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Concourse 2

Understanding English tenses


Three ideas to start with.  It's important to understand the difference:

  1. Time: this refers to when an event happens.
  2. Tense: this refers to the form of the verb.  For example:
    walked and had walked are past tenses
    walks and is walking are present tenses
  3. Aspect: this refers to how the speaker thinks about the event in time.  For example:
    He walked here is finished and in the past
    He has walked here means he is here now and I know how he got here
    She is playing the piano refers to right now (and is not finished)
    I will be 25 years old tomorrow refers to the future

We can't cover all the possible tense forms in one guide but these are the most common ones with their most common meanings. 


The 3 most important things to understand about Englishes tenses

  1. English has two types of tenses: absolute and relative.
  2. English has only two tenses: past and non-past.
  3. There is no pure future tense in English but will plus the verb is used to talk about a fixed future.

When you understand these things, life is much easier.


Absolute tenses

Absolute tenses are fixed in time.  We do not need to understand any other time to understand these tenses.
These are the absolute tenses in English.


The present simple 1

This tense talks about a habit that we have in the past, the present and the future.  It is NOT about NOW.
Here are some more examples:
    I watch too much television (but I am not at home now)
    I always take the dog for a walk in the morning (but it is the afternoon)
    She goes to school at 7 o'clock (but she is on holiday at the moment)

    They write to me every Sunday (but today is Wednesday)
In all these sentences, we are talking about what always happens, not what is happening now.


The present simple 2

With verbs like enjoy, like, work, live, think, believe, play and many more, this tense is used to say what exists or happens in the background.  Again, we are not talking about now, we are talking about ALWAYS.  For example:
    I enjoy tennis (but I am sitting at my desk now)
    I work in London (but I am in Berlin now)
    I play the piano (but I am in a boat now)
    I think she's very friendly (but she is not here now)

In all these sentences, we are talking about something which is continuous and always true, not what is happening now.


The present progressive

This is the tense we use to talk about NOW, not always.  For example:
    Where is John?  He is playing tennis with Peter
    What are you doing here?  I am shopping for a birthday present for my husband
    Where are the new guests?  They are having breakfast on the terrace
    Please be quiet.  I am listening to the news.

We can also use this tense to talk about what is happening in the background but not right now.  For example:
    I am writing a book in English (but at the moment, I am not writing)
    She is shopping in town (but at the moment she is in a coffee shop)

We do not use this tense with verbs like enjoy, like, work, live, think, believe.  These are wrong:
    I am thinking she is very friendly
    I am enjoying classical music


Used to

This is the form we use to set a habit in the past.  Above, we had, for example:
    I watch too much television
and that means always, not at the moment.
We can put this is the past and say:
    I used to watch too much television (but now I go out more and see my friends)
    I used to take the dog for a walk in the morning (but now I must work earlier so I take her in the evening)
    She used to go to school at 7 o'clock (but now she lives near the school, she goes at 8 o'clock)
    They used to write to me every Sunday (but they live next door now so they don't)


The past simple

This is the tense we use to set an action in the past.  The action is finished.  For example:
    I walked to work this morning
    I went to New York last July
    We saw a good film yesterday
    She told me a good story

We often use this tense with fixed times like yesterday, last year, before 1990, at 4 o'clock in the morning and so on.


The past progressive


We use this tense in three ways:

  1. When we want to be clear that something was a long action.
        I was driving all day yesterday and am very tired
        I was sitting in the garden and John was cooking lunch

    In this case, we can also say
        I drove all day
        I sat in the garden and John cooked the lunch
    and there is not much difference in meaning.
  2. When a short action comes in the middle of a long action.  For example:
        I was driving to work when I had an idea
        She was sleeping when it started to snow
  3. When a short action stops a long action.  For example:
        She was watching television when she fell asleep
        They were sitting in the garden when it started to rain so they came in


The simple future

Many people say that English does not have a future tense but this form is the same as the future in many languages.
We use the tense for things that we know are in the future.  For example:
    I will be 28 tomorrow
    Tomorrow, it will rain
    The shops will stay open until seven


Warning: using will

The word will has lots of meanings but only one of them refers to the future.

It is used to make a future in English (see above) in, for example:
    The train will arrive in 5 minutes
This is a future form in English.

The word will is also used (only for people) to say that someone is happy to do something.  They are volunteering.  For example:
    A: Oh, I've left my tea in the kitchen
    B: It's OK.  I'll bring it to you
The sentence I'll bring it to you is not a future tense.  It is a way to show that you want, or are happy, to do something now.

We can also make offers or refuse to do something using will.
For example:
    You look tired.  I'll cook tonight
    I don't have much money so I won't buy you lunch

We use will to make promises, too, as in:
    If you do the washing up, I'll take you to school in the car
    Thanks for the book.  I'll return it next week

You can see this because only people can make offers, refuse to do something or make promises:
    I'll give you the money is an offer, not a future tense
    The train will be late is a future – trains do not make promises or offers!
And, if I say:
    I think I will stop work now
I am not talking about the future.  It means:
    I want to stop work now


The future progressive


We use this tense in two main ways:

  1. This is the same as the past progressive (meaning 2) but it is set in the future.  It means a long action can be interrupted or stopped by a short action.  For example:
        I will be travelling by plane so you can't telephone me tomorrow morning
        I will be shopping in town tomorrow so we can meet for a coffee if you like
  2. When an action in the future is repeated.  For example:
        I will be walking to work in future because my doctor says I need more exercise
        I'll be eating out in restaurants because my cooker is broken


Relative tenses

Relative tenses are used in English to link two times together.
Many languages do not have relative tenses and that makes it difficult for some people to understand them in English.
To understand a relative tense (and use it!) we need to understand the connection between two times.
Here is the list of relative tenses.


The present perfect

This tense puts the past inside the present, like this:
It means that the present can only be understood in relation to something which happened in the past.
For example:
    Good.  John has arrived (and NOW we can begin the meeting)
    I have lost my money (and
NOW I can't buy a ticket)
    She has broken her phone (so
NOW she can't call him)
    The bus has arrived (so NOW we can start our journey)


The present perfect progressive


This works in the same way as the present perfect because it sets the past in the present like this:
The difference is that we use it in two different ways:

  1. To talk about repeated past events that have changed the present.
    For example:
        Someone has been stealing money from the shop
        People have been coming here for years
        I have been trying to telephone you but the line is always engaged
        She has been working very late in the evenings recently
  2. To talk about a long action which explains the present.
    For example:
        She has been working hard all day and needs a break
        I have been digging in the garden and my back hurts
        They have been eating too much and are getting fat
        We have been saving money for years to buy a house and now we have enough


The past perfect

This tense does the same as the present perfect but it puts the past inside the past, like this
It means that something before the past changed the past and we can only understand the past in relation to what happened before it.
For example:
    I bought a new ticket because I had lost mine (and that's why I bought a new one)
    I didn't mind the rain because I had brought my overcoat (so that's why it was OK)
    I looked for him but he had already left (and that's why I couldn't find him)
    He had cooked before we arrived (so he didn't need to be in the kitchen)


going to

This tense sets the future in the present because it is about what we want to do NOW or what we think happens next.
It puts the future inside the present, like this:
For example:
    I am going to take the bus to work (I know that NOW)
    I think it's going to rain (I know because I am looking at the sky
    I am going to study French (and I have the intention
    We are going to take a holiday (and we both know we need a holiday


Present progressive for the future

This is very similar to the last one but it refers, usually, to an arrangement made now for the future.  It, too, sets the future inside the present, like this:
For example:
    I am meeting the boss tomorrow (and we both have the time in our diaries)
    She is coming this evening (and I have spoken to her about this)
    They are having a meeting tomorrow (and everyone has been told about it)
    She is selling her house (and there is a sign outside)

Often, it doesn't matter if you use the going to future or the present progressive future.

was going

The future in the past


We can put both the tense forms for the future from the present into the past and the same ideas are in the tenses.
Both forms set the future in the past, like this:
and both forms mean that she had an intention or an arrangement but for some reason it didn't happen.
For example:
    I was going to watch the TV but I have to work (so now I can't watch TV)
    She was going to meet her mother in town but she feels ill (so she isn't meeting her mother)
    The were having a meeting about this tomorrow but the boss can't come so the meeting is happening next week now
    I was hoping to see her but she can't come


The future perfect

This is not a very common tense in English.  It sets the past in the future, like this:
and it means that we can only understand the future by understanding what will come before it in time.
For example:
    I will have finished the work before he needs it (so he will have it when he wants it)
    They will have arrived before we eat (so we will be able to eat together)
    She will have finished the book by Thursday (so you can borrow it then)
    Mary will have lived here for a year by Christmas (so she will know a lot about the place)


Time is relative

We saw that there are two sorts of tenses: absolute (the first group) and relative (the second group).

Some books (and some teachers) will tell you that you can decide on which sort of tense to use by looking at the time expression which comes in the sentence.  That's the wrong way round, unfortunately.
You can only decide what time expression to use by looking at what the tense means.

All the absolute tenses can be used with time expressions which say exactly when something happens, happened or will happen.
So for example:
    I catch the bus at 8:30 every morning
    She is writing to her mother at the moment
    I used to take the train on Mondays
    I spoke to him last month
    I was sitting on the train yesterday afternoon when I got the call
    She will be having a meeting between 6 and 7 this evening
    The sun will set at 4:30 tomorrow

Relative tenses are more difficult because some do not allow you to use a time expression which says exactly when something happens.
For example, you cannot say:
    Mary has arrived at six o'clock
Relative tenses do allow you to use words like already, yet, up till now / then, by four o'clock and so on so all these are OK:
    John has already started the work
    Has Mary been told yet?
    She had already finished the repairs when he arrived
    I had been unsure up till then but he told me the right way to go
    We will have got the train by 4 o'clock so will be home before six
    I have lived here for many years
    She has recently become the manager
and so on.



There are some tests you can do on the tense forms in English.
Click here to go to the tenses test index.