There are 12 main tenses in the English language, the result of the following combination of tenses and aspects:

  • Present
  • Past
  • Future
  • Present perfect
  • Past perfect
  • Future perfect
  • Present progressive
  • Past progressive
  • Future progressive
  • Present perfect progressive
  • Past perfect progressive
  • Future perfect progressive

The Simple Verb Tenses

To begin, let’s take a closer look at the simple present, past, and future verb tenses. 

Present

The simple present tense indicates actions that are habitual or generally true.

  • I like sushi.
  • The weather in Texas is hot.
  • When we visit Bologna, we walk under miles of porticos.

In particular, notice the use of the simple present when stating a habitual action. It would sound incorrect to say, “I eat pasta,” in response to the question, “What are you doing right now?” Instead, you would use the progressive tense: “I am eating pasta.” 

You do use the simple present to describe a routine action, though.

  • He paints portraits.
  • I eat fresh strawberries in the summer.
  • The dogs bark whenever she takes a conference call.

You also use the simple present with stative verbs , which indicate possession, senses, emotions, or states of being.

  • I love that new song.
  • That shirt belongs to me.
  • She thinks spinach is delicious.

Past 

The simple past tense indicates an action that is already complete. To form the past tense of a regular verb in English, you add the suffix “ed.” Sadly, for ESL speakers, there are a number of irregular verbs that do not follow this rule, such as felt, came, and thought.

  • I donated to the food drive yesterday.
  • He felt nauseous after riding the roller coaster.
  • Thousands of Chinese immigrants came to the United States in the nineteenth century.

Future 

The simple future tense indicates an action or state of being that will take place in the future. You form it by adding auxiliary words (such as “will,” “shall,” or “am going to”) to the main verb.

  • I am going to love my trip to Hawaii.
  • The principal shall make the announcement tomorrow.
  • He’ll bring a casserole to the potluck if you don’t have enough food. 

The Progressive Verb Tenses To describe actions that are ongoing in the past, present, or future, you apply the progressive aspect to each of the three simple tenses. The three progressive tenses can be formed by adding the correct form of the auxiliary verb “to be” to verbs ending in “ing.”

The Progressive Verb Tenses

To describe actions that are ongoing in the past, present, or future, you apply the progressive aspect to each of the three simple tenses.

Present Progressive

The present progressive tense describes an ongoing action that is happening right now. The action began in the past and will continue into the future.

  • She’s filing the divorce papers.
  • I’m checking my social media accounts.
  • The neighbor’s dog is barking loudly and enthusiastically.

Past Progressive

The past progressive tense indicates an action that was ongoing in the past. It began at some point and may continue after a second action has taken place.

  • She was talking to her friend when their biology class ended.
  • I was watering my plants when three cop cars sped down the street.
  • They were driving up the coast when it began snowing so hard they could barely see.

Future Progressive

The future progressive tense indicates an ongoing action that will take place in relation to some future event.

  • I will be coming home for the holidays.
  • She’ll be heading out the door the minute she wins the lottery.
  • We will be singing the same song, undoubtedly, when our daughter graduates from college. 

The Perfect Verb Tenses

The perfect verb tense describes an action or state of being that is finished or already completed. You form each of the three perfect tenses by adding the correct form of the auxiliary verb “to have” to the past participle of the verb. Perfect tenses can be used with dynamic or stative verbs.

Present Perfect

The present perfect tense indicates an accomplishment, experience, or action that occurred over an indefinite period of time. The action may have ended sometime before the present moment or may still be happening. The present perfect and the simple past are sometimes used interchangeably in the English language. In fact, the difference between them boils down to context.

  • I have been horseback riding.
  • The train has been delayed until future notice.
  • The English language has been transformed several times since the Anglo-Saxon invasion.

Past Perfect

The past perfect tense indicates that a past action was completed before another action took place.

  • Gwen had invested in the company just before it went bankrupt.
  • We had argued for peace, but the opposition decided to wage war.
  • I had fixed the drywall cracks before the mud storm shifted the home’s foundation again.

Future Perfect

The future perfect verb tense indicates an action that will have been completed in some future time.

  • The dogs will have been fed before we arrive home.
  • She will have been exhausted by playing with her nieces and nephews.
  • By the time we see their light, stars will have been already alive for billions of years.

The Perfect Progressive Verb Tenses

The perfect progressive tense describes an action that occurred in the past and is ongoing in relation to some past, present, or future point in time. While the perfect tense indicates a completed action, the three perfect progressive tenses describe continuous action.

Present Perfect Progressive 

The present perfect progressive tense describes an action that began in the past and is still ongoing in the present.

  • I have been watching Netflix all morning.
  • They have been trying to build their new desk.
  • The lawyers have been eager to get the testimony of a key witness.

Past Perfect Progressive

The past perfect progressive tense describes an action that was ongoing in the past but stopped before the present time, often because of another action.

  • They had been working until the pizza arrived.
  • I had been shopping for Christmas presents until I exceeded my credit limit.
  • She had been daydreaming about visiting Italy for so long that it felt strange to actually be there.

Future Perfect Progressive

The future perfect progressive tense indicates an action in the future that will be ongoing and may continue past the time of another event, though the second future event often implies the cessation of the event that is ongoing.

  • I will have been working for ten hours by the time I go to bed.
  • The legal team will have been compiling research even if the parties agree to settle.
  • She will have been eating meat for 40 years if she decides to become a vegetarian in the New Year.

6 thoughts on “Your best guide for the verb tenses

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