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The 12 basic English tenses

basic English tenses

The 12 basic English tenses

It can be grouped into four main categories: present, past, future and perfect tenses. Each of these categories has its own unique characteristics and is used to indicate a specific time or action. We have the present tenses, the past tenses, and the future tenses. In this lesson, we are just going to focus on the perfect tenses.

Present tenses

Present tenses are used to describe actions that are currently happening or are always true. The present simple tense is used to describe actions that are regularly occurring, while the present continuous tense is used to describe actions that are currently happening.

  1. Present simple
  2. Present continuous
  3. Present perfect
  4. Present perfect continuous

There are several present tenses in English grammar:

  • Present simple: Used to describe habits or general truths, e.g. “I walk to work every day.”
  • Present continuous: Used to describe actions happening at the moment of speaking, e.g. “I am walking to work right now.”
  • Present perfect: Used to describe actions that started in the past and continue to the present, e.g. “I have walked to work every day this week.”
  • Present perfect continuous: Used to describe actions that started in the past and are still continuing, e.g. “I have been walking to work for an hour.”

Past tenses

Past tenses are used to describe actions that have already happened. The past simple tense is used to describe actions that have been completed, while the past continuous tense is used to describe actions that were happening at a specific point in the past.

  1. Past simple
  2. Past continuous
  3. Past perfect
  4. Past perfect continuous

There are several past tenses in English grammar, including the simple past, past continuous, past perfect, and past perfect continuous.

The simple past tense is used to describe actions or states that were completed in the past. For example, “I walked to the store.”

The past continuous tense is used to describe actions that were happening at a specific time in the past. For example, “I was walking to the store when I saw my friend.”

The past perfect tense is used to describe actions that were completed before another action in the past. For example, “I had finished my homework before I watched TV.”

The past perfect continuous tense is used to describe actions that were ongoing up until another past action or point in time. For example, “I had been studying for the exam for three hours when my friend called.”

Future tenses

Future tenses are used to describe actions that will happen in the future. The future simple tense is used to describe actions that will happen at a specific point in the future, while the future continuous tense is used to describe actions that will be in progress at a specific point in the future.

  1. Future simple
  2. Future continuous
  3. Future perfect
  4. Future perfect continuous

There are several future tenses in English grammar, including the simple future, future continuous, future perfect, and future perfect continuous.

The simple future tense is used to describe actions or states that will happen in the future. For example, “I will walk to the store.”

The future continuous tense is used to describe actions that will be happening at a specific time in the future. For example, “I will be walking to the store at 6 PM.”

The future perfect tense is used to describe actions that will be completed by a specific time in the future. For example, “By next year, I will have finished my degree.”

The future perfect continuous tense is used to describe actions that will have been ongoing for a certain amount of time in the future. For example, “By this time next week, I will have been working on this project for ten days.”

Comparing the Simple Past and Present Perfect Tenses: Understanding the Differences in Usage and Meaning

  • The simple past and present perfect tenses: Both tenses are used to describe actions that occurred in the past, but the present perfect is used to indicate that the action has a connection to the present, while the simple past does not. For example, “I have been to France” (indicating you’ve been to France and it’s still relevant now) vs “I went to France” (just a past action)

Exploring the Similarities and Differences between the Past Continuous and Past Perfect Continuous Tenses: Understanding the Context and Usage

  • The past continuous and past perfect continuous tenses: Both tenses are used to describe actions that were ongoing in the past, but the past perfect continuous is used to indicate that the action was ongoing before another past action or point in time. For example, “I was studying when he called” (past continuous) vs “I had been studying for three hours when he called” (past perfect continuous)

Comparing the Future Simple and Future Continuous Tenses: Understanding the Differences in Usage and Meaning of Future Actions

  • The future simple and future continuous tenses: Both tenses are used to describe actions that will happen in the future, but the future continuous is used to indicate that the action will be happening at a specific time in the future. For example, “I will go to the store” (future simple) vs “I will be going to the store at 6 PM” (future continuous) can show you how similar they are which makes them easier to learn.

And the groups become more challenging as we continue. So if we build a really strong foundation with the simple tenses, the more complex tenses are easier to learn.

For example, if you really want to understand the present perfect, first you need to understand the present simple and the past simple.

First, let’s start with the grammatical structures.

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Present simple, past simple, future simple.

Present simple

Subject + the bare infinitive + the base verb. Remember the bear infinitive is verb number one.

For example:

Eat, ate, eaten. Eat is verb number one.

Remember for he, she, or it, you need to add s or es to your verb.

If I choose a different verb, watch. Again, for that third person, you need to add s or es. In this case he, she, or it watches. Keep that in mind.

I wake up at 6 am every day.

I do not wake up at 6 am every morning. (Negative)

Do you wake up at 6 00 a.m. every morning? (Interrogative)

Past simple

Subject + the past simple verb.

The past simple verb is verb number two.

Again, verb number two ate. And you can see it’s the same for all subjects. That makes the past simple and easy.

I woke up at 6 am every morning.

I did not wake up at 6 am every day. (Negative)

Did you, did you wake up at six am every day? (Interrogative)

Future simple

Subject + will + base verb

As above, we already looked at the base verb. We use will + base verbs with all subjects, which makes things easy.

I will wake up at 6 am every morning.

I will not wake up at 6 am every morning. (Negative)

Will you wake up at 6 am every morning? (Interrogative)

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Be is the most common verb in English, so let’s take a look at a mini reminder.

Be in the present: I am, you are, he/she/it is, we are, they are.

Be in the past: I was, you were, he/she/it was, we were, they were.

Be in the future: I will be, you will be.

So the grammatical structures for the simple tenses are pretty simple, and of course, in this lesson, I will keep all the structures highlighted for you.

Let’s look at these tenses on a timeline: We use the simple tenses for habits, repeated actions, and for things that are always true – like facts.

Do habits change often? No.

Do repeated actions change often? Not really. Do facts change often? No.

I wake up at 6 am every day. This is normal for me.

I woke up at 6 am every day, it was normal for me.

Future: I will wake up at 6 am every day.

Do we need to give a specific time with the simple tenses? With the present simple it’s already clear we mean now, in the present. Do we need a specific time with the past simple? In the context of the conversation or text, yes. So to make this example complete I will give you a specific time.

When I was in high school I woke up at 6 am every day. For the future simple, yes, we also need a specific time. It can be in the same sentence, or somewhere in the conversation or text. It needs to be clear somewhere. Starting the 15th of January I will wake up at 6 am every day. Let’s do another example:

  • Students do their homework online.
  • They don’t use pen and paper, they do their homework online.

Here it’s clear we’re talking about now, the present period. Students did their homework online. This would mean now, they don’t. Students will do their homework online.

Again for the past simple and the future simple let’s give a specific time, we need a bit more detail. Students did their homework online – When? During the pandemic, but now they don’t need to.

  • Students will do their homework online beginning in May.

We’ve looked at repeated actions like waking up or doing homework, but these tenses can also be used to describe states.

What is a state? A state is a situation or an opinion, or a feeling. Do states change often? No, present simple, I have long hair. Is this a repeated action? No, it’s a state, I have long hair.

I had long hair until I turned 18.

Past state, and I’m giving you a specific time until I turned 18.

I had long hair and now I have short hair.

For example: In future simple, in a few years, you will have long hair. Imagine, now you have short hair, in a few years you will have long hair. That will be your future state. Here’s another state. Amanda is our team leader. Last year Amanda was our team leader. Specific time, last year. Next week Amanda will be our new team leader.

Your turn to write, here’s your homework, try to think of personal examples.

Repeated actions with present simple. What is something you do every day, every month, every week, or every year?

I cook every day. That’s not a really exciting example but it’s true, I cook every day.

Past simple: What is something you did or didn’t do every day, every month, and every year in the past?

When I was a kid I never ate the crust on toast.  I hated crust. Now I eat the crust.

Future simple: What is something you will do? What do you think will become one of your habits in the future?

I will, next year I will floss more.  These are repeated actions/habits. Let’s look at states.

Present simple: What is something you enjoy? I enjoy pop music. Past state: What is something you had when you were a little kid?

When I was a little kid, specific time, I had a doll.

Future state: What will Earth be like in one thousand years?

Earth will be different, so use these questions here to practice. If you want, give me a few examples down below.

It’s clear we use all three of these tenses again for repeated actions, habits, and states. But the past simple and the future simple can also be used for single actions.  Not repeated actions, not states.

I made an omelette for my breakfast. One action.

The chef will prepare something delicious for us. Single action.

I bought a new phone yesterday. Single action.

I will buy a new phone after my birthday. Single action.

Do we always know what will happen in the future? No, so we often use the future simple for those single actions or promises, or predictions. Common mistake: I buy a new phone today. Can we use the present simple for a single action?  No, not in this case. But, there’s always but, this is special – we can use the present simple for a scheduled future event. Yes, the future.

Our train leaves at nine.

And here we see the present simple used for a scheduled future event.

We’ve looked at three scheduled future events.  Are these events something you have control over?

We can’t control when our train leaves. We can’t control when the movie starts, and we can’t control when our classes start. So that present simple can be used for a single future action, but it’s something that’s scheduled, it’s not something we can control.

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Simple tenses review:

We can use simple tenses for habits, repeated actions, and states. I live in an apartment, I lived in an apartment, and I will live in an apartment. With the past simple and the future simple you do want to include a specific time somewhere in the conversation or context.

The past simple and the future simple can also be used for a single action.

I arrived on time for the meeting.

I will arrive on time for the meeting.

But because we don’t always know what’s going to happen in the future, that future simple is often used for predictions and promises. And finally, the present simple can be used for a future scheduled event. Like

My bus leaves in 10 minutes.

Present continuous. Past continuous. Future continuous.

Present continuous.

Subject: Am/are/is + verb (ing).

Remember to choose am/are/is depending on your subject.

Example:

I am talking to you.

I am not talking to you. (Negative)

Are you talking to me, or am I talking to you? (Interrogative)

Past continuous.

Subject: Was or were plus verb (ing).

Again you need to choose was or were, depending on your subject.

I was talking to you.

I was not talking to you. (Negative)

Were you talking to me? (Interrogative)

Future continuous.

Subject + will be + verb (ing).

The interesting part is we use will be for all subjects.

I will be talking to you.

I will not be talking to you. (Negative)

Will you be talking to me? (Interrogative)

So we have the grammatical structures.

How do we use these tenses? We need a timeline.

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Present continuous. Past continuous. Future continuous.

We use continuous tenses for an action happening during a specific period.

Present, let’s choose now. Now I am talking to you.

Past continuous. Let’s choose 2 p.m. yesterday.

Yesterday at 2 p.m. I was, I was talking to you.

Future continuous. Let’s choose 2 p.m. again, tomorrow.

Tomorrow at 2 p.m.

I will be talking to you.

Can you see how similar the tenses are? We just need to change the period. The present, the past, or the future. Are these actions permanent or temporary? Permanent means long-term or forever. Temporary means are short-term.

So do you think these actions are permanent or temporary? These are temporary.  Continuous tenses express a temporary action or situation. They are not permanent or repeated actions like the simple tenses.

Do we need a specific time with these tenses? With the present continuous, it’s clear we’re speaking about the present, but for the past continuous and future continuous you do want to have a specific time. Either in the same sentence or somewhere in the context of the conversation, or texts. Like

Yesterday at 2 pm.

Tomorrow at 2 pm.

Let’s do another set of examples. Now it’s getting dark. Getting dark means becoming dark. It’s getting dark, now this is happening, hey you can’t see me…

Yesterday at 7 pm it was getting dark. In one hour (future). In one hour it will be getting dark.

Permanent or temporary? Temporary.  It doesn’t get dark forever.  Let’s do one more example. In class, we are working on addition and subtraction. We can also use a present continuous to speak about the general present, perhaps not this exact moment. Period: Last month. Last month we were working on addition and subtraction.

Next month, we will be working on addition and subtraction. Well, now you are studying the 12 basic English tenses,  but try to think of a different one. For example,

Now I am standing in my office. This is not permanent, it’s temporary. I really want to sit down soon.

What were you doing at 3 p.m. yesterday? (Past)

I was picking my kids up from school.

What will you be doing three hours from now? I will be making dinner probably…

So we know continuous tenses are temporary. But you want to ask yourself why are you using a continuous tense, and what is important about the period.

For example, let’s look at a few of my examples from earlier.

I am talking to you, why would I need to say this? Maybe I’m talking to someone and they’re looking at their phone, I can say: I’m talking to you, can you please stop looking at your phone? My action now is important.

Did you go jogging after work? No, I didn’t leave the office until 7 p.m. and it was getting dark.

I don’t feel comfortable jogging that late in the evening. Now it makes sense why someone would use this tense. The Continuous tenses can be the main action, but many times they are the background action. There is another main action that happens at the same time or the main action interrupts that background action. We usually see this with the past continuous and the future continuous.

What happened? I was holding a cup of coffee on the couch when my son bumped into me, so I spilled my coffee. We had that background action. That’s not really the main action that’s just giving us a bit of background. The main action is my son bumped into me. I really want to show you the power of the past simple and past continuous combination.

I’ll be having dinner with my boss. But what if I say I’m hungry, I’m wanting some breakfast?

basic English tenses

Stative verbs and their use in making sentences

The students were knowing all of the answers. I know Kira will be loving the party. Want? Know? Love? These are stative verbs.

Stative verbs, what are stative verbs? Stative verbs describe states. These can be our feelings, our thoughts, and our emotions. They are the opposite of dynamic verbs.  Dynamic verbs like eat, play, run, and work. Let’s take a look at a list of stative verbs.  You can see you want, know, and love here.

Again, just like the present simple, stative verbs describe states which don’t change often. These are not used in continuous tenses. So here, these sentences are not correct. We need to use simple tenses. Some verbs can be stative and dynamic.

We need to look at the present continuous and be going to for future plans.

I am going to meet Jake and Ellen for dinner tonight.

Present continuous, I’m meeting Jake and Ellen for dinner tonight.

What’s the difference? Native speakers use both of these forms interchangeably all the time, and they are both correct. But let’s get really picky, let’s get super specific. Be going to plus verb one, is often used with a future intention.

Present continuous is more definite. What do I mean by that? I have three days off next week, I’m gonna stay at home and watch movies all day.  This is my intention. Whether I do this or not, I don’t know. Teacher: I’m excited about tomorrow, I’m taking my students to a museum.

Here, the present continuous is more definite.

I have my lesson planned, and I know the museum I’m going. You might hear someone use will for a future plan, but it’s generally not the accepted form.

Let’s compare, finally, we can start comparing tenses. I work in a hospital. I am working in a hospital.

I worked in a hospital. I was working in a hospital. I will work in a hospital. I will be working in a hospital.

The simple tenses. Present simple, past simple, and future simple are permanent.

I work in a factory. This is my life. This is where I live. This is where my office is.

It’s the same thing for the other tenses. I worked in a factory that was my life, my office was there.

I couldn’t go to the office party because I was working in a factory, that week. A temporary feeling.

I will work in a factory, this will be my new future life. I will be working in a factory, temporarily.

I can’t go to the Mesa party because I will be working in a factory. My main office is in Mesa but here, temporarily, I’ll be working in a factory.

Review:

The Continuous tenses express a temporary action during a specific period. I am studying now. I was studying this morning. I will be studying tonight.

The continuous tenses can be the main action, but many times with the past continuous and future continuous, they express the background action.  These background actions are either interrupted by a main action, or the main action happens at the same time. For example

We were talking about John when he walked into the office.

You can meet me after work, I’ll be waiting in Starbucks.

The present continuous can also be used for a future plan. Many times this is a personal plan, we’re not speaking about a prediction or a promise or a future habit or state.

Next week I’m visiting my grandmother.

I can also use be going to + base verb.

Next week I’m going to visit my grandmother.

These are often used interchangeably, but if we want to be super picky, be going to often express an intention, the present continuous is more definite.

Present perfect, past perfect, future perfect.

Present perfect: subject + have or has + the past participle.

Remember to choose to have or has depending on your subject.

I have not eaten at a restaurant. (Negative)

Have you eaten at a restaurant? (Interrogative)

Past perfect: subject + had +  past participle.  The good news is we use had for all subjects.

I had eaten at a restaurant.

I had not eaten at a restaurant. (Negative)

Had you eaten at a restaurant? (Interrogative)

Future perfect:  subject + will have + past participle.

Again, the good news is we use will have it for all subjects. I will have eaten at a restaurant.

I will not have eaten at a restaurant. Will you have eaten at a restaurant?

So we have the grammatical structures, and in this lesson, I will keep the structures highlighted for you – of course. So how do we use these tenses?  Here I have my timelines: Present, past, and future.

I have eaten at a restaurant, I had eaten at the restaurant, I will have eaten at a restaurant.

The perfect tenses are really special because they emphasize an action before something else.

Present perfect, before now. Past perfect, before another past point.

Future perfect, before another future point.  You can really see how similar these three are.

Let’s do these one at a time.

Present perfect, I have my timeline with the past and the present.

I have been to Paris. Kim has taken the TOEFL exam. My parents have seen my new house.

He has finished his homework. I know what some of you are thinking, isn’t this the same as in the past simple? All of these actions happened when? Before the present. Do we know specifically when? No, but before now is relevant.

What do I mean by that before now is relevant?  There is a connection between past actions and the present. So let’s break this down, why would I say I have been to Paris?

Maybe I’m having a coffee break at work and one of my colleagues keeps talking and talking and talking and talking about our trip to Paris. And she says to me: Arnel you have to go to Paris, you need to go to Paris. I can say: I have been there, I have been to Paris, in fact, I have been there three times. So you can stop talking about your trip now. I’m emphasizing before now I have been there. I’m telling her I have had this experience.

Let’s do another example, why would I say he has finished his homework?

Maybe two parents are talking. Dad: Is it that Louis is playing video games?

Mom: Yeah, he has finished his homework. Do we know specifically when? No, we don’t care about when. But the present is relevant. His past action means now he can play video games.

It’s time for a common question: Past simple or present perfect?

The present perfect is more general, we are interested in your past experience. Your past experience before now. The past simple is more specific and we need to know specifically when.

As you can see in my examples here, I’m missing something.

I have been to Paris, but I went to Paris in 2003.

Kim has taken the TOEFL exam, but she took the TOEFL exam last week.

My parents have seen my new house, they saw my new house on Monday.

Louis has finished his homework, he finished his homework an hour ago.

Even though these are both completed past actions, the feeling is quite different. The present perfect is really common in interviews.  Why? Because the interviewer is interested in your experience, not specifically when things happened.

And what have you done for the first time recently, and what is your favourite movie of all time, that you never get sick of? I mean, the movie I’ve seen the most and watch for any occasion is Father of the Bride Two. What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen here?

The most fun I’ve ever had with actors on set is Josh and Liam, Hunger Games. Hi boys! They’re great. Let’s Golf. We got a mini golf here. So what’s the strangest thing a journalist has ever asked you in an interview? What’s the most bizarre thing that you’ve ever read about yourself?

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten about parenting? Babies don’t get bored. In all of these examples, we are just interested in the action or experience.

When before now, specifically when? Do. Not. Care.  But earlier in the interview we hear this:

So when was the last time that you played mini golf? Never or like five years ago. On Past simple, why? Because the interviewer is asking when specifically.

So we’ve looked at single past experiences or repeated past experiences. But what happens if the action isn’t finished? What happens if the actions started in the past and is still true now?

We can also use the present perfect.  Jane has lived in Canada for 22 years.

I have had long hair my entire life.

They have known each other since kindergarten. For 22 years, my entire life, since kindergarten, all of these tell us how long. And this is really common in the present perfect. Is there a connection between the past and the present? Definitely. Are the situations still true today? Yes. Common mistake:

Jane is living in Canada for 22 years. Jane lives in Canada for 22 years. Remember we do not use the present continuous or the present simple for that past to present connection.

Perfect. I’m going to use the same examples I used in the present perfect so you can really see again how similar they are. Past perfect:  An action completed before another past point.

Present perfect: I have been to Paris. When?  Before now. Past perfect: I had been to Paris.

When? Before I started University. You can see I added the past simple here to make another past point. The past perfect is always the action before another past point.

Let’s do another example:

My parents have seen my new house. (Present perfect)

By the time I moved all of my furniture into my new house, my parents had already seen it. (Past perfect)

Here in this example even though the past perfect comes second in the sentence, it’s still clear it happened before that past simple action.

He has finished his homework. (Present perfect)

Louis’ Mom let him play video games (past simple) because he had finished his homework. (Past perfect)

And just like the present perfect, the past perfect can also show a past-to-past connection.

The present perfect, remember a past-to-present connection?  Past perfect, let’s move it back past to past connection.

Jane was sad to move because she had lived in Canada for 22 years.  (Past to past connection)

I had had long hair my entire life and it was really difficult for me to cut it.

Had had? Is that possible? Yes, remember the past perfect is had plus past participle.  What’s the past participle of have?

Let’s compare the past simple and the past perfect.

Kim had taken the TOEFL exam, Kim took the TOEFL exam. Jane had lived in Canada for 22 years, Jane lived in Canada for 22 years. I had had long hair my entire life, or I had long hair my entire life. The past perfect actions again are actions that happened before another past action.

So in these examples here a few things are missing. In the past perfect column, we don’t have that other past action as a reference.  And what am I missing in my past simple column?

The specific time. Hmm… But something doesn’t feel right. I had long hair my entire life. Past simple?

Am I still alive? Yes. Would I use past simple? No, in this case here you do need to look at the situation. What tense would I use to describe a past-to-present connection?

Present perfect. I’ve had long hair my entire life.  I could say, I mean I could talk about someone else someone who is no longer alive. Mary Smith had long hair her entire life that works. So whenever you use a tense, you can’t only look at the grammar, you also need to look at the logic of the situation.

It’s time for the future perfect, and yep, I’m going to use the same example so again you can see how similar they are. You just need to move the period to the present, the past, or the future.

The future perfect, a completed action.  When? Before another Future Point.

Everyone has been to more countries than me.

You’re going on a trip throughout Europe. By the end of the summer, you will have been to France, Germany, and Spain. That’s more than most people.

What’s my future point? By the end of the summer, what will have happened before then? I will have been to France, Germany, and Spain. Kim is so stressed about her TOEFL exam, she can’t sleep.

In a few days, she will have finished her TOEFL exam.

What’s my future point? In a few days.  What will have been finished by then?

Kim will have taken her TOEFL exam. I wanted to surprise my parents by showing them my new house.

But by the time I show them my new house (future point), they will have already seen it on Instagram.

, let’s keep going, and you might know what’s coming next. We can use the future perfect for an action that continues up to another future point.  Jane has lived in Canada for a very long time.

By 2025 she will have lived in Canada for 22 years. And this action can either start in the past, the present, or in the future. We don’t really know, it depends on the situation.

How long has Dan been your assistant? Let me see, I hired him on my birthday, so on my next birthday he will have been with me for eight years. You can see an action that continued up to another future point. It’s time to compare. Let’s compare the future simple, and the future perfect.

Future perfect and future simple.

The future perfect emphasizes, what doesn’t emphasize? A completed action before another future point, that’s really important. Completed before a future point or continued up to a future point.

The future simple does not depend on anything in the future, it’s just when something will happen.

Your turn to practice, here is your homework: What is something you have done that you are proud of?

Past perfect, what is something you had done before you turned 18? If you’re not 18 yet, think of a different example. Future perfect, what is something you will have done by the time you turn 100?

Use these questions to help you practice, and think of really personal examples.

Perfect tenses review:

The perfect tenses emphasize a completed action before something else I have taught the present perfect many times before now.  When I completed my teacher training course, I had not taught the present perfect at all.

By the time I turn 40, I will have taught the present perfect many times.

The perfect tenses also describe an action that continues up to another point. Present perfect, I have been a teacher for 12 years, up to now.  By 2011 I had been a teacher for only one year.

In nine years, I will have been a teacher for half of my life.

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