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The Importance of Tenses in English Grammar

Tenses play a critical role in English grammar as they indicate when an action, event, thought, or feeling took place. In this article, we will dive into the three main tenses: past, present, and future, exploring their functions and structures. We will also discuss how tense is formed using inflections and auxiliary verbs.

An Overview of Tenses in English Grammar

Tense is a grammatical term that expresses the time frame in which an action or state occurred or will occur. While tense has other functions, these are its fundamental uses.

Inflections and auxiliary verbs are used to convey tense. We will take a more in-depth look at these throughout this article, but here is a brief definition of each term.

  • Inflections - These are groups of letters added to a base word to change its grammatical meaning. For example, adding -ed to regular verbs signifies that the action happened in the past, as in "walk" becomes "walked".
  • Auxiliary verbs - Also known as "helping verbs", these work alongside the main verb to provide additional information. For instance, the auxiliary verb "will" is used to indicate the future tense.

The Three Main Tenses According to English Grammar

There are three primary tenses in English grammar: past, present, and future.

While some experts argue that the future tense is a variation of the present tense, it is widely accepted and taught that the future tense is one of the three main tenses in English. When we combine these tenses with aspects, they form a total of twelve tenses. But before we list these twelve tenses, let's first understand what aspects are.

Grammatical aspects - Aspects indicate how an action, event, or state unfolds over a period of time. For example, we use aspects to determine if an action started in the past and is still ongoing, or if it is a continuous action in the present.

The Twelve Tenses in English Grammar

The twelve tenses are:

  • Present Simple
  • Present Continuous
  • Present Perfect
  • Present Perfect Continuous
  • Past Simple
  • Past Continuous
  • Past Perfect
  • Past Perfect Continuous
  • Future Simple
  • Future Continuous
  • Future Perfect
  • Future Perfect Continuous

A Closer Look at the Past Tense

The past tense can also be used to refer to the present tense (e.g. "I wish I had a cat") or future tense (e.g. "Imagine if we moved to Spain"). We also use the past tense to talk about habitual actions or events that occurred regularly in the past.

Examples of the past tense in use:

  • We used to go to Scotland at weekends.
  • She would always fall asleep at school.

How to Form the Past Tense

Regular verbs form the past tense by adding the inflection -ed or -d to the base form of the verb. For example:

  • I walk → I walked
  • I stay → I stayed
  • I like → I liked
  • I use → I used

However, irregular verbs like "run → ran" and "be → was/were/been" do not follow this rule. We must memorize the spellings for these verbs.

The Uses of the Present Tense

The present tense can be used to talk about the future (e.g. "The train leaves at 10 pm tonight") or the past (e.g. "So, the other day I'm walking down the road when I see this dog running towards me"). It can also refer to habitual actions or events that regularly occur. For example, "I normally go to the library on Wednesdays".

In literature, the present tense can create a sense of immediacy and make the readers feel more connected to the story. For instance, "Joe feels a sense of dread as he walks slowly over to the shadow lurking in the distance". The use of present tense makes the story feel like it is happening in real-time.

How to Form the Present Tense

Examples of the present tense in use:

  • I play the piano.
  • Sarah is coming to dinner tonight.
  • He has been to the cinema today.
  • I am going to the zoo to see the tigers.
  • Ritchie has been building a wall.

The Basics of Verb Tenses in English

Understanding the three main tenses in English grammar – past, present, and future – is essential for effective communication. In addition, the concept of aspect plays a crucial role in how these tenses are used. By learning how to form each tense correctly, you can improve your understanding of English grammar and convey your thoughts accurately in different time contexts.

The present tense in English is formed by using the base verb, such as 'play'. However, when referring to the third person singular (he/she/it), the suffix -s must be added. For example: I play → He plays, I understand → She understands, I dance → It dances. Another way to form tenses is by adding -ing to base verbs, creating the present continuous (or progressive) tense. This tense is used to describe ongoing actions in the present or future plans. For instance: We are learning about tenses. I am reading. I'm seeing my friend tomorrow.

Future Tense

The future tense is used to express actions or states of being that have not happened yet but are expected to occur in the future. Some examples of the future tense include:

  • We're going to Edinburgh together.
  • They will have cooked dinner by the time we get home.
  • Sam will be a good doctor when he's older.
  • Ben will have been a teacher for 5 years in September.

To form the future tense, we use modal auxiliary verbs like 'will', 'shall', and 'going to' instead of adding inflections to the base verb. For example: They dance → They will dance, She goes to work → She will go to work, I play chess → I shall play chess, He is riding his bike → He is going to ride his bike, I'm seeing Sarah on Tuesday.

Irregular Verbs

Not all verbs follow the same rule of adding -ed/d to form the past tense or past participle. These are known as irregular verbs. Some examples include:

  • I grow (present tense) → I grew (past tense) → I have grown (past participle)
  • I am (present tense) → I was (past tense) → I have been (past participle)
  • I go (present tense) → I went (past tense) → I have gone (past participle)
  • I break (present tense) → I broke (past tense) → I have broken (past participle)
  • I quit (present tense) → I quit (past tense) → I have quit (past participle)

The spelling of these verbs can change between the present, past and past participle forms. As there is no specific rule for irregular verbs, they must be memorized.

The past participle form is used in perfect and passive forms to express a completed action. It is often preceded by auxiliary verbs such as 'has' or 'had'. For example: 'You have eaten' or 'He has left'.


Each of the main tenses (past, present, and future) has four aspects which indicate the time-related characteristics of a sentence: simple, continuous (or progressive), perfect, and perfect progressive (continuous). Let's take a closer look at each of these aspects and their functions with some examples.


The simple aspect simply states a fact or a completed action in the past, present, or future. It does not provide any additional information about 'how' the verb is done. For example: I walked (simple past), I walk (simple present), I will walk (simple future).

Perfect (or 'perfective')

The perfect aspect expresses a completed action that occurred before a specific point in time. This aspect is formed by using auxiliary verbs such as 'had', 'has', or 'will have' + the past participle of the verb. For instance: The past perfect looks back from a point in the past, e.g. 'I had walked'. The present perfect looks back from the present time, e.g. 'I have walked'. The future perfect looks back from a time in the future, e.g. 'I will have walked'.

Progressive (or 'continuous')

The continuous aspect describes an ongoing, uncompleted action. It is formed by adding -ing to the base verb and is used to talk about actions that are in progress at a specific time or actions that continue for a period of time.

Expressing Tense and Aspect in English Using Verb Forms

Tense and aspect play an integral role in the English language. The progressive aspect, for example, is formed by combining the appropriate form of the verb "to be" with the suffix "-ing" added to the main verb. Let's take a look at some examples:

  • I was walking (past continuous)
  • I am walking (present continuous)
  • I will be walking (future continuous)

Understanding the Perfect Continuous Tense

The perfect continuous aspect is used to express an action that started in the past and is still ongoing in the present. To form this tense, we use the auxiliary verb "have/has/had" followed by the auxiliary verb "been" (past participle) and the main verb with the "-ing" suffix. Take a look at some examples:

  • I had been walking (past perfect continuous)
  • I have been walking (present perfect continuous)
  • I will have been walking (future perfect continuous)

The Combination of Tense and Aspect

English has four past tense options:

  • Past (simple) tense: e.g. "I worked yesterday"
  • Past continuous (progressive) tense: e.g. "I was working yesterday"
  • Past perfect tense: e.g. "I had worked yesterday"
  • Past perfect continuous tense: e.g. "I had been working yesterday"

Similarly, there are three present tense options:

  • Present simple tense
  • Present perfect tense
  • Present perfect continuous tense

And three future tense options:

  • Future simple tense
  • Future continuous tense
  • Future perfect tense

A Comprehensive Review of Tenses in English

For a better understanding and revision of all 12 tenses in English, here is a helpful sheet with examples. Pay attention to the verb inflections and sentence structures used for each tense.

Applying Tenses in Everyday Conversations

Let's analyze the following conversation and identify the different tenses by looking at verb inflections and sentence structures.

"Why weren't you answering my calls?"

"I have been to the cinema, I'm going to go again tomorrow"

"I was waiting for you all afternoon!"

"Well I'm here now, so let's hurry"

Upon closer inspection, we can identify the following tenses:

  • Past continuous
  • Present perfect
  • Future simple
  • Past continuous
  • Present simple

The Formation of Tenses

Tenses (past, present, and future) have evolved over time and now make up the 12 English tenses. However, not all languages have the same number of tenses. For instance, Chinese does not use verb conjugations or inflections, while Arabic and Japanese only have two basic tenses. Some languages even have more than three tenses.

Did you know that the Australian language Kalaw Lagaw Ya has six basic verb tenses: remote past, recent past, today past, present, today/near future, and remote future?

Tense is typically indicated by using a specific verb form, either through an inflected form of the main verb or a multi-word construction. Some verb forms are created by combining inflected verbs with multi-word patterns. Here are a few examples:

  • "walked" - an inflected verb (with "-ed" forming the past tense)
  • "will walk" - a multi-word pattern (with "will" indicating future tense)
  • "will have walked" - a combination of inflection and added words (with "will have" indicating future perfect tense and "-ed" indicating perfect continuous tense)

The Significance of Using Tense Accurately

Precise usage of tense is essential in effective communication. Let's consider the following passage as an example:

"We went to the cinema yesterday. We are walking there but were already late. Quickly, we will run inside so we could buy some popcorn before the movie starts. Once we were inside the cinema, Dan is sitting down but dropped his popcorn. It will go everywhere!"

It is evident that the tenses in this passage are jumbled and do not convey a clear message. Using the correct tense is vital for communicating clearly and efficiently.

Tenses Explained: A Guide for Accurate Usage

As we read a sentence, we can often sense that something is not quite right. This is because of the use of incorrect or inconsistent tenses. To avoid this confusion, let's take a closer look at the different tenses used in writing and how to use them correctly.

Key: Past Tense = yellow, Present Tense = green, Future Tense = red

We went to the cinema yesterday. We are walking there but were already late. Quickly, we will run inside so we could have bought some popcorn before the movie starts. Once we were inside the cinema, Dan was sitting down but dropped his popcorn. It will go everywhere!

The Importance of Using Tenses Correctly

This brief example highlights the significance of using tenses accurately and the confusion that can arise when they are used incorrectly.

Understanding Tenses and Aspects

Tense and aspects are both grammatical terms that indicate when an action takes place. Tense refers to the time frame (past, present, or future), while aspects describe the characteristics of the action (ongoing, repeated, or completed). There are four aspects: simple, progressive (continuous), perfect, and perfect progressive (continuous). These are shown through verb patterns and inflections. For instance, the addition of '-ed' to regular verbs forms the past tense (e.g., 'I walk' → 'I walked'), and 'will/shall' is used to form the future tense (e.g., 'I walk' → 'I will walk').

The Perfect Aspect Explained

The perfect aspect indicates a completed action that happened before a specific point in time. It is formed by using 'had', 'has', or 'have' + the past participle of the verb. For example, 'I had walked' (past perfect tense), 'I have walked' (present perfect tense), or 'I will have walked' (future perfect tense).

Understanding Verb Tense

Verb tense, also known as tense, indicates when an action takes place - in the past, present, or future. It is used to convey the timing of an action or state.

The Present Perfect Tense Explained

The present perfect tense is a combination of the present tense and the perfect (completed) aspect. It refers to an action that either happened in the past or began in the past but is still ongoing at the present moment.

How Many Tenses Does English Have?

There are just three tenses in English, each with twelve verb patterns, often referred to as 'tenses' as well. The past, present, and future tense each have four subcategories of verb aspects (simple, continuous/progressive, perfect, and perfect continuous/progressive).

A Simple Explanation of Tense

Tense is a grammatical term that tells us whether an action or verb has occurred, is happening, or will happen. In simpler terms, it indicates if something is in the past, present, or future.

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