Tenses

1. What are tenses?

Everyday we speak about things we did in the past, things we are doing now, and things we are going to do in the future. We do so by using verb “tenses” that indicate time—the past tense, the present tense, and the future tense. With each tense, we change the form of the verb (called “conjugating” the verb) to express the timeline of the sentence.

 

2. Examples

To express when things happen, we need to conjugate our verbs differently. Here are examples of the three main verb tenses, with the verbs in orange:

  • Sally called me.      Past Tense
  • I talked to Sally.      Past Tense
  • Sally calls me.      Present Tense
  • I call Sally.      Present Tense
  • Sally will call me. Future Tense
  • I will talk to Sally. Future Tense

As you can see, the form of the verbs change with each tense. To make this easier to see, we can add a specific time to the sentence:

  • Sally called me yesterday.
  • I talked to Sally yesterday.
  • Sally calls me every day.
  • I talk to Sally every day.
  • Sally will call me tomorrow.
  • I will talk to Sally tomorrow.

 

3. Parts of Tenses

Verbs themselves only change form between past and present tense, so we need other words to help show the time or situation. When changing verb tenses we use “helping verbs,” called auxiliary verbs and modal auxiliary verbs, which go alongside the main verb. They help the main verb make sense in a sentence.

a. Auxiliary Verbs

Sometimes using just a verb isn’t enough for a sentence to work. So, auxiliary verbs exist to add grammatical meaning or make other verbs function properly. Without them, a lot of sentences just wouldn’t make sense. They come in three main groups: to be, have, and to do.

To be: am, are, is, be, been, being, was, were
Have: had, has, have, having
Do: do, did, does

Here are some examples, with and without auxiliary verbs:

  • Sally is calling.      Correct
  • Sally has been calling.      Correct
  • Sally was calling.      Correct
  • Sally calling.      INCORRECT
  • Sally did call.      Correct
  • Sally call.      INCORRECT
  • Sally called.      Correct
  • Sally has called.      Correct

You can see that without auxiliary verbs, some of the sentences just don’t make sense!

b. Modal Auxiliary Verbs

Basically, modal auxiliary verbs show if something will likely happen, might happen, probably happen, definitely happen, and so on. The main modal auxiliaries are: can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, and would. Here are so examples, with the modals in gray.

  • Sally could call soon.      Likely happen
  • Sally may call soon.      Might happen
  • Sally should call soon.      Probably happen
  • Sally will call soon.      Definitely happen

 

4. Types of Tenses

As you now know, there are three main tenses in English: past, present, and future. But, within each tense are further types that help us share what we want to say more accurately: simple, continuous, perfect, and perfect continuous. So, English actually has many more tenses than the ones below, which is what makes it so hard to keep track of them sometimes! To begin, the chart below will give you an overview of the differences between the tenses, using the regular verb “walked”, and the irregular verb “read.”
Remember:

  • The past tense lets us speak about things that have already happened (in the past).
  • The present tense lets us speak about things that are happening right now (in the present).
  • The future tense lets us speak about things that will happen later (in the future).
Verb TenseExample 1Example 2
Simple PastSally walked home Sally read the book
Past ContinuousSally was walking homeSally was reading the book
Past PerfectSally had walked homeSally had read the book
Past Perfect ContinuousSally had been walking homeSally had been reading the book
Simple PresentSally walks homeSally reads a book
Present ContinuousSally is walking homeSally is reading a book
Present PerfectSally has walked homeSally has read the book
Present Perfect ContinuousSally has been walking homeSally has been reading the book
Simple FutureSally will walk homeSally will read the book
Future ContinuousSally will be walking homeSally will be reading the book
Future PerfectSally will have walked homeSally will have read the book
Future Perfect ContinuousSally will have been walking homeSally will have been reading the book

a. Simple Tenses

The simple tenses are the most basic way of writing and speaking. They express that something happened/is happening/will happen during the specific time being talked about in the sentence:

  • Past: Yesterday Sally walked home from school.
  • Present: Sally walks home from school on Tuesdays.
  • Future: Sally will walk home from school tomorrow.

b. Continuous Tenses

The continuous tenses let us express something that is, was or will be happening continuously. This means that the action in the sentence will still be going on at the time being talked about:

Past: Sally was walking home when Sam called.
Present: Sally is walking home now.
Future: When Sam calls, Sally will be walking home.

c. Perfect Tenses

Perfect tenses let us express that something happened before the time being discussed in the sentence that affects what is now happening in the sentence. It usually shows that since something happened, something else can happen.

Past: By the time we were ready to leave school, Sally had walked home.
Present: Sally has walked home; let’s go meet her now.
Future: Sally will have walked home by the time we finish work tonight.

d. Perfect Continuous Tenses

Perfect continuous tenses let us express something that had been/has been/will have been going on for some time, and is still going on during the time the sentence is talking about:

Past: When she turned 15, Sally had been walking home from school for 10 years.
Present: Sally has been walking home from school since she was 5.
Future: By the time she turns 15, Sally will have been walking home from school for 10 years.

 

5. How to Avoid Mistakes

People commonly make the mistake of switching between the tenses when they shouldn’t. So, there’s one important thing to remember to help you avoid that: DO NOT change tenses in a sentence, unless you are changing the timeframe. Keeping to the same verb tense is called “verb tense consistency”; and it includes auxiliaries and main verbs. Mixing together tenses in a sentence can make the timeframe unclear, which makes the sentence confusing. Here are some examples to help you avoid these mistakes:

  • Sally walked home and reads a book. INCORRECT
  • Sally walked home and read a book. Correct
  • Sally was walking home and is reading a book. INCORRECT
  • Sally was walking home and was reading a book. Correct
  • Sally is walking home and is reading a book. Correct

Test your Knowledge

1.
The _______ tense lets us talk about things that will happen

a.

b.

c.

2.
The _______ tense lets us talk about things that already happened.

a.

b.

c.

3.
The _______ tense lets us talk about things that are happening.

a.

b.

c.

4.
, add the proper form of the verb “jump” (and an auxiliary verb, if necessary) to match the tense.

Simple Past: The rabbit _________ over the fence.

a.

b.

c.

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