Tense is a grammatical term that refers to how a verb shows the time of happening in the sentence. Every English sentence has a verb that describes an action, state, or occurrence. These can happen in one of the three time zones in which we all exist – past, present, or future – but there are more than three tenses to express further nuances in the passage of time. Different languages have different numbers of tenses and different verb systems expressing similar ideas, but in different forms. English is considered to have relatively many verb tenses, but don’t worry – they can be systematically learned for proper usage in your English writing.
Tenses interact with the grammatical concept of aspect. Aspect defines how the flow of time is viewed in the sentence. Sounds too abstract? Be patient! The following will make this much clearer. In English there are four aspects according to which the tenses can be conveniently sorted.
1. The Progressive (or continuous) Aspect views the action in the process of happening, being in the middle of things and not having completed it.
Ron is cooking dinner at the moment.
[He is still doing it and not finished]
2. The Perfect Aspect views the action as having been completed before another point in time. The action is finished but may influence what follows it.
Ron has already seen this film.
[The action is completed. It may influence our present choice of what film to see, since we don’t want Ron to see it again]
3. The Perfect-Progressive Aspect combines the qualities of the previous two. It views the action as an ongoing one that has been going on until a certain point in time and having been completed up to that point. The may influence what follows.
By 1996, Dona had been dieting rather seriously and subsequently lost a lot of weight.
[Dona was in an ongoing process that was completed in 1996. This influenced what followed – the loss of weight]
4. The Simple (or Zero) Aspect does not relate to the flow of time and merely states whether or not the action occurs.
Dona works in London.
[simple factual statement]
The names for the various English verb tenses are derived when combing time with aspect. The following is a short general overview of the tenses accompanied by examples illustrating their typical usage. Click on each tense to read the full article giving you all you need to know about each verb tense, including all the fine details.
Some argue that English only actually has two tenses, as only the Present Simple and the Past Simple change the verb form (inflect), while others make use of a variety of auxiliary verbs in order to be formed. However, for the ease of learning the tenses successfully and systematically, we use the below terminology that makes life much easier. The verb tenses in Old English were much more complicated, as verbs inflected for person, tense, aspect, and mood, as still in other languages nowadays. The verb forms in Modern English are relatively simple. A grammar checker is an excellent writing tool that provides immediate editing and proofreading, checking for any errors in tense usage.
You can think of English verb tenses as coming in pairs, each composed of a simple tense and its progressive form. Most tenses also have passive forms, but examples here (with the verb phrases in bold red) are provided in the active voice for the sake of simplicity. Remember that not all the tenses are used in the same frequency. Some are considered basic and used in daily conversation, while others are perceived as elevated language structures used in more formal settings.
• The Present Simple states that a constant, unchanging, or repeated action, state, or habit exists in the present. Adding s to verbs in the third person singular is one of the most basic English grammar rules that must always be followed. For all other persons, simply use the base form of the verb.
The sun always rises in the east.
• The Present Progressive describes an incomplete ongoing present action that is in the middle of happening, but will finish at some point. This tense is formed by using the auxiliary verb be (am/is/are) with the present participle verb form ending in ing
Dona is studying hard for her test right now.
• The Present Perfect Simple is a tricky grammar topic as it can be regarded as both a present and past tense. As a present tense, it signifies that an action started in the past and continues up to present time, in which it is completed. This tense is formed by using the auxiliary verb have (have/has) with the past participle form of the verb.
Ron has worked in the same company for 20 years.
• The Present Perfect Progressive also describes an action that began in the past and continues up to present time, in which it is (or most of it) is completed. Moreover, it stresses that the action has been going on incessantly and may also continue into the future. This tense is formed by using the auxiliary verb have (have/has) together with the auxiliary verb been and the present participle form of the verb ending with ing.
Ron has been working on the same document without a break for hours.
• The Past Simple states that an action or situation was finished in the absolute past and bears no connection with the present. The point of time in the past in which the action occurred is well defined. Most Past Simple verbs end in ed (regular verbs). Others very useful verbs have different Past Simple forms and must be learned (irregular verbs).
I visited my uncle in Paris last summer.
• The Present Perfect Simple has quite a few grammar rules you need to follow, as it can be regarded as both a present and past tense. As a past tense, it states that an action has been completed in the past, but without reference to the time of occurrence. The action may have an influence on the current state of affairs in the present. This tense is formed by using the auxiliary verb have (have/has) with the past participle form of the verb.
I have already done my homework (so now I am free to go out).
• The Past Progressive describes an action which went on during a stretch of time in the past and finished. Other actions may have happened at the same time (short and immediate or ongoing). This tense is formed by using the verb be (was/were) with the present participle form of the verb ending in ing.
While I was walking down the street yesterday, I suddenly met my boss.
• The Past Perfect Simple states that an action was completed in the past before another point in time or action in the past (the latter expressed in the Past Simple), or that the action happened in the very distant past. This tense is formed by using the auxiliary verb have (had) with the past participle form of the verb.
By the time Dona had saved enough money, she bought a new car.
• The Past Perfect Progressive describes an ongoing action that began in the past, continued incessantly, and was completed before another point in time in the past or before another more recent past action. This tense is formed by using the auxiliary verb have (had) together with the auxiliary verb been and the present participle form of the verb ending with ing.
We had been walking the streets of Paris for hours until we finally took a break.
• The Future Simple states or predicts that an action or situation will take place in the future. This tense is formed by using the auxiliary verb will with the base form of the verb. Under “Future Simple”, we can put three more future forms that convey different nuances in meaning, as the following examples show:
1. I think we will eat out tomorrow evening
[unsure future prediction, future with will]
2. We are going to eat out tomorrow evening.
[sure and intended future plans, future with be going to]
3. We are eating out tonight.
[arrangement for the near future, using the Present Progressive]
4. Our dinner at Chez Paul starts at 20:00 tomorrow evening, so be there on time!
[preset future schedule, using the Present Simple]
• The Future Progressive describes an ongoing action that will be in process around a point of time in the future. This tense is formed by using the auxiliary verb will together with the auxiliary verb be and the present participle form of the verb ending in ing.
Tomorrow at 12 o’clock I will be giving a lecture at the university so I will not be answering any calls.
• The Future Perfect Simple states that a future action will be completed before a point in time or before another action in the future. This tense is formed by using the auxiliary verb will together with the auxiliary verb have (have) and the past participle form of the verb.
Dona will have graduated from university by the end of June.
• The Future Perfect Progressive describes an ongoing future action that will continue incessantly and be completed before a point in time or before another action in the future. This tense is formed by using the auxiliary verb will, the auxiliary verb have (have), and the auxiliary verb been together with the present participle form of the verb ending in ing.
By 14:00 the cake will have been baking for 90 minutes (so don’t forget to take it out of the oven).
Another related grammatical concept here is mood. Mood (or mode) regards the relationship of the verb with reality and intent. While other languages have different verb forms for the same tenses in different moods, English does not get too complicated with moods. Some regard English as having the following four moods:
1. The Indicative Mood regards the action as actually occurring in reality, as a matter of fact. All the tenses mentioned above are in the indicative mood, which is the most prevalent in English.
2. The Imperative Mood states requests, orders, and strong suggestions.
Go there now! Do not postpone this any longer!
3. The Conditional Mood regards the action as not factually occurring in reality, but only as a result of a potential fulfillment of some condition (irreality).
• The Present Conditional (would+base verb) expresses hypothetical results, reporting what someone said, and in polite speech.
If I won the lottery, I would go on a trip around the world.
• The Past Conditional (would+ have+ past participle form of the verb) expresses hypothetical outcomes that may have occurred in the past and can no longer be achieved.
If you had told me about the party, I would have come with you (but you didn’t).
4. The Subjunctive Mood expresses desires, wishes, and assumptions that are not necessarily to be fulfilled in reality. It is used in specific figures of speech and is of little use in Modern English.
I demand that she leave at once!
If only you were here!
If that be the case, than…
Grammar Guide Index
Parts of Speech - General Overview
Singular and Plural Nouns
English Adjectives - Basic Terms
English Verbs (Part 1) - Basic Terms
English Verbs (Part 2) - More Terms
The Verb To Be
Negative Sentences and Question Formation
The Irregular Verbs in English (Part 1)
The Irregular Verbs in English (Part 2)
The Verb Tenses in English
Spelling Rules for the Verb Tenses
The Past Simple Tense
The Past Progressive Tense
Sentence Structure (Part 1) - Basic Clause Structure
Sentence Structure (Part 2) - Phrases
Sentence Structure (Part 3) - Clauses
Sentence Structure (Part 4) - Sentence Types