We are going to be looking at the various verb tenses in English and how the grammar surrounding each of them functions, allowing you to be more diverse in your speaking. If you want to reference time in speech and writing (especially in English) you will have to use different verb forms. The use of different verb forms to express different actions at different points in time is broadly considered to be the use of grammatical tenses or verb tenses. But what exactly are verb tenses and how do you use them? This article will examine verb tenses and will feature common mistakes, regional uses, examples, and a quiz on verb tenses and their forms.
What Are Verb Tenses?
In language, verb tenses are a grammatical category that expresses references to time. In English, verb tenses are used to express actions in the past, present, and future.
These categories (past, present, future) can be further divided into four smaller categories each, notably the simple, continuous, perfect, and perfect continuous tenses.
These four categories (simple, continuous, perfect, and perfect continuous tenses) apply to different referenced times and states of action. The details of these 12 categories will be explained in the following sections, but the main idea is that these tenses express ongoing, finished, progressive, or future actions.
Why Learn English Grammatical Tenses?
A verb is a relevant part of a predicate that lets you know what the subject is doing. These action words create the movement. There are short-sentence responses that contain no verb at all. But in formal writing, verbs are essential parts to construct a sentence with a full meaning.
In any language, verbs will be different depending on the tense in which they are being used and the English language is no exception to this rule. It is important to know the different verb tenses as this will allow you to speak about a larger variety of situations especially if you want to talk about something that has already happened or will happen in the future.
Verb Tenses are all used to express action that has taken place in the past, present, and future. Identifying the correct tense of the verb is just as important in achieving effective communication. Verb tenses determine when the action happens, whether it is in the past, present, or future. These three are the main tenses, and each is further divided into four aspects: simple, progressive, perfect, and perfect progressive.
The following sections will show how and when to use the 12 basic tenses in English grammar.
(Quick Overview of English Tenses – Verb Tenses Chart)
Verb Tense Examples
Here are some examples of verb tenses using the verb “to travel“.
I travel to the city.
I traveled to Boston yesterday.
I will travel to Las Vegas next year.
I am traveling to New York right now.
I was traveling to San Diego last Monday.
I will be traveling to Beijing next month.
I have traveled to many cities.
I had traveled to many countries by the time I went to college.
I will have traveled five thousand miles by the end of next year.
Present Perfect Continuous
I have been traveling ever since I joined the company.
Past Perfect Continuous
I had been traveling for years before I found a place to live.
Future Perfect Continuous
I will have been traveling for five days by the time I reach Cairo.
The 12 English Tenses
A verb only has two primary forms: the past tense and the present tense. The other tenses are constructed by adding words called auxiliary verbs, such as is, are, has, had, have, will, and many others. They are also known as helping verbs. This section shall discuss each of the verb tenses, including how they are used correctly.
This category of verb tense is probably the first and easiest to learn. Simple tense, as its name suggests, is the most basic among all other verb tenses. Simple tenses are usually, but not necessarily, accompanied by time adverbs that indicate when the action happens, happened, or will happen.
This verb tense is applied when talking about an action that already happened. It doesn’t involve auxiliary or helping verbs. There’s a list of rules in transforming specific verbs into their past forms. Most verbs in past tense contain an added “-d” or “-ed” after its base form, while some change in spelling.
- I ran towards school yesterday.
- I played the piano last summer.
- He loved her.
The simple present tense is often used to show repetitive or habitual actions and general truths. It is also used to tell an activity that is happening now and in introducing quotations. Like the simple past, it also doesn’t need auxiliary verbs to function. It may or may not be associated with adverbs of time to emphasize that the situation is currently or repetitively happening.
- I run towards school every day.
- I play the piano.
- He loves her now.
The simple future indicates an action that is bound to happen. It usually employs the words will and shall to emphasize that it is still going to happen in the future.
- I will run towards our school tomorrow.
- I shall play the piano for the upcoming recital.
- He will love her someday.
This form is also referred to as the continuous tense. It describes continuing or ongoing actions. The progressive tense is easy to identify since it uses the present participle form of the verbs, which are those ending in “-ing” and are employed as main action words.
This past progressive tense tells an action that lasted a specific time duration in the past. It can be used to express progressing events that were interrupted or ones that were happening at the same time. It’s as if you recalled something you were doing. It usually employs helping verbs in past forms, such as was and were, before the present participle form of the main verb.
- I was watching a movie when the power went out.
- You were talking while sleeping.
The present progressive conveys events that are happening now or in progress. Here, the helping verbs that are added include the words is, am, and are.
- I am watching a movie right now.
- He is still sleeping.
The future progressive indicates events that will be happening sometime in the future. It uses will be and shall be before the main verb.
- I shall be watching a movie later.
- He will be sleeping late tonight.
How to Use The 12 English Tenses Correctly
This form is the most confusing among all verb tenses. So you won’t be perplexed, note that perfect tenses always express completed actions. To readily determine that the verb is in this tense, look at how it is constructed. Perfect tenses often employ auxiliary verbs, such as has, have, and had, which are then added by a verb in its past participle form.
Past perfect tense describes an event that has already been completed before another event in the past. To form this verb tense, use the word had and then add it with the past participle form of a verb.
- They had traveled to many countries before they got married.
- The man had saved the dog by the time the rescuers came.
There are three points to remember when dealing with the present perfect tense: first, the action has already been completed, like the other perfect tenses; second, it may refer to an activity that was done in an indefinite time in the past; and lastly, it could also refer to an event that started in the past and is being continued in the present. The present perfect tense is constructed by using has/have + the past participle of the main verb.
- I have seen this place before.
- She has played the piano since she was eight.
This verb tense is not commonly used, so it may not sound correct at first. Here, you have to say an event that is going to get completed before another event. It’s like predicting that something will be finished before another thing happens. Therefore, you must accompany it with a deadline. If not, then you should instead use the simple future tense. The future perfect tense goes in this formula: will have + the main verb in past participle form.
- The performance will have ended by the time you finish your food.
- I will have completed this project three days from now.
Perfect Progressive Tense
In general, perfect progressive verb tenses express the duration or how long an action is being done. Therefore it usually includes the adverbs for and since.
Past Perfect Progressive
In this verb tense, the action started in the past and continued up until another time in the past. It follows the formula: had been + present participle form of the verb.
- The guy had been feeling sick for three years before he got treated.
- The retired officer had been serving the community for thirty years.
Learn more: Past Perfect Progressive
Present Perfect Progressive
In a present perfect progressive tense, the event started in the past but still continues at the present time. It follows the same formula as the past perfect progressive, only that you use has or have instead of had.
- The guy has been feeling sick lately.
- Recently, the officer has been serving the community well.
Future Perfect Progressive
In the future perfect progressive tense, actions continue and get completed at a point in the future. The activity may have started in the past, present, or in the future. But it is also expected to continue in the future. It goes in the form: will have been + present participle of the verb.
- The guy will have been feeling sick for three years by the time he undergoes the operation.
- In December, the officer will have been serving the community for thirty years.
Verb Tenses Chart – All Tenses in a Table
All English tenses in one useful table
Common Mistakes with Tenses
Here are some examples of common mistakes with verb tenses.
Switching between past and present tenses
In writing, it is common to recount a story or explain actions that are currently occurring. In this case, you will want to make sure to write only in a single tense for consistency, either past tense or present tense.
For example, if you were writing “They drove to my house, and I look through the window”, this would be incorrect. A more consistent way to phrase this sentence would be “They drove to my house and I looked through the window”. A consistent tense form makes for more correct writing.
Present continuous tense vs. present perfect continuous tense
One tense (present continuous) is used to indicate actions that are occurring in the present, frequently, or possibly continuing into the future. The other (present perfect continuous) indicates an action started in the past and is now ongoing.
Mistakes can occur if the speaker is not aware of the period of time they are trying to illustrate, either the actions they are performing right now, or actions they started before and are still performing.
For example, “I am cooking dinner” is the present continuous tense, indicating that the speaker is cooking dinner now, in the present moment. “I have been cooking dinner” is the present perfect continuous tense, and indicates the speaker has started cooking dinner earlier and is continuing to do so.
Present perfect tense vs. simple past tense
One tense (present perfect) indicates that actions occurred at an unspecific time in the past — or have started in the past and continued to the current time. The other (simple past) indicates actions that have simply happened before the current time.
Mistakes can occur here because the form of the present perfect tense includes the words “have” and “has” — as well as the past participle of verbs. The past participle is the main component of the simple past tense but expresses (usually) a one-time past occurrence.
For example, the phrase “I have reached a goal last year” is an example of the present perfect tense. It can be properly reduced to “I reached a goal last year” because the action is a simple one-time occurrence in the past — making the simple past tense the correct tense form to use.
American vs. British Usage of Verb Tenses
Though there are many differences between British and American English, there are some main verb tense differences that can be illustrated.
In British English, the present perfect tense is usually favored over the simple past tense. For example, in British English, “I have walked across the bridge.” would be common. In American English, the same phrase would be stated as “I walked across the bridge.”
The British English favoring of the present perfect tense extends to phrases that include already, just, and yet. In British English, “I have already seen that movie” would be common(“I have seen”). In American English, “I already saw that movie” would be common, the simple past tense is used (“I saw”).
Another difference in verb tenses between British English and American English is the use of -t- or -ed- endings in past verb participles. For example, where British English would say “I dreamt that…”, or “They leapt over…”, American English would say “I dreamed that…” or “They leaped over…”.
Learn all tenses video in English with American English pronunciation.
Verb Tenses Quiz
A. What is an example of the Future Perfect tense?
- They ran twenty miles today.
- They will have run twenty miles by the time they finish.
- They will run twenty miles tomorrow.
B. What would be common in American English?
- I have sailed across the bay.
- I have just sailed across the bay.
- I sailed across the bay.
C. What is an example of the Past Continuous tense?
- I was working on a project yesterday.
- I will be working on a project tomorrow.
- I am working on a project this semester.
Answers: A: 2, B: 3, C: 1.
- Where vs. Were: Understanding the Key Differences as Explained by Experts - May 17, 2023
- Verb Forms: What Are the Forms of a Verb in English? - February 17, 2023
- Capital Letters: Using Capital Letters with Proper and Common Nouns - June 3, 2021