Tenses (English Grammar): Definition, Types & Examples (2022)

Tenses are an important part of English grammar - they indicate when an action, event, thought, or feeling happened or will happen.

Today we will explore the three main tenses: past, present, and future, including their functions and structures. We will also look at a key component of tense, called aspect, as well as how to form tenses using inflections.

English grammar tenses

Tense is a grammatical term used to describe time; that is, whether an action or state happened in the past, is happening in the present, or will happen in the future. Tense is not limited to this, but these are its basic uses.

We can show different tenses with the use of inflections and auxiliary verbs. We will cover these in detail throughout this article, but let's take a look at some quick definitions of these terms now.

Inflections - A type of morpheme (meaningful group of letters) added to a base word to express a grammatical meaning or change. For example, in terms of tenses, we add the morpheme 'ed' to regular verbs to show that the action happened in the past, e.g. walk becomes walked.

Auxiliary verbs - Verbs used alongside the main verb to add extra information; they are sometimes called 'helping verbs'. For example, we use the auxiliary verb 'will' to express the future tense.

Types of tenses

In English grammar there are three main tenses: the past tense, the present tense, and the future tense.

Some grammarians state that the future tense isn't really a tense at all and is just a modification of the present tense. However, it is now widely accepted and taught that the future tense is one of the three main tenses in English.

When we combine the three main tenses with aspects we are left with twelve different tenses. Before we list these twelve tenses, let's take a quick look at aspects.

Grammatical aspects - Aspects are used to show how an action, event, or state extends over a period of time. For example, did the action begin in the past but has still not finished or is it an ongoing action?

The twelve tenses are:

  • The present simple, present continuous, present perfect, and present perfect continuous.

  • The past simple, past continuous, past perfect, and past perfect continuous.

  • The future simple, future continuous, future perfect, and future perfect continuous.

Let's now look at the three main tenses in detail before moving on to tenses and aspects.

The past tense

The past tense shows that an action (or state of being) happened (or existed) in the past.

The past tense may also be used to refer to the present tense ('I wish I had a cat' ) or the future tense ('Imagine if we moved to Spain' ).

We can also use the past tense to talk about habitual actions or events in the past that were repeated or occurred regularly.

We used to go to Scotland at weekends

She would always fall asleep at school

Tenses (English Grammar): Definition, Types & Examples (1)We used to go to Scotland - Pixabay

Examples of the past tense

Let's look at some examples of different variations of the past tense.

I hiked up Everest yesterday

She had danced all night

We went to London for New Years' Eve

James had been walking for miles

How is the past tense formed?

For regular verbs, we form the past tense by adding the inflection -d or -ed to the base form of the verb. Here's an example:

I walk → I walked

I stay → I stayed

I like → I liked

I use → I used

Things are a bit more tricky with irregular verbs, such as 'run → ran' and 'be → was/were/been' which don't follow the same inflectional rule. We just have to memorise the spellings for these irregular verbs.

We will cover irregular verbs in more detail later on!

Present tense

The present tense shows that an action (or state of being) is happening (or exists) in the present (e.g. 'I'm going to the shops' or 'I live in Liverpool').

It can also be used to talk about the future (e.g.' The train leaves at 10 pm tonight' ) or about the past (e.g. 'So, the other day I'm walking down the road when I see this dog running towards me' ). We can also refer to a habitual action or event using the present tense. This is something that is repeated or happens regularly. For example, 'I normally go to the library on a Wednesday'.

In literature, the present tense can be used to make the reader feel more connected to the story. Take this sentence for example: 'Joe feels a sense of dread as he walks slowly over to the shadow lurking in the distance'. As the story is happening in the present, you feel the suspense and the unfolding plot in 'real-time'.

Examples of the present tense

Let's look at some examples of some variations of the present tense.

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

How do we form the present tense?

The simple present tense is formed using the base of a verb e.g. 'play'.

We must add the inflection -s when using the third person singular (he/she/it).

I play → He plays

I understand → She understands

I dance → It dances

We can also add the infection -ing to base verbs to form the present continuous tense (sometimes called the progressive tense). We use this verb pattern to talk about an ongoing action in the present or to discuss future plans.

We are learning about tenses.

I am reading.

I'm seeing my friend tomorrow.

Future tense

The future tense is used to express an action (or state of being) that has not yet happened but is expected to happen in the future.

Examples of the future tense

Let's look at some examples of different variations of the future tense.

We're going to Edinburgh together.

They will have cooked dinner by the time we're home.

Sam will be a good doctor when he's older

Ben will have been teaching for 5 years in September.

How do we form the future tense?

As we previously mentioned, some grammarians argue that there is no future tense, just ways of expressing the future using combinations of other tenses and aspects. This is because inflections aren't added to the base verb to form something called the 'future tense', as they are for the present and past tenses. Instead, we use modal auxiliary verbs, such as 'will', 'shall' and 'going to', to describe future events, actions, and states.

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

Tenses (English Grammar): Definition, Types & Examples (2)I shall play chess soon! - Pixabay

Irregular verbs

Irregular verbs are verbs that don't follow the rule of adding the inflection -ed/d to form the simple past or past forms.

There are quite a few irregular verbs in English; let's look at some examples.

Examples of irregular verbs

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)

These examples show how varied irregular verbs can be. For regular verbs, we can simply add -ed/-d for to the base form of a verb (Verb 1) for both the past simple tense (verb 2) and past participle (verb 3). For example, I dance (present tense/base form) I danced (past tense) I have danced (past participle).

However, things aren't as simple in the case of irregular verbs which often differ in spelling between the present, past, and past participle. Unfortunately, there is no rule for irregular verbs, you simply have to remember them!

The past participle is the form of the verb which we see in the perfect and passive forms. It expresses a completed action and is often preceded by an auxiliary verb such as has/had. For example, 'you have eaten ' or ' he has left'.

Aspect

Each of the three main tenses (past, present, and future) is divided into four aspects. Aspect shows the time-related characteristics of a sentence such as whether a verb is ongoing, repeated, or completed.

We can classify tenses into four different types: simple, continuous (progressive), perfect, and perfect progressive (continuous).

Let's take a look at the functions and some examples of these aspects in more detail.

Simple

The simple tense simply expresses that an action has taken place in the past/present/future. In other words, it states a fact. There are no aspects so we are not given information about 'how' the verb is done.

I walked (simple past)

I walk' (simple present)

I will walk (simple future)

Perfect (or 'perfective')

The perfect aspect expresses a completed action, one that occurred prior to a specific point in time . We can form the perfect aspect using the auxiliary verbs 'had', 'has', or 'will have' + the past participle of the verb.

  • The past perfect looks back from a point of time 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 / continuous

The continuous aspect expresses an ongoing, uncompleted action. We form the progressive aspect using the correct form of the verb ' to be' (depending on the tense) and the inflection '-ing' added to the main verb.

I was walking (past continuous)

I am walking (present continuous)

I will be walking (future continuous)

Perfect continuous (or 'progressive')

The perfect continuous aspect expresses that an action started in the past is continuing into the present. A perfect continuous sentence is formed with the auxiliary have / has / had with the auxiliary verb been (past participle) together with the main verb e.g. 'walking' (with the -ing inflection).

I had been walking (past perfect continuous)

I have been walking (present perfect continuous)

I will have been walking (future perfect continuous)

Combining tense and aspect

These aspects and tenses combine to create the twelve verb tenses we use today:

Types of past tense

  • 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'

Types of present tense

  • Present (simple) tense- e.g. 'I work'

  • Present continuous (progressive) tense- e.g. 'I am working'

  • Present perfect tense- e.g. 'I have worked'

  • Present perfect continuous tense- e.g. 'I have been working'

We often refer to past events using the present perfect tense , however the tense indicates a link between the present and the past as we are most interested in the result of the action (eg. ' I've already seen this film' could suggest that you don't want to watch it again!).

The present perfect continuous also suggests an ongoing link between the past and present, as the action starts in the past and continues into/affects the present (e.g. 'Sorry I'm late, I have been working')

Types of future tense

  • Future (simple) tense- e.g. 'I will work'

  • Future continuous (progressive) tense- e.g. 'I will be working'

  • Future perfect tense- e.g. 'I will have worked'

  • Future perfect continuous tense- e.g. 'I will have been working'

Tenses Revision Sheet

Here is a revision sheet showing further examples of the 12 tenses in English. Study how the different tenses are formed using different verb inflections and sentence constructions:

Past TensePresent tenseFuture Tense
Simple (action has taken place)I dancedI danceI will dance
Continuous / progressive(an ongoing, uncompleted action)I was dancingI am dancingI want to be dancing
Perfect (a completed action that occurs before a specific point in time)I had dancedI have dancedI will have danced
Perfect continuous(an action started in the past is continuing into the present)I had been dancingI have been dancingI will have been dancing

Notice how these examples have the same subject and verb, but the verb inflections and sentence constructions show us what tense is being used.

Tenses in everyday conversation

Let's have a look at this conversation and see if we can identify different tenses by considering the use of verb inflections and the formation of the sentences.

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

Can you spot the different tenses? Below you can see where the different tenses are used.

Why weren't you answering my calls? (past continuous tense)

I have been to the cinema (present perfect tense), I'm going to go again tomorrow (future simple tense)

I was waiting for you all afternoon! (past continuous tense)

Well I'm here now, so let's hurry (present simple tense)

How are tenses formed?

Tenses (past, present, and future) have developed over years and have formed into what we now know as the twelve English tenses. Not all languages have tenses - for example, Chinese has no verb conjugation or inflection - other languages use different numbers of tenses. Arabic and Japanese use two basic tenses rather than three and some languages even have more than three tenses.

Did you know that there is a language in Australia that features six basic verb tenses? The language is called Kalaw Lagaw Ya and uses the tenses remote past, recent past, today past, present, today / near future, and remote future.

Tense is normally shown through the use of a particular verb form. This is normally through either an inflected form of the main verb (where the verb is modified to express different categories like tense, aspect, etc.) or a multi-word construction (where separate words contain the meaning of prefixes, suffixes, or verbs). Some verb forms are made by combining inflected verbs and multi-word patterns.

'walked' - an example of an inflected verb (-ed forms the past tense)

'will walk' - an example of a multi-word pattern (the word 'will' forms the future tense)

'will have walked' - an example of a combination of inflection and added words (the words 'will have' and the inflection '-ed' forms the perfect continuous tense)

Why is tense important?

Why is it so important to use tense accurately? Let's take a look at the following passage ...

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!

What do you notice about this extract?

The tenses are all jumbled up! As you read it;'s obvious something isn't right. Here's a key of which tenses are being used in which sections of the extract.

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 is sitting down but dropped his popcorn. It will go everywhere!

Hopefully, this short extract shows you how important the accurate use of tense is and how confusing it can be when tense is used inaccurately.

Tenses - Key takeaways

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