead, we use modal auxiliary verbs, such as 'will', 'shall' and 'going to', to describe future events, actions, and states.
They dance → They will dance
She goes to work → She will go to work
I play chess → I shall play chess
He is riding his bike → He is going to ride his bike
I'm seeing Sarah on Tuesday
Irregular verbs are verbs that don't follow the rule of adding the inflection -ed/d to form the simple past or past forms.
There are quite a few irregular verbs in English; let's look at some examples.
I go (present tense) → I went (past tense) → I have gone (past participle)
I break (present tense) → I broke (past tense) → I have broken (past participle)
I quit (present tense) → I quit (past tense) → I have quit (past participle)
These examples show how varied irregular verbs can be. For regular verbs, we can simply add -ed/-d for to the base form of a verb (Verb 1) for both the past simple tense (verb 2) and past participle (verb 3). For example, I dance (present tense/base form) → I danced (past tense) → I have danced (past participle).
However, things aren't as simple in the case of irregular verbs which often differ in spelling between the present, past, and past participle. Unfortunately, there is no rule for irregular verbs, you simply have to remember them!
The past participle is the form of the verb which we see in the perfect and passive forms. It expresses a completed action and is often preceded by an auxiliary verb such as has/had. For example, 'you have eaten ' or ' he has left'.
Each of the three main tenses (past, present, and future) is divided into four aspects. Aspect shows the time-related characteristics of a sentence such as whether a verb is ongoing, repeated, or completed.
We can classify tenses into four different types: simple, continuous (progressive), perfect, and perfect progressive (continuous).
Let's take a look at the functions and some examples of these aspects in more detail.
The simple tense simply expresses that an action has taken place in the past/present/future. In other words, it states a fact. There are no aspects so we are not given information about 'how' the verb is done.
I walked (simple past)
I walk' (simple present)
I will walk (simple future)
The perfect aspect expresses a completed action, one that occurred prior to a specific point in time . We can form the perfect aspect using the auxiliary verbs 'had', 'has', or 'will have' + the past participle of the verb.
The past perfect looks back from a point of time in the past, e.g. 'I had walked '.
The present perfect looks back from the present time, e.g. 'I have walked'.
The future perfect looks back from a time in the future, e.g. 'I will have walked'.
The continuous aspect expresses an ongoing, uncompleted action. We form the progressive aspect using the correct form of the verb ' to be' (depending on the tense) and the inflection '-ing' added to the main verb.
I was walking (past continuous)
I am walking (present continuous)
I will be walking (future continuous)
The perfect continuous aspect expresses that an action started in the past is continuing into the present. A perfect continuous sentence is formed with the auxiliary have / has / had with the auxiliary verb been (past participle) together with the main verb e.g. 'walking' (with the -ing inflection).
I had been walking (past perfect continuous)
I have been walking (present perfect continuous)
I will have been walking (future perfect continuous)
Past (simple) tense- e.g. ' I worked yesterday'
Past continuous (progressive) tense- e.g. 'I was working yesterday'
Past perfect tense- e.g. 'I had worked yesterday'
Past perfect continuous tense- e.g. 'I had been working yesterday'
Present (simple) tense- e.g. 'I work'
Present continuous (progressive) tense- e.g. 'I am working'
Present perfect tense- e.g. 'I have worked'
Present perfect continuous tense- e.g. 'I have been working'
We often refer to past events using the present perfect tense , however the tense indicates a link between the present and the past as we are most interested in the result of the action (eg. ' I've already seen this film' could suggest that you don't want to watch it again!).
The present perfect continuous also suggests an ongoing link between the past and present, as the action starts in the past and continues into/affects the present (e.g. 'Sorry I'm late, I have been working')
Future (simple) tense- e.g. 'I will work'
Future continuous (progressive) tense- e.g. 'I will be working'
Future perfect tense- e.g. 'I will have worked'
Future perfect continuous tense- e.g. 'I will have been working'
Here is a revision sheet showing further examples of the 12 tenses in English. Study how the different tenses are formed using different verb inflections and sentence constructions:
|Past Tense||Present tense||Future Tense|
|Simple (action has taken place)||I danced||I dance||I will dance|
|Continuous / progressive(an ongoing, uncompleted action)||I was dancing||I am dancing||I want to be dancing|
|Perfect (a completed action that occurs before a specific point in time)||I had danced||I have danced||I will have danced|
|Perfect continuous(an action started in the past is continuing into the present)||I had been dancing||I have been dancing||I will have been dancing|
Notice how these examples have the same subject and verb, but the verb inflections and sentence constructions show us what tense is being used.
Let's have a look at this conversation and see if we can identify different tenses by considering the use of verb inflections and the formation of the sentences.
Why weren't you answering my calls?
I have been to the cinema, I'm going to go again tomorrow
I was waiting for you all afternoon!
Well I'm here now, so let's hurry
Can you spot the different tenses? Below you can see where the different tenses are used.
Why weren't you answering my calls? (past continuous tense)
I have been to the cinema (present perfect tense), I'm going to go again tomorrow (future simple tense)
I was waiting for you all afternoon! (past continuous tense)
Well I'm here now, so let's hurry (present simple tense)
Tenses (past, present, and future) have developed over years and have formed into what we now know as the twelve English tenses. Not all languages have tenses - for example, Chinese has no verb conjugation or inflection - other languages use different numbers of tenses. Arabic and Japanese use two basic tenses rather than three and some languages even have more than three tenses.
Did you know that there is a language in Australia that features six basic verb tenses? The language is called Kalaw Lagaw Ya and uses the tenses remote past, recent past, today past, present, today / near future, and remote future.
Tense is normally shown through the use of a particular verb form. This is normally through either an inflected form of the main verb (where the verb is modified to express different categories like tense, aspect, etc.) or a multi-word construction (where separate words contain the meaning of prefixes, suffixes, or verbs). Some verb forms are made by combining inflected verbs and multi-word patterns.
'walked' - an example of an inflected verb (-ed forms the past tense)
'will walk' - an example of a multi-word pattern (the word 'will' forms the future tense)
'will have walked' - an example of a combination of inflection and added words (the words 'will have' and the inflection '-ed' forms the perfect continuous tense)
Why is it so important to use tense accurately? Let's take a look at the following passage ...
We went to the cinema yesterday. We are walking there but were already late. Quickly, we will run inside so we could buy some popcorn before the movie starts. Once we were inside the cinema, Dan is sitting down but dropped his popcorn. It will go everywhere!
What do you notice about this extract?
The tenses are all jumbled up! As you read it;'s obvious something isn't right. Here's a key of which tenses are being used in which sections of the extract.
We went to the cinema yesterday. We are walking there but were already late. Quickly, we will run inside so we could have bought some popcorn before the movie starts. Once we were inside the cinema, Dan is sitting down but dropped his popcorn. It will go everywhere!
Hopefully, this short extract shows you how important the accurate use of tense is and how confusing it can be when tense is used inaccurately.
Tense is a grammatical term used to show whether a sentence (or verb) refers to an action that happened in the past, is happening in the present, or will happen in the future.
There are four aspects; simple, progressive (continuous), perfect, and perfect progressive (continuous).
We show tense through the use of inflections and verb patterns. For example, we add the inflection '-ed' to regular verbs to form the past tense ('I walk' → 'I walked' ) and we can add the words 'will/shall' to form the future tense ('I walk '→' I will walk').
The perfect aspect expresses a completed action that occurs before a specific point in time. We can form the perfect aspect using 'had', 'has', or 'have' + the past participle of the verb. For example, 'I had walked' (past perfect tense), 'I have walked' (present perfect tense), or 'I will have walked' (future perfect tense).
Verb tense is just another word for tense itself. It refers to when the action takes place - either in the past, the present, or the future. Tense is used to show when an action/state is happening.
The present perfect tense is a combination of present tense and the perfect (completed) aspect. It refers to an action that either occurred in the past or began in the past but is still continuing.
There are three tenses in English, subdivided into twelve verb patterns (some people call these twelve patterns 'tenses' as well). Past, present, and future tense each contain four subcategories of verb aspects (simple, continuous/progressive, perfect, perfect continuous/progressive).
Tense is a grammatical term that shows whether an action (or a verb) has happened, is happening, or is going to happen. In other words, tense tells us if something is in the past, present, or future.
What are the three main tenses?
Past tense, Present tense, and Future tense.
Which one of the following is a verb tense?
Perfect past tense.
Continuing past tense.
Which of the following is an example of present tense?
We walked to the shops.
I am running.
I’m going to go for a walk.
What tense shows something will happen?
Which word type commonly shows tense?
What are the two most common tenses?
Past and present.
Which of the following is a subcategory of present tense?
Standard present tense.
Simple present tense.
What tense is a flashback written in?
What happens when you mix tenses inaccurately?
It can easily confuse the reader.
Which of these is not a subcategory of future tense?
Future (simple) tense.
Future perfect continuous/progressive tense.
Continuing future tense.
Which of the following completes this sentence in the past tense: When you phoned, I ______________ in the garage.
Which of the following completes this sentence in the present tense: The phone ___________ while I’m in the bath.
What are the four subcategories of present tense?
Simple present tense, perfect present tense, continuous/progressive present tense, and perfect continuous/progressive present tense.
Why do writers need to use tense?
Because without it there would be no timescale or time setting for the text.
How could this sentence be changed to past tense? We will go out tomorrow.
Yesterday, we went out. (or similar answer)
Identify the tense:
'I have been working since 4 pm'
Present perfect continuous tense
Identify the tense:
'She will be driving tomorrow'
Future continuous tense
Identify the tense:
'She cleans the room'
Present simple tense
Identify the tense:
'He will have eaten lunch by the end of the day'
Future perfect tense
Identify the tense:
'She was smiling all day'
Past continuous tense
Be perfectly prepared on time with an individual plan.
Test your knowledge with gamified quizzes.
Create and find flashcards in record time.
Create beautiful notes faster than ever before.
Have all your study materials in one place.
Upload unlimited documents and save them online.
Identify your study strength and weaknesses.
Set individual study goals and earn points reaching them.
Stop procrastinating with our study reminders.
Earn points, unlock badges and level up while studying.
Create flashcards in notes completely automatically.
Create the most beautiful study materials using our templates.
Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.