Today’s post will explore the different verb tenses and how they function. A verb is an action word, but the action can happen in the past, present, or future. Those “time frames” are what we call tenses. To a native English speaker, verb tenses may seem relatively easy, but in all honesty, they can be pretty complicated. Generally, we’ll know if something sounds right, but we won’t be able to define whether it is simple present, perfect present, progressive present, or perfect progressive present (say that three times fast!). This post should help define these terms (and others) for you. Plus we have a nifty little chart at the end that you can print out and refer to! This chart gives you the basic formula for forming these tenses. Be sure to read the post first, so you understand HOW they work and not just how to put them together. Let’s read on to see what these crazy tense things mean!
Simple Tense is exactly what it sounds like–simple. It’s essentially the “base form” of a verb. It is the easiest form to remember, because there are very few changes from past, present, and future. The point of reference is the same as the point in time it is referring to.
Basic form (used with first person “I,” second person “you,” or plural subjects). For example, “work.” If the subject is in third person (s/he), add an -s to the end, like “works.”
I work today. He works today
The present tense is also used for facts that are true at the present time.
I work at a retail shop. He works at a retail shop.
Lastly, the present tense is used to demonstrate something scheduled in the immediate future.
The train departs soon.
Basic form + ed. This works with any subject. Be careful though, because there are some irregular verbs that do not take the -ed suffix. For example, the past tense of sing is sang.
I worked yesterday. They worked yesterday.
Simple past tense is also used for facts that were true in the past, but are no longer true. This may also include a specific time-frame.
I worked at a retail shop for three years when I was younger. He worked at a retail shop for three years when he was younger.
Will + basic form. You do not need to add an -s suffix for future tense. It will always be the base form with “will” before it.
I will work tomorrow. He will work tomorrow.
Progressive Tense shows movement in time. It illustrates that something doesn’t happen at a point in time, but rather over an extended, unspecified period of time. That period of time could be in the past, it could have started in the past and moved to the present, or it could be in the future. The progression usually happens during or around a particular reference point for a continuous period of time.
Is + basic verb form + ing. This indicates that someone is doing an action in the present. It differs from perfect tense (which you’ll see later!) because it is not necessarily being COMPLETED in the present. Notice, depending on your subject, is may be am (for first person) or are (for second person and plural).
I am reading a book. She is reading a book. (She is currently reading for an unspecified period of time. The reference point is the present.)
Was + basic verb form + ing. This shows an action that started in the past and ended at a different time in the past. Plural and second person uses were. This focuses on the progression of the action itself.
He was eating dinner when I called. You were eating when I called. (The reference point is when I called. He was already eating at that point.)
Will + be + basic verb form + ing. This means, at some point in the future, the subject will be performing the action until some point further in the future. You don’t need to worry about if the subject is plural or singular in this case.
They will be singing in tomorrow night’s performance. (The reference point is the performance which is taking place tomorrow.)
Perfect Tense shows completion in some way. It shows something that has been completed in the past, present, or will be completed in the future. The action could have gone over an extended period of time, but it has an ending point. However, there may not be a specific time specified.
Has + past participle. Past participle just means the basic past tense form of the verb (such as worked). If the subject is plural or in first or second person, you will use have instead of has. This illustrates that something happened in the past, but we’re referring to it in the present.
She has worked on her paper a lot this week. (She is no longer working on the paper.)
Had + past participle. There is no plural form for “had,” so it will work for all subjects. This form indicates that something happened in the past and has completed.
She had seen the movie before reading the book. (Don’t get confused by seen, which is the past participle of “see.” Both her seeing the movie and you seeing the movie together has been completed.)
Will + have+ past participle. You will always use have in this case. This is a point that will start in the future and continue onward into the more distant future.
She will have been in college for ten years before graduating with a Ph.D. (Although the time period may have started in the past, the “completion” point is in the future.)
Perfect Progressive Tense
Let me be honest–this is where it gets ridiculously confusing. It’s a combination of perfect and progressive tenses (hence the name!). Remember how I said perfect tense focuses on completion of something? Well this focuses on the completion of something as part of a progression in time. It’s important to note that these usually work in reference to something else. It’s a bit awkward sounding, but it has its purpose–I swear! I’ll explain further in the examples.
Present Perfect Progressive: has + been + base verb + ing. Basically, this shows that a subject has been doing an action for an extended period of time, and that it is being completed in the present. For first person, second person, or plural, you will use have instead of has.
She has been working for five hours nonstop. (This example shows that she started working five hours ago, and while the action isn’t necessarily COMPLETED in the present, it is focusing on the present. Remember how perfect focused on a particular point? This is the same thing. It’s showing the progression of five hours, but focusing on the present.)
Past Perfect Progressive: had + been + base verb + ing. In this case, an action started in the past and resulted in something else that happened in the past. The emphasis is on that “something else.”
She had been working for ten years before she was promoted. (Notice that the reference point is her promotion and that she was working for ten years before that.)
Future Perfect Progressive: will +have + been + base verb + ing. Ridiculous, right? Right. So basically this shows the progression of something in the future, with a particular reference point at the end of the progression.
She will have been working for ten years before she gets promoted. (In this case, the ten years continues into the future, and the reference point is the promotion.)
NOTE: The difference between past/future perfect and past/future progressive perfect is that past/future progressive perfect has a specific time constraint (e.g., for 2 hours) whereas past/future perfect does not.
So this post took a couple of days to do, and was a joint venture of my husband and me (he’s the chart master!). I know it’s a little confusing and complicated, but be sure to check out the images and the chart to help you through it. Be sure to bear in mind that there are some discrepancies because of irregular verbs, and there other things such as gerunds and modals that are not covered in this post. Good luck!
|Progressive||is||verb||-ing||He is working|
|Progressive Perfect||has been||verb||-ing||He has been working|
|Progressive||are||verb||-ing||They are working|
|Perfect||have||past participle||They have worked|
|Progressive Perfect||have been||verb||-ing||They have been working|
|Progressive||was||verb||-ing||He was working|
|Perfect||had||past participle||He had worked|
|Progressive Perfect||had been||verb||-ing||He had been working|
|Progressive||were||verb||-ing||They were working|
|Perfect||had||past participle||They had worked|
|Progressive Perfect||had been||verb||-ing||They had been working|
|Simple||will||verb||He will work|
|Progressive||will be||verb||-ing||He will be working|
|Perfect||will have||past participle||He will have worked|
|Progressive Perfect||will have been||verb||-ing||He will have been working|
|Simple||will||verb||They will work|
|Progressive||will be||verb||-ing||They will be working|
|Perfect||will have||past participle||They will have worked|
|Progressive Perfect||will have been||verb||-ing||They will have been working|