1. What is the Present Tense?
When writing and speaking, we use the present tense to talk about what we are doing or what’s going on now; in the present. We use certain forms of verbs to show that the timeline for the sentence is currently happening or continuing to happen. But, even in the present, things are always happening in different ways, at slightly or very different times, and over different periods—there isn’t just one way to share them! So, there are different types of the present tense that each help us specifically share when and how something is occurring.
As said above, the present isn’t just one single moment in time, and when we talk about the present we don’t always mean right now (“real time”). Really, we use the present tense to talk about a period of time; a time happening right now, continuing to happen now, or reflecting something in the past that is still relevant now. Here are examples:
- This article is in the present tense. Simple Present
- You have now read this sentence. Present Perfect
- Yes, I am talking to you! Present Continuous
- You have been reading this for 3 minutes! Present Perfect Continuous
3. Parts of the Present Tense
In the present tense, we need to conjugate our verbs so that the timeline of the sentence is clear. That means that sometimes, we need to change the form of the verb to match the tense. We also use “helping verbs,” called auxiliary verbs and modal auxiliary verbs, which “help” our main verbs make sense.
a. Auxiliary Verbs
“Auxiliary verbs” or “auxiliaries” are really just fancy names for basic verbs that we use all the time. They are simply versions of the verbs to be, have, and do:
- To be: am, are, is, be, been, being, was, were
- Have: had, has, have, having
- Do: do, did, does
Most of the time you just use these auxiliaries naturally without even noticing. Here are some examples of how they work in the present tense, with the auxiliaries in purple:
- My name is Jane.
- I am 16 years old.
- I have green eyes.
- I did well on my exam today.
You can see that the auxiliaries add grammatical meaning to these sentences. Without them, the examples really wouldn’t make sense! Imagine if we said “My name Jane”—it would just sound silly.
b. Modal Auxiliary Verbs
Like auxiliaries, modal auxiliary verbs, or modal auxiliaries, also add grammatical meaning to sentences. But, more importantly, we use them to show the likelihood of something happening in the present. The main modal auxiliaries that we use all the time are:
Here are some examples, with the modals in green.
- Jane may be cooking dinner now. Possible
- Jane can cook dinner. Probable
- Jane will cook dinner now. Definite
Without these modals, it wouldn’t be possible to express the different ways and degrees in which things happen.
c. Conjugated Verbs
To work properly in the present tense, a sentence’s main verb needs to be conjugated to fit the time. What’s more, as you now know, sometimes we need to add an auxiliary or modal to help the verb. This chart will show you how verbs are conjugated in the present tense, and how they work with helping verbs.
|Base Verb||Simple Present||Present Continuous||Present Perfect||Present Perfect Continuous|
|talk||talks||is talking||has talked||has been talking|
|hear||hears||is hearing||has heard||has been hearing|
|do||does||is doing||has done||has been doing|
|run||runs||is running||has run||has been running|
|work||works||is working||has worked||has been working|
|try||tries||is trying||has tried||has been trying|
If you want to see how these verbs work in other tenses, check out our articles on the past tense and the future tense.
4. Types of Present Tenses
As you can see, English has many more tenses than just past, present and future. Sometimes it can be hard to see the differences between them. That said, being able to understand those differences is really important! So here, we outline four of the main types of the present tense: simple present, present continuous, present perfect, and present perfect continuous. In the examples, the conjugated verbs that show the present-tense are in orange.
a. Simple Present
The simple present is the most basic way to say something in the present tense. To use the simple present we don’t always need helping verbs. The form of the sentence reflects the name of the tense—it is simple! So, a simple present sentence follows the pattern Subject + Present Verb.
We use it to talk about more general things that we do often or regularly, or to state simple facts:
- I work at the mall.
- They eat waffles for breakfast every day!
- Jane likes candy.
- She runs fast!
But, we also use the simple present tense to talk about things that happen as we speak, in what we call “real time”:
- I see you!
- Jane hears birds singing.
- That broccoli smells terrible.
- You look great!
b. Present Continuous
The present continuous tense describes actions and/or events that are currently happening or going on now; in other words, things that are continuing to happen right now in “real time.” To do that, we use a verb ending in ing. Sentences in the present continuous follow the Subject + Verb to be + ing Verb pattern:
- Jane is listening to music.
- I am eating a cheeseburger.
- They are ruining the party!
- The dogs are barking loudly.
c. Present Perfect
We use the present perfect tense to share something that happened before, but is still relevant or important now. To use it, we always place the auxiliary have before the main verb, which shows that we “have done it,” and it should be followed by the past-tense form of the main verb. It may seem confusing that even though we use a past verb, it’s still the present tense—remember, we are showing that something already happened, but still matters now!
- Jane has traveled to Rome, but she really wants to go Venice.
- I have eaten squid, but I have never eaten octopus.
- They have lived in that house for 10 years.
- He has taken the exam already.
You can also use contractions (gray) to express the same meaning. Using contractions is the more informal way to say the same thing:
- Jane’s traveled to Rome, but she really wants to go to Venice.
- I’ve eaten squid, but I’ve never eaten octopus.
- They’ve lived in that house for 10 years
- He’s taken the exam already.
d. Present Perfect Continuous
The present perfect continuous expresses actions (or events) that we have been doing and are still doing; things that have been going on and are still going on now. To use it, we need to use have and been combined with the continuous form of the verb (ending in ing) to show that we “have been” doing something. So, a sentence in the present perfect continuous follows the Subject + have/has been + ing Verb form:
- Jane has been listening to music online.
- I have been eating a lot of cheeseburgers lately.
- They have been living in that house since 2006.
- He has been taking that exam for at least 2 hours.
Like the examples in the previous section, you can also use contractions for have/has.
5. How to Write in the Present Tense
In truth, using the wrong tense is a really common mistake for writers. While it’s not hard to speak in the present tense, it’s sometimes more difficult to write in the present. The most important thing to remember is that the present tense reflects the PRESENT time, which means action that is happening right now or is continuing to happen now.
Here are some questions to help you decide whether the present tense is the right timeline for what you want to share:
- Are you sharing general information, like everyday habits, events, or facts?
- Is the action happening in “real time” (now)?
- Did the action already happen in the past, but is still relevant now?
- Has the action been going on for a while, and is still going on?
If the answer to these questions is yes, then you should be using the present tense! If not, you should reconsider which tense—past, present, or future—is best for what you are trying to express. Again, the present tense should only be used when you want to share information about the present!