There are a total of 12 English verb tenses. This can make it difficult for students and ESL learners to use verbs correctly. Simple definitions and examples of the different tenses can help you make sense of using verbs properly.
Basic English Verb Tenses and Usage Tips
Three Main Verb Tenses
The simplest place to start in learning about verb tenses is to explore the three main types of verbs: past, present, and future.
Verb tenses can change the entire meaning of sentences, so it’s important to get them right. Take a look at this verb tense chart to see the past, present, and future tenses of over 100 regular verbs.
Past Tense Verbs
A past tense verb is a word that tells you what the subject has already done. Just as the name implies, you use it to describe something that happened in the past.
For example, “He walked to the store.” uses the past tense version of “walk” and tells you that “he” already made it to the store on foot.
Present Tense Verbs
A present tense verb is an action word that tells you what the subject is doing right now, in the present.
For example, “He walks to the store.” uses the present tense of the verb “walk” and tells you “he” is in the process of getting to the store on foot now.
Future Tense Verbs
A future tense verb is a word that tells you an action that will take place at some point, but hasn’t happened yet.
For example, “He will walk to the store.” uses the future tense of the verb “walk” and tells you that “he” plans to go to the store on foot, but hasn’t started the journey yet.
Four Aspects of Verb Tenses
The three main verb tenses can each be further broken down to include the four aspects of verb tenses: simple, progressive, perfect, and perfect progressive. The most predominant tense is the simple tense.
Simple tenses are the basic versions of past, present, and future tense verbs. They describe either one event or all events of one action.
Progressive tenses discuss an ongoing (or progressing) action.
Perfect tenses discuss a future action that will be completed (or perfected).
Perfect progressive tenses discuss a future action that will be ongoing.
Simple Verb Tense
The simple past tense describes a single event in the past without reference to any other past action. Use this only for singular events.
Simple Past Tense Verbs
The simple past uses the second forms of verbs. This is the first tense in which the dreaded irregular verb comes into play.
Examples of Simple Past Tense Verbs
Notice that the time periods and actions being discussed are all finished in the past. Also notice that not all the verbs end in "-ed." For irregular verbs like "took," "met," and "quit," you have to learn their unique conjugations.
I walked to work yesterday.
Jessica took the elevator this morning.
You met Joe at Jim's party.
He quit drinking many years ago.
Erin smoked 20 cigarettes on Friday.
Simple Present Tense Verbs
Simple present tense is used when the action being described is habitual or constant. These are the standard forms of verbs you see.
Examples of Simple Present Tense Verbs
Each verb typically receives an "s" at the end. Notice how singular third person verbs change.
I walk to work every day.
Jessica always takes the elevator.
Do you know Joe?
Jim doesn't drink anymore.
Simple Future Tense Verbs
The simple future tense only describes a single event that has yet to occur. The simple future is just like the other simple tenses. If you understand the simple past and present, this one will be a breeze. When you use this tense, add a helping verb before the verb.
Examples of Simple Future Tense Verbs
The most popular helping verb for the simple future tense is "will." A good rule of thumb is to use "will" when the future event is a promise or a prediction.
I will walk to work tomorrow. (a promise and prediction)
Jessica will take the elevator on Thursday. (a prediction based on observation)
You will meet Joe at the next party. (a prediction)
Jim won't drink any kind of alcohol. (a prediction based on observation)
Erin will spend thousands of dollars on tobacco this year. (a prediction based on calculation)
My alarm rings at seven. (it will ring whether I am there to hear it or not)
The elevator inspector comes on Tuesday. (an unchanging appointment)
The party starts at eight. (a scheduled event)
Jim's AA meeting is next Wednesday. (a scheduled event)
Progressive Verb Tense
The progressive tense indicates an ongoing (or progressing) action. That action may be progressing in the past tense, the present tense, or the future tense.
Examples of Progressive Tense Verbs
Notice how, no matter the tense, each verb is indicating a continuous action. The castle didn't just shine for a second in the moonlight. It "was shining" continuously.
Past Progressive Tense: The castle was shining in the moonlight.
Present Progressive Tense: The candles are flickering.
Future Progressive Tense: By 8 P.M., the oven will be roasting.
Perfect Verb Tense
The perfect tense indicates an action that has been completed or perfected. The action may have been completed in the past tense, the present tense, or the future tense.
Examples of Perfect Tense Verbs
Notice how each scenario, whether it's past, present or future, is indicating the task or action has come to completion. Even if we're discussing a future time, we're discussing a time in which the action will have been completed. In all cases, a version of "to have" is used as a helping verb.
Past Perfect Tense: They had danced for over three hours before going home.
Present Perfect Tense: I have eaten dinner already.
Future Perfect Tense: He will have finished his science project by the time school starts.
Perfect Progressive Verb Tense
Verbs can take on a combination of both the perfect and progressive forms. The tenses are combined because they're indicating a completed or soon-to-be completed event (perfect tense) that was, is, or will be ongoing (progressive).
Examples of Perfect Progressive Tense Verbs
Notice how each action has been finalized, but it was an ongoing affair. In all cases, a version of "to have" and "been" are used.
Past Perfect Progressive Tense: He had been traveling for 36 hours.
He was continuously traveling in the past, but he’s done now.
Present Perfect Progressive Tense: I have been cooking for days.
The cooking is continuous and soon-to-be-completed.
Future Perfect Progressive Tense: By then, she will have been traveling for six months.
The traveling is complete, but it was ongoing for a six-month period of time.
Mastering English Verb Tenses
Verb tenses are intentional and deliberate to direct the focus of the sentence and define the time in which something happened. This helps avoid confusion during communication. If you're ready to test your tenses, see if you can master these verb tense worksheets and verb games.