English verb tenses
Why do we need tenses?
Imagine the verb doesn't have a tense and only has the infinitive form (to walk, to speak, to read). What kind of information can you get from the infinitive? You can only learn what the action is. Did it happen in the past, is it happening now, or maybe it will happen in the future? Is the action complete or not?
Can we specify all that without any additional words, but with the help of verbs themselves? Yes, and the verb tenses make it possible. "I learn", "I learnt", "I will learn" are three different verb tenses, but of course, there are many more.
How do we get 12 tenses?
In English, all tenses have two characteristics:
- Where on a time scale is the tense? So, we get the present, the past, and the future
- Do we want to stress the regularity, the process or the result of the action? Depending on that, we choose between simple, continuous, perfect and perfect continuous
As 3 * 4 = 12, we have 12 tenses. Some of them are widely used and some, like future perfect continuous, are used relatively rarely because of their complexity.
Simple tense is often called "indefinite", and continuous can also be called "progressive".
Table of verb tenses
Click on the tense in the table to view its basic characteristics.
|Present||Present Simple||Present Continuous||Present Perfect||Present Perfect Continuous|
|Past||Past Simple||Past Continuous||Past Perfect||Past Perfect Continuous|
|Future||Future Simple||Future Continuous||Future Perfect||Future Perfect Continuous|
Present Simple (Present Indefinite)
|I pick berries every summer.|
|(-) She doesn't pick berries.
(?) Does she pick berries?
|How to form||I/you/we/they — infinitive
he/she/it — infinitive + -s
|Auxiliary verb||do, does|
|Main use||Regular actions, habits, abilities, common knowledge|
|Other uses||Public timetable
Stative verbs (think, believe, hope, love, want etc.)
A sequence of short actions
|Signal words||always, every day/month/year, usually, often, seldom, sometimes etc.|
Present Continuous (Present Progressive)
|I am picking berries at the moment.|
|(-) She isn't picking berries at the moment.
(?) Is she picking berries at the moment?
|Form||am/is/are + infinitive + -ing|
|Auxiliary verb||am, is, are|
|Main use||The action is happening at the moment of speaking
To stress that the situation is temporary, not permanent
|Another use||Person's habits and behaviour that we don't like:
I am always losing things.
He is being selfish.
|Signal words||now, at the moment|
|I have picked all berries from the bush.|
|(-) She hasn't picked all berries yet.
(?) Has she picked all berries?
|Form||has/have + past participle (the third verb form)|
|Auxiliary verb||has, have|
|Use||To stress the result in relation to the moment of speaking
Something has already happened several times and may happen again
Have you ever...? I have never...
An equivalent of the present perfect continuous for stative verbs
|Signal words||already, ever, just, never, yet, so far, till now, since, for|
Present Perfect Continuous
|I have been picking berries for two hours. I'm tired.|
|(-) She hasn't been picking berries all this time.
(?) Has she been picking berries since morning?
|Form||have/has been + infinitive + -ing|
|Auxiliary verb||have been, has been|
|Use||The action started in the past and has just finished
The action started in the past and is still going on
|Signal words||for, since, how long|
Past Simple (Past Indefinite)
|I picked berries last summer.|
|(-) She didn't pick berries last summer.
(?) Did she pick berries last summer?
|Form||infinitive + -ed (the second verb form)|
|Use||Actions that happened and were completed in the past
In combination with the past continuous, where the past continuous shows longer background action and the past simple shows short action
|Signal words||yesterday, last week/month/year, X days/months/years ago|
Past Continuous (Past Progressive)
|I was picking berries at 9 o'clock yesterday.|
|(-) She wasn't picking berries at 9 o'clock yesterday.
(?) Was she picking berries at 9 o'clock yesterday?
|Formation||was/were + infinitive + -ing|
|Auxiliary verb||was, were|
|Use||To stress that the action in the past was long, continuous
In combination with the past simple, where the past continuous shows longer background action and the past simple shows short action
|Signal words||yesterday, when...|
|I went home after I had picked a full basket of berries.|
|(-) She hadn't picked a basket of berries before she went home.
(?) Had she picked a basket of berries before she went home?
|Form||had + past participle (the third verb form)|
|Use||In combination with the past simple, one action completed before the other one started
An equivalent of the present perfect for the past
|Signal words||before, after, already|
Past Perfect Continuous (Past Perfect Progressive)
|I had been picking berries for two hours when you came.|
|(-) She hadn't been picking berries when I met her.
(?) Had she been picking berries when you met her?
|Formation||had been + infinitive + -ing|
|Auxiliary verb||had been|
|Use||An equivalent of the present perfect continuous
The activity began in the past and it has been going on for some time in relation to the moment of speaking in the past
|Signal words||for, since, how long|
Future Simple (Future Indefinite)
|I will pick berries next week.|
|(-) She won't pick berries next week.
(?) Will she pick berries next week?
|Formation||will + infinitive|
|Auxiliary verb||will, shall|
|Use||Telling facts and predictions about the future
Spontaneous decisions, promises, requests, refusals
if-sentences (the first conditionals)
|Signal words||tomorrow, next week/month/year, in X days/months/years|
Future Continuous (Future Progressive)
|I will be picking berries at 11 o'clock tomorrow.|
|(-) She won't be picking berries at 11 o'clock tomorrow.
(?) Will she be picking berries at 11 o'clock tomorrow?
|Form||will be + infinitive + -ing|
|Auxiliary verb||will be, shall be|
|Use||The activity will be going on at some moment in the future|
|Signal words||at X o'clock tomorrow|
|I will have picked enough berries by 12 o'clock tomorrow.|
|(-) She won't have picked enough berries by 12 o'clock tomorrow.
(?) Will she have picked enough berries by 12 o'clock tomorrow?
|Form||will have + past participle (the third verb form)|
|Auxiliary verb||will have|
|Use||To stress that the action will complete by a certain moment in the future
An equivalent of the future perfect continuous for stative verbs
|Signal words||by X o'clock tomorrow|
Future Perfect Continuous (Future Perfect Progressive)
|At 12 o'clock tomorrow, I will have been picking berries for two hours.|
|(-) She won't have been picking berries for two hours at 12 o'clock tomorrow.
(?) Will she have been picking berries for two hours at 12 o'clock tomorrow?
|Form||will have been + infinitive + -ing|
|Auxiliary verb||will have been|
|Use||To show that at a certain moment in the future, the activity has been going for some time|
|Signal words||for, how long|
You can read more on how to form and how to use each tense in the related topics.