Verb tenses allow us to specify at what point in time some event occurred. The three main tenses in English are past, present, and future. These are called the simple tenses. To determine which simple tense to use, ask yourself at what point in time the event happened relative to your present position in time. Use the graphic below as a method for determining which tense to use.
The simple tenses describe actions or events that take place for an indeterminate length of time. They are also used in describing general truths, preferences, habitual actions, and events in works of fiction (books, movies, etc.):
Albert likes ice cream. (preference)
There is no place like home. (general truth)
Every morning, Vanessa bikes to work. (habitual action)
The main character is transparent and one-dimensional. (description of fictional work)
Present tense verbs are formed by removing “to” from the infinitive and either using the base form or adding an -s to the end. For example, to walk becomes walk or walks, to paint becomes paint or paints, and to reason becomes reason or reasons.
Past tense verbs are usually formed by adding –ed to the base form. For example, talk becomes talked, paint becomes painted and reason becomes reasoned. (Irregular verbs, such as to eat and to have, are not formed in the same way; if you are unfamiliar with these verbs, consult an English grammar guide.)
Future tense verbs are usually formed by adding will or shall to the base form. For example, talk becomes will talk or shall talk, paint becomes will paint or shall paint, and reason becomes will reason or shall reason.
Verbs can also indicate whether an action is completed or ongoing. Aspect describes the event’s completion, duration, or repetition.
The simple form is used to describe an event of indeterminate duration.
The perfect form is used to describe a completed action or event.
The progressive form is used to describe an ongoing action or event.
The perfect progressive form is used to describe an ongoing event that will be completed at some (specified or unspecified) time.
All together, there are 4 aspects (simple, perfect, progressive, and perfect progressive) and 3 time indicators (past, present, and future). This makes 3 × 4 = 12 tenses.
To determine which form a given verb should be in, first ask when the event happened, and then ask whether the action is completed or ongoing. The answer to these two questions will tell you what tense to use:
Future progressive tense will be + base + -ing
“will be walking”
Ongoing; will be completed (Perfect progressive)
Past perfect progressive tense had been + base + -ing
“had been walking”
Present perfect progressive tense have/has been + base + -ing
“have been walking”/”has been walking”
Future perfect progressive tense will have been + base + -ing
“will have been walking”
The perfect form indicates an action that was, is, or will be completed.
The past perfect tense is formed by adding had to the past participle form of the verb, which is the base form + -ed. For example, to end becomes had ended.
The present perfect tense is formed by adding has or have to the past participle form, which is the base form + -ed. For example, to play becomes have played.
The future perfect tense is formed by adding will have to the past participle form, which is the base form + -ed. For example, engage becomes will have engaged.
The progressive form indicates an action that is ongoing.
The past progressive tense is formed by using was or were with the base form + -ing. For example, to play becomes was playing or were playing.
The present progressive tense is formed by adding am, is, or are to the base form + -ing. For example, to eat becomes am eating, is eating, or are eating.
The future progressive tense is formed by adding will be or shall be to the base form + -ing. For example, to travel becomes will be traveling.
The perfect progressive indicates an action that is ongoing but will be completed.
The past perfect progressive is formed by adding had been to the base form + -ing. For example, to learn becomes had been learning.
The present perfect progressive is formed by adding have been or has been to the base form + -ing. For example, to play becomes have been playing or has been playing.
The future perfect progressive is formed by adding will have been to the base form + -ing. For example, to expect becomes will have been expecting.
Test your comprehension: identify the tense of each verb below.
1. By the time Michael arrived, the partyhad ended.
Two verbs: arrived (simple past tense); had ended (past perfect tense)
2. Michael is always late. By the time he arrives tonight, the partywill have ended.
Three verbs: is (simple present tense); arrives (present simple tense, used in a prepositional phrase to refer to an event in the future); will have ended (future perfect tense)
3. I have played the game.
One verb: have played (present perfect tense)
4. We were playing basketball when the car smashed through the gate.
Two verbs: were playing (past progressive tense); smashed (simple past tense)
5. We are eating dinner right now.
One verb: are eating (present progressive tense)
6. For the next several months, Michelle will be traveling through Europe.
One verb: will be traveling (future progressive tense)
7. Ihave been studying.
One verb: have been studying (present perfect progressive tense)
Two or More Verbs in One Sentence
As you may have noticed during the exercise above, tenses are also useful for ordering sequences of events.
Incorrect:After he finished his performance, he had gone to the party.
Correct:After he finished his performance, he went to the party.
To approach questions like this, first locate all the verbs in the sentence and identify their tenses as you did in the exercise at the end of the last section. This sentence has two verbs: finished (past tense) and had gone (past perfect).
Next, clarify the order and duration of events and check whether the verb tenses accurately reflect this order. In this sentence, the key word “after” tells us that this is a “first, second” ordering of two events that both happened in the past. Because both events are completed, you need the simple past tense for each verb: “finished his performance and went to the party”.
1. Locate verbs & identify tenses. 2. Clarify order and duration of events. 3. Check whether the tenses reflect the order/duration of events. 4. If necessary, make corrections.
Help with Step 2: Ordering Events
To determine the order of events, pick one event as a “base” action, and place it on a timeline relative to your present position in time “the present”.
Next, figure out when other events occurred in relation to that event. Try to discern whether the event(s) occurred prior to the base action, after the base action, or at the same time as the base action. You must also determine the duration of each event relative to the base action:
Ask yourself: “What happened first, second? What makes sense logically?”
Look for time-related key words and phrases like before, after, already, when, by the time that…, etc.
Let’s try one example:
If the cyclist wins the race, it will be representing an extraordinary comeback from his earlier cancer.
An “if clause” at the beginning of the sentence indicates a hypothetical, which is expressed using the subjunctive mood (see the next section C. Mood ” in this chapter for more help with subjunctives). Since this is a hypothetical situation, the race has not happened yet. So, the verb “wins” represents a future-tense action. The second verb, “will be representing” indicates an action that will happen in conjunction with the cyclist’s win.
Both actions are taking place in the future relative to our present position in time, and they happen at the same time. So, both verbs must be in the same tense: wins (simple present form used in a prepositional phrase to talk about the future) and will represent.
Looking back at the original sentence, we see that the second verb is in the future progressive (also called “future continuous”) form:
Replace the future progressive verb “will be representing” with the simple future verb “will represent”.
Incorrect:If the cyclist wins the race, it will be representing an extraordinary comeback from his earlier cancer.
Correct: If the cyclist wins the race, it will represent an extraordinary comeback from his earlier cancer.
Tips for recognizing verb tense errors
1. Watch for –ing forms.
Sometimes -ing forms are used as junk answers; you will often be given a better alternative.
2. Watch for time sequences.
Be alert for several verbs that indicate the occurrence of several events that happen (or happened) at different points in time. Pick one verb as the “base” in time sequence, and determine the order of events relative to the base event.
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