Tense

Definition

Grammatical tense refers to the conjugation of a verb to reflect its place in time—that is, when the action occurred.
There are technically only two grammatical tenses in English: the past and the present. Verbs in their basic form inherently describe the present time, and they can be conjugated into a unique form that describes the past. We can then use auxiliary verbs and verb participles to create different aspects of the past and present tenses, which describe if an action is or was continuous, or if it began at an earlier point in the past.
However, verbs do not have a specific conjugated form to reflect the future, and, for this reason, English is considered not to have a true future tense.
Nevertheless, although English has no future tense in the strict sense, we commonly refer to several structures that are used for future meaning as belonging to the “future tense.” The most common of these structures begin with will or be going to. For the sake of consistency, we will be referring to such constructions as the future tense in this chapter.

Summary of the Main Tenses

Below, we’ll provide a very brief summary of each of the variations of the present, past, and future tenses. Go to the individual sections to learn more about each variation.

The Present Tense

Present Simple Tense

The present simple tense (also called the simple present) is used to express habits, facts, and timetables.

Structures of the present simple tense

Affirmative: The base form of the verb. It is usually conjugated for the third-person singular by adding “-s” or “-es” to the end of the verb (except for irregular verbs).
Question: Use the auxiliary verb do (or does for the third-person singular) before the main verb.
Negative: Use do not (contracted as don’t) or does not (contracted as doesn’t) before the main verb.
Examples:
  • “I go to work every day.”
  • “He works in finance.”
  • “I don’t go out very often.”
  • Do you eat breakfast every morning?”
  • “The sun rises in the East.”
  • “The sun doesn’t rise in the West.”
  • “The train leaves at 9:30 tomorrow morning.”
  • “It doesn’t leave from platform 12.”
  • Does the train for Detroit leave at 9 AM tomorrow?”

With the verb be

The linking verb be has three different conjugations for grammatical person in the present tense: am (first-person singular); are (first-person plural, second person, and third-person plural); and is (third-person singular). Be does not need do when making questions or negative statements in the present simple tense.
Affirmative: “I am from the United States.”
Question: “Is he Canadian?”
Negative: “They are not British.”

Present Continuous Tense

The present continuous tense (also called the present progressive tense) is used for something in progress at the moment of speaking; it describes something that is happening in the present moment and also for expressing future arrangements. It can only be used with action verbs.

Structures of the present continuous tense

Affirmative: The auxiliary verb be plus the present participle of the main verb. We conjugate be, rather than the main verb, for grammatical person.
Question: Invert be with the subject of the sentence.
Negative: Use not after auxiliary be (contracted as isn’t or aren’t; am not is not normally contracted) before the present participle of the main verb.
Examples:
Present moment
Affirmative: “John is sleeping at the moment.”
Question: “Am I wearing the right uniform?”
Negative: “Jack isn’t coming to the movie with us.”
Present moment
Affirmative: “The managers are working on the new project.”
Question: “Are you still reading that book?”
Negative: “I am not living in New York anymore.”
Future arrangement
Affirmative: “We’re flying to Spain tomorrow.”
Question: “Are you meeting Tom for lunch on Wednesday?”
Negative: “They’re not having the party on Saturday anymore.”

Present Perfect Tense

The present perfect tense (sometimes called the present perfect simple tense) is used to give general information about something that happened at an indefinite point in the past. We also use the present perfect with the prepositions for and since when we speak about something that started in the past and is still true now.

Structures of the present perfect tense:

Affirmative: The auxiliary verb have plus the past participle of the main verb. Have conjugates as has for the third-person singular.
Question: Invert have/has with the subject of the sentence.
Negative: Use not after have/has (often contracted as haven’t/hasn’t) before the past participle of the main verb. We can also use never instead of not.
Examples:
  • “I have lived in Italy for many years.”
  • “She has been here since 8 o’clock.”
  • Have you been here since this morning?”
  • “We haven’t been to the movies in a long time.”
  • “I’ve lost my pen.”
  • Have you seen my jacket anywhere?”
  • “She hasn’t been in work for a few weeks.”
  • “I have seen this movie already.”
  • Have you ever tried Indian food?”
  • “She has never flown on an airplane before.”

Present Perfect Continuous Tense

We use the present perfect continuous tense (also called the present perfect progressive tense) to talk about that which began in the past and is still happening in the present. We often use it to emphasize the length of time that has passed while something is happening. We can also use it to talk about something that has been happening lately or only finished very recently. It can only be used with action verbs.

Structures of the present perfect continuous tense

Affirmative: The auxiliary verb have (or has with third-person singular subjects) + been + the present participle of the main verb.
Question: Invert have/has with the subject of the sentence.
Negative: Use not after have/has (often contracted as haven’t/hasn’t) before the past participle of the main verb.
Examples:
  • “I’ve been writing for over an hour.”
  • “How long have you been writing for?”
  • “They haven’t been living in Spain for very long.”
  • “She’s tired because she’s been working a lot.”
  • “That bag looks new. Have you been shopping?”
  • “He hasn’t been sleeping a lot lately.”

The Past Tense

Past Simple Tense

We use the past simple tense to express finished actions. It is often used with an expression of past time to give more complete information.

Structures of the past simple tense

Affirmative: The past-tense conjugation of the verb. This is generally accomplished by adding “-d” or “-ed” to the end of the verb, but there are many specific forms for irregular verbs.
Question: Use did (the past tense of the auxiliary verb do) before the main verb. Did does not conjugate differently for third-person singular.
Negative: Use did not (often contracted as didn’t) before the main verb.
Examples:
  • “She worked in finance before this job.”
  • “We lived in China for six years after I graduated from college.”
  • “They didn’t watch the movie last night.”
  • “I went to the park yesterday.”
  • Did he wake up early yesterday morning?”
  • “I didn’t go to the supermarket this morning.”

With the verb be

The linking verb be has two different conjugations for grammatical person in the past tense: was (first-person and third-person singular) and were (first-person plural, second person, and third-person plural). Be does not need did when making questions or negative statements in the present simple tense.
Affirmative: “I was their accountant at the time.”
Question: “Were you in the military?”
Negative: “He was not serious.”

Past Continuous Tense

The past continuous tense (also called the past progressive tense) is used for something in progress at a certain moment in the past. It can only be used with action verbs.

Structures of the past continuous tense

Affirmative: Was or were (the past tense of the auxiliary verb be) followed by the present participle of the main verb.
Question: Invert was/were with the subject.
Negative: Add not after was/were (often contracted as wasn’t/weren’t).
Examples:
  • “I was reading a book when they arrived.”
  • “What were you talking about when I arrived?”
  • “She was worrying we wouldn’t be able to afford the wedding.”
  • “I was not feeling well.”
  • Were you sleeping when I called?”
  • “My ex-husband was always leaving dirty dishes in the sink.”
  • “I guess things weren’t improving.”

Past Perfect Tense

The past perfect tense expresses the idea that something occurred before another action in the past. It can also show that something happened before a specific time in the past.

Structures of the past perfect tense

Affirmative: Had (the past tense of the auxiliary verb have) + the past participle of the main verb.
Question: Invert had with the subject of the verb.
Negative: Add not after had (often contracted as hadn’t). We also often make the past perfect negative by using the word never instead of not.
Examples:
  • “The movie had already ended when I turned on the TV.”
  • “I was sad to leave the house I had lived in for so many years.”
  • “Until this morning, I had never been on a plane.
  • Had you ever been on a tractor before working on our farm?”
  • “I hadn’t eaten Parmesan cheese before going to Italy.”
  • “I hadn’t ever ridden on a rollercoaster before going to the amusement park yesterday.”

Past Perfect Continuous Tense

The past perfect continuous tense (also called the past perfect progressive tense) is used to express something that began and was in progress until a moment in the past or until another past action occurred.

Structures of the past perfect continuous tense

Affirmative: Had + been + the past participle of the main verb.
Question: Invert had with the subject of the verb.
Negative: Add not after had (often contracted as hadn’t).
Examples:
  • “When I arrived at the bus stop, the other people there had been waiting for nearly an hour.”
  • “How long had you been standing there before they let you in?”
  • “We hadn’t been talking for very long before she had to leave.”
  • “I saw that it had been raining outside.”
  • “My eyes were tired because I had been working on the computer.”
  • Had she been living in Italy for a long time?”
  • “He had been feeling unwell, so he went to lie down.”

The Future Tense

The most common constructions of the future tenses use the modal auxiliary verb will or the verb phrase be going to. We can also use the modal verb shall to create the future tense, but this is generally reserved for more formal or polite English, and it is not very common in everyday speech and writing, especially in American English.

Future Simple Tense

We use the future simple tense to describe an intended action, make a prediction, state future facts, make promises, or offer to do something.

Structures of the future simple tense

Affirmative: The modal verb will or the verb phrase be going to + the base form of the verb. If using be going to, we must conjugate be to reflect grammatical person in the present tense (is, am, or are).
Question: Invert the subject with will or be.
Negative: Add not after will (often contracted as won’t) or between be and going.
Examples:
  • “The Queen will be in Rome tomorrow.”
  • “I will definitely arrive on time.”
  • “He’ll help you with that heavy suitcase.”
  • “She won’t do her homework.”
  • Will they be late?”
  • “I am going to wash my hair after dinner.”
  • “We aren’t going to join the gym after all.”
  • “I think it’s going to rain tomorrow.”
  • Are you going to mow the lawn today?”

Future Continuous Tense

The future continuous tense (also known as the future progressive) is used to describe an unfinished action occurring in the future. This action can either begin in the future, or it can already be in progress in the present and continue into the future. The future continuous can only be used with action verbs.

Structures of the future continuous tense

Affirmative: The modal verb will or the verb phrase be going to + the auxiliary verb be + the present participle of the main verb. If using be going to, we must conjugate be to reflect grammatical person; we do not conjugate be before the present participle, however.
Question: Invert the subject with will or be.
Negative: Add not after will (often contracted as won’t) or between be and going.
Examples:
  • “You shouldn’t call their house now; they will be sleeping.”
  • “I’ll be flying to Boston tomorrow, so I can’t come to lunch.”
  • “People are going be consuming even more natural resources by the year 2030.”
  • “We won’t be leaving until the evening.”
  • Is she going to be working from home now?”
  • “I’m not going to be living in New York for much longer.”
  • Will you be graduating this year?”

Future Perfect Tense

We use the future perfect tense to say that something will finish or complete at a specific point in the future, often indicating how long something will have been happening once a future moment in time is reached. We can also use the future perfect to make a prediction that something has or should have happened in the past.

Structures of the future perfect tense

Affirmative: The modal verb will + the auxiliary verb have + the past participle of the main verb. We can also use be going to instead of will, but it is less common with the future perfect tense.
Question: Invert the subject with will.
Negative: Add not after will (often contracted as won’t).
Examples:
  • “By October we will have lived in this house for 20 years.”
  • “After this next race, I will have completed 10 triathlons.”
  • “You will have heard by now that the company is going bankrupt.”
  • Will they have read the memo ahead of the meeting?”
  • “Why are you going to the airport so early? Her flight will not have arrived yet.”
  • “How long will you have worked there before your maternity leave begins?”

Future Perfect Continuous Tense

Like the future perfect, we use the future perfect continuous tense (also known as the future perfect progressive tense) to indicate how long something has been happening once a future moment in time is reached; the emphasis is on the continual progression of the action. It can also be used to indicate the cause of a possible future result. We can only use the future perfect continuous with action verbs.

Structures of the future perfect continuous tense

Affirmative: The modal verb will + the auxiliary verb have + been + the present participle of the main verb. We can also use be going to instead of will, but it is less common with the future perfect continuous tense.
Question: Invert the subject with will.
Negative: Add not after will (often contracted as won’t). However, it is not very common to make negative constructions of the future perfect continuous tense.
Examples:
  • “She’ll have been waiting for nearly an hour by the time we arrive.”
  • “I will have been living in this country for 10 years this November.”
  • “He’s not going to have any energy for the kids because he’ll have been working so hard this week.”
  • Will they have been looking through our tax returns for the last few years?”
  • “How will he have been coping on his own for all these years?”
  • “He won’t have been sleeping for very long, but I have to wake him up.”

Indicative Mood vs. Subjunctive Mood

All of the above tenses that we’ve looked at have been in what's called the Indicative Mood (also known as the Realis Mood), which is used to talk about what is factual or really happening.
There is also another mood in English called the subjunctive mood, which deals with things that are not objective facts, such one’s state of mind, opinions, beliefs, intentions, desires, and so on. It is one of the Irrealis Moods, so called because they deal with what is not objectively real.
The subjunctive mood has all of the tenses that the indicative mood deals with, but it is used in much more specialized circumstances. When we talk about verb tense in this chapter, we will be focusing on the indicative mood; to learn about the subjunctive mood and its tenses, go to the section on the Irrealis Moods in the chapter about Grammatical Mood.
Quiz

1. How many grammatical tenses does English technically have?





2. Identify the tense form that is made using the following structure:
Had + been + the past participle of the main verb





3. Which of the following sentences uses the future simple tense?





4. Which of the following sentences uses the present perfect tense?





5. Which of the following is not used to create the future tense?





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