Grammar Guide: Verb Tenses

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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

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.

Present Tense:

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

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The present tense is also used for facts that are true at the present time.

work at a retail shop. He works at a retail shop.

present2

Lastly, the present tense is used to demonstrate something scheduled in the immediate future.

The train departs soon.

present3

Past Tense:

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.

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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.

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.

past2

Future Tense:

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.

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Progressive/Continuous Tense

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.

Present Progressive:

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.)

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Past Progressive:

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.)

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Future Progressive:

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.)

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Perfect Tense

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.

Present Perfect:

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.)

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Past Perfect:

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.)

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Future Perfect:

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.)

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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.)

presentperfectprogressive1

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.)

pastperfectprogressive1

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.)

futureperfectprogressive1

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. 

Final thoughts

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!

Form Helping Verb Base Suffix Example
Present (Singular)
Simple verb -s* He works
Progressive is verb -ing He is working
Perfect has past participle
Progressive Perfect has been verb -ing He has been working
Present (Plural)
Simple verb They work
Progressive are verb -ing They are working
Perfect have past participle They have worked
Progressive Perfect have been verb -ing They have been working
Past (Singular)
Simple verb -ed He worked
Progressive was verb -ing He was working
Perfect had past participle He had worked
Progressive Perfect had been verb -ing He had been working
Past (Plural)
Simple verb -ed They worked
Progressive were verb -ing They were working
Perfect had past participle They had worked
Progressive Perfect had been verb -ing They had been working
Future (Singular)
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
Future (Plural)
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

Posted in Grammar Guides.

10 Comments

  1. Very nicely put together – I’m going to use this with my ESL student to try to clarify some things we’ve been going over (after I change “progressive” to “continuous” – no need to add confusion). It’s hard to explain some of these details to non-English speakers when it comes so naturally to native speakers without even knowing the rules being employed reflexively.

  2. Haha, very true. I know I had to sit down for a couple of days and essentially teach it to myself. I use these things all day, every day–it’s just hard to sit down and EXPLAIN it in a concise manner to someone else. Thank you, and good luck!

  3. You’re absolutely right–sung is the participle. Thanks for pointing that out. I edited the post to reflect your comment.

    I suppose sometimes no matter how often I read over a post, I may still miss something! :-D Thanks again!

  4. As I long ago discovered, typos (and the like) spontaneously generate and reproduce overnight. Nobody can win. :)

  5. Kelly this is a nicely designed post. Unfortunately many of your definitions of the tenses are incorrect. Present simple for example is not used to refer to something which is happening now. We never say “He works today.” Present simple is used for general truths, habits and things which apply for a long period of time e.g. I am a teacher, I live in England, I am Italian etc.

    Also your definition of past participle “Past participle just means the basic past tense form of the verb (such as worked).” is also wrong. Your explanation of Perfect tenses is also confusing and incorrect. And what about the other ways of speaking about the future?

    I confess I stopped reading at this point because there seemed to be far too many mistakes to bother pointing out. I’m not sure you are doing such a good job of safeguarding the English language with this post.

  6. Can you point to a better post to help me understand, and thus educate, better? Criticism is only helpful when done constructively.

  7. Kelly, I can recommend an excellent book which helps clear up how the different tenses in English are used. ‘Concept Questions and Time Lines.’ by Graham Workman, published by Chadburn. It uses a similar concept to the past-now-future timelines that you and your husband have constructed and also uses concept checking questions to really underline how and why the different tenses are used.

    I tend to use books rather than the internet as a source for this kind of teaching material so I can’t point you at a posting or website which I know to be reliable. There are lots of good grammar books out there and many of them give excellent descriptions of how the tenses are used. I use the one I have cited above a lot and also use ‘English Grammar in Use.’ by Raymond Murphy, published by Cambridge University Press.

    I am sorry if my first post seemed a bit abrupt; there is so much information on the English language on the internet but much of it is error ridden and this does get a little frustrating at times.

  8. I understand your frustration. I hope to become one of the less error-ridden sites, so I appreciate the recommendation. Thanks!

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