Would you like to know more about verb tense? Or perhaps you're new to verbs and are starting from scratch. Either way, this guide will tell you everything you need to know to ace verb tenses.
This guide is part of our free online Grammar Book.
Verbs are the most important part of a sentence since they are the only type of word that is compulsory to form a sentence. Mostly though, a sentence is formed of a subject and a predicate. The predicate part of the sentence is where the verb is.
In English, there are 12 verb tenses, and they all represent different ways of modifying a verb such that it tells us when the verb is taking place and whether the action is completed or still ongoing, or if it's simply telling a fact.
Let's learn more about those.
Firstly, there are three main tenses in English grammar.
Here's a simple way of summarizing this. The past tenses help you talk about an event that has already taken place or started in the past. The present tenses help you talk about something that is either happening right now or true to this day. And the future tenses help you talk about events that are yet to happen.
But in reality, it's not that simple. For example, the present tense can also allow you to talk about future tenses. But we'll get into that later.
For now, let's look at some examples.
I was at the mall all day. [past tense]
She is feeling a little under the weather today. [present tense]
We will ask him tomorrow. [future tense]
As well as the three main tenses, there are four verb aspects that allow you to add even more information to the verb.
They help us know whether the action is in progress or completed, if it's about to end, what was happening when it ended, and many more things.
We'll go into all of these as we learn about each tense individually.
Are you ready to dive into each of these?
Before we dive in, I wanted to mention contractions. For each tense, I'll give you the formula for making that tense.
Though I won't mention it each time, note it's perfectly acceptable to use the contracted version of the word instead of the full word. The same goes for the negative form of words.
All the past tenses are going to help you talk about something that happened in the past. But each tense will help you do it slightly differently.
Firstly let's look at the simple past, which is also known as the past simple or the past indefinite. Yes, so many different terms to talk about the same thing!
To form the simple past tense, you just need to take the root form of the verb and add -ed. Or, if the verb already ends in -e, just add -d.
Here are some examples of sentences in the simple past tense:
She walked home after a long day at work.
He stormed to his bedroom and slammed the door behind him.
The dogs looked up at me with their puppy eyes and I couldn't resist.
This is the rule for regular verbs in affirmative sentences. To find out about exceptions, irregular verbs, and other types of sentences, check out the article we dedicated to this tense.
Nonetheless, here are some sentence examples with irregular verbs so that you know what they look like.
The player caught the ball mid-air and made a run for it.
I went home early as I was tired.
The adults thought the game was a bit silly but the kids loved it.
The past perfect tense is also used to talk about an event in the past. But it goes one step further than that. See, with the past perfect, and you can talk about an event that happened in the past before another event in the past.
This is what it'll look like in a sentence:
Susan had laid out her clothes for the next day before going to bed.
In the sentence above, there are two events: the laying out of the clothes and the going to bed. Laying out the clothes happened before going to bed, which is why we've used the past perfect tense with the verb 'layout' to show that it happened first. Make sense?
Here are a couple more examples to be sure.
I couldn't get into my car because I had lost my keys.
They had been married five years when they had their first child.
Notice that the last example is the passive form of the past perfect.
The past continuous tense - also known as the past progressive - refers to events that took place in the past. But as the word 'continuous' suggests, those events continued.
In other words, the past continuous tense is used to talk about events that went on for a while in the past. But they are over now.
We were working on our secret project last night.
Sorry I couldn't chat on the phone last night; my head was hurting like crazy.
I was dancing around my kitchen like a nutter when he walked in.
Notice that the last example represents two past events: something that was taking place and the moment something else happened. You can also use the past continuous tense to talk about something that happened often.
As a kid he was always talking about how he was going to be famous one day.
Or to talk about things that went on over a period of several years:
I was studying towards my masters back then.
Top Tip! You can't use continuous tenses with stative verbs, like 'believe,' 'know,' 'love,' and 'need.'
The past perfect continuous tense is similar to the past perfect tense in that it allows you to talk about an event that happened in the past before another event in the past. But the difference is that with the past perfect continuous, you'll talk about an event that was happening continuously in the past before another event in the past.
It's formed using 'had been' followed by the present participle tense of the verb you want to use.
In a sentence, it'll look like this:
It had been raining for hours when we left the house, so needless to say our wellies got very muddy.
How long had you been waiting when the bus arrived?
This tense is also a great way to show a cause-and-effect relationship between two events in the past:
The dog smelled terrible because it had been for a dip in a pond.
Great! Now we've gotten through one tense, it's going to be pretty easy to get through the others because the same principles apply.
With that said, let's move on to the present tense, which, as you may have guessed, is used to talk about things that are true today or that are happening right now. One thing you might not expect, though, is that the present tense can also sometimes be used to talk about the future.
Let's dive in.
The simple present is also known as the present simple and the present indefinite. It's used to state a general fact that is true today and will remain true into the future until something happens to make it untrue.
This tense is formed using just the root form of the verb for all pronouns except the third person singular, for which you add -s, -es, or -ies depending on the verb (to find out more, check out our article dedicated to this tense).
The exception is the verb 'to be,' which has a completely random conjugation and goes like this:
Here's an example of a sentence in the simple present tense:
You look beautiful.
As you can see, the simple present tense is pretty... well, simply. It simply states a fact. It doesn't get into what happened before or after or introduce events to change the fact; it just states the fact.
Here's another example:
She takes her son to baby yoga every Monday.
Again, the sentence simply states a fact. Of course, this might not remain true forever, but it isn't the simple present's job to get into that. If you wanted to talk about events that could occur to change this fact, you might use the simple future or the past continuous tenses. But the present simple just keeps it simple.
Here's one more example:
I feel amazing today!
But that isn't the only thing you can do with the present simple tense. You can also use it to talk about events in the future. These must be events that are certain to take place, though. You can't use the simple present to make speculations about the future.
Take the following sentence, for example:
The bus gets me there at 6.30 on Thursday.
Thursday is a day in the future, yet we're using the simple present 'gets,' and that's a grammatically correct sentence. It's exactly the same as saying:
The bus will get me there at 6.30 on Thursday.
This tense is quite commonly used, although you might not know it because it sounds more complicated than it is. Having said that, there are a few conventions you should be aware of when using it, and we'll get into those.
That could be either because the action is not yet finished or because you're talking about a habitual thing, something you started doing in the past and continue to do on a regular basis.
We have celebrated Christmas since the day the children were born.
To form this tense, use 'have' or 'has' (depending on the pronoun used) paired with the past participle of the verb you want to use.
Here are some more examples:
I have written five chapters of my new book so far.
We have just finished washing the dishes.
Note in the final example that although this event is over, it only just got finished. So yes, the present perfect can also be used to talk about events that were completed very recently.
You can also make a present perfect sentence in the passive voice:
This protocol has been used many times and with great success.
The present continuous has a couple of different uses, just like the present simple: you can use it to talk about both present and future events.
To make it, use 'am,' 'is,' or 'are,' depending on which pronoun you're using, and add the present participle of the verb you want to use.
If using the present continuous to talk about the present, this might be either an event that is literally taking place as you speak, or it could be something that you're doing "at the moment."
Here's an example of the former:
I am walking to your house.
And an example of the latter:
I am walking a lot these days.
If using it to talk about the future, it should be to talk about an event you are sure is going to take place because you have already decided on it or it is scheduled.
I am walking to your house on Saturday.
The present perfect continuous, though it's a bit of a mouthful to say, is not as terrifyingly complicated as it sounds. In fact, it's a pretty helpful tense if you ask me.
To form this tense, use 'have' or 'has' depending on the pronoun, followed by 'been,' than the present participle of your chosen verb.
Let's take a look at some example sentences that use this tense.
I have been following you on Instagram for years.
He has been watching me for days.
You have been reading that book for ages. What a slow reader you are!
Future tenses are great for talking about things that are going to happen or become true in the future. This tense has the same four aspects as the three other tenses, and the same principles are going to apply, so it shouldn't be too difficult to keep up.
The future simple is the most basic form of the future tense and is super easy to put together and use.
To form this tense, use 'will' followed by the root form of the verb.
I will see you tonight at the conference.
She will be devastated to learn the news.
They will adapt to the new culture in no time.
This is where things get interesting. Imagine if you wanted to talk about something that's happened in the future but after another event in the future. Sound confusing? Let me put it a different way. What if you know that the race starts at 2 pm but you won't arrive until 3 pm, and therefore you'll arrive after the race has started? This is where the future perfect comes in! And it'll look something like this:
The race will have started when I arrive.
To form it, use 'will' followed by 'have' and the past participle of the verb you want to use.
Here are some more sentence examples:
I will have read the entire book by the end of the day.
By the time you read this, I'll have left.
Just like the other continuous tenses, the future continuous is used to talk about something that takes place continuously at the stated moment in time.
To form this tense, use 'will be' followed by the present participle of the verb you want to use.
Here are some examples:
At this time next week we will be basking in the sunshine on a sandy beach.
I won't be able to attend as I'll be teaching a class at that time.
I'm sad to hear you won't be living here anymore after the summer.
Note that in the last example, won't replaces will because it's a negative sentence, and that's also a completely acceptable way to form the future continuous.
As I'm sure you've grasped by now, the perfect aspect is very useful for talking about two different events on a timeline and their relationship to one another because you can talk about what's happening when something else happens.
And the continuous allows you to talk about an ongoing event or something that is in the process of happening.
To form it, use 'will have been' followed by the present participle of the verb you want to use.
By the time I get an appointment I will have been on the waiting list 18 months.
We will have been working together for 10 years this coming September.
When she turns thirty she will have been playing basketball for 20 years.
You might have noticed that in the formulas I've listed for forming each verb tense, there are some verb forms that haven't been mentioned in this article.
These are not verb tenses, which is why I haven't mentioned them yet, but it's still important for you to know what they are since they're necessary for forming certain verb tenses.
The root form is the most basic form of a verb: it's the infinitive minus the 'to.' It's the word you'd want to type if you were looking up the verb in the dictionary.
Here are some verb roots:
In other words, it's the verb before it's been changed into any tense. The root verb form can be used in the present tense:
I walk my dog around the park every morning.
The imperative mood:
Listen to me.
The subjunctive mood:
I would prefer that he stay with me.
The present participle form is the one with the -ing ending. Take the root form of a verb and add -ing, and you've got your present participle form. At least, that's the case for regular verbs. To find out about exceptions and irregular verbs, check out this article.
Present participles can function as adjectives:
I'm performing in a singing competition on Friday.
Or creating other tenses:
Why are you dyeing your hair pink?
We have been working all day.
Past participles are the ones that end in -ed. Take the root form of the verb and add -ed, and you've got your past participle form. To form the past participle out of irregular verbs, check out this article.
Past participles can also function as adjectives:
There's no use crying over spilled milk.
And to form other verb tenses:
I have worked here for decades.
They will have booked a ticket in time for the concert.
It can also be used to form the passive voice:
This cup has been used too many times.
Now you have a grasp on all twelve tenses of the English language, you'll be unstoppable!
Let's summarize what we've learned:
If you'd like to learn more about verbs, such as better understanding regular vs irregular verbs or deep diving into the different types of verbs that exist, you're in for a treat. Check out our Grammar Book, a free online database where we go into detail about complex grammatical concepts, and make them easy to understand and use.