Verb tenses change the entire direction of our sentences. For example, "He walked to the store" tells us he did this in the past. "He walks to the store" tells us he is presently conducting this activity. And "He will walk to the store" tells us it's something that will happen in the future. Categories of English verb tenses are absolutely necessary to achieve fluency in English.
The study of grammar is a lifelong forge, but the rewards are worth the effort. English verb tenses help organize our thoughts and our writing. Clarity in spoken and written communication permits you entrance to a world where ideas flourish. Let's enter that world.
There are four important verb tense categories we'll focus on here. The most predominant tense is the simple tense. Most of us use it every day. Then, we'll move on to three more complex, yet necessary, verb tenses.
Simple tenses are the basic past, present, and future. They describe either one event or all events of an action.
Progressive tenses discuss an ongoing (or progressing) action.
Perfect tenses discuss a future action that will be completed (or perfected).
For a handy printable of all the verb tenses with example sentences, plus information on whether conditionals are considered tenses see What Are English Verb Tenses?.
The simple tense is not only simple, it's straightforward. It puts our words into context, regarding past, present, and future activities. Let's take a look.
Simple present is used when the action being described is habitual or constant. It's simple, because all you have to do is use the first form of the verb you want.
I walk to work every day.
Jessica always takes the elevator.
Do you know Joe?
Jim doesn't drink anymore.
Notice how singular third person verbs change? Each verb typically receives an "S" at the end.
The simple past is pretty easy, too. It describes a single event in the past without reference to any other past action. It's really important to know that the simple past is only for singular events, because there are other English verb tenses that handle more complex situations.
The simple past uses the second forms of verbs. And, just to throw in a curveball, this is the first tense in which the dreaded irregular verb comes into play.
Let's take a look:
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.
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." Some of them are irregular. That is, they shift from an -ed ending to some other form. We see this with "took," "met," and "quit."
Irregular verbs are one of the major catches in English, but if you work hard at them, you'll get them straight in no time. The most important ones to know are "to have," "to be," "to go" and "to do," because they all work as helping verbs in other tenses. For more on these shapeshifters, take a look at this Irregular Verb List.
The simple future is simple because it 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. The only thing to note that it has a helping verb.
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 (almost always). Don't use the helping verb when you're saying something will happen irrespective to anything else.
Here are a few examples using "will" to indicate the simple future.
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. (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)
Erin's oncologist appointment is at five. (an unchanging appointment)
Now, let's move on to three slightly more complex, yet necessary, tenses. First, 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. Let's look at some examples of each:
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.
Notice how, no matter the past, present, or future tense, each verb is indicating a continuous action? The castle didn't just shine for a second in the moonlight. It "was shining" continuously. Even in the future tense, the discussion surrounds an action that will be ongoing.
Next, the perfect tense indicates an action that has been completed (or perfected). Here, too, the action may have been completed in the past tense, the present tense, or the future tense. Here are some examples of each:
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.
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. And in all cases, a version of "to have" is used as a helping verb.
Finally, it's worth noting verbs can take on a combination of both the perfect and progressive form. 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).
Past Perfect Progressive Tense: He had been traveling for 36 hours.
Present Perfect Progressive Tense: I have been cooking for days.
Future Perfect Progressive Tense: By then, she will have been traveling for six months.
Notice how each action has been finalized, but it was an ongoing affair. In the first example, he was continuously traveling, but it's completed - in the past. In the second example, the action is soon-to-be-completed and certainly continuous. In the third example, the task is complete, but it was ongoing for a six-month period of time. In all cases, a version of "to have" and "been" are used.
Our verb tenses must be intentional and deliberate. You can see how they not only direct the focus of the sentence but define the time in which something happened. It goes beyond a need for accuracy; it avoids major confusion among speakers. If you're ready to test your tenses, see if you can master any or all of these verb games.