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Concourse 2

Unit 6: tenses in English

time

This Unit draws on the knowledge of verbs that you acquired in Unit 3 but focuses not on what the verbs mean but on the relationship between events and actions and time.
So, from the outset, we'll get some basic ideas clear.

Time
Is not a concept dependent on the language you speak.
Cultures may view time differently (some imagining it moving from behind to in front of you or from below to above and many viewing time as a continuum moving along a straight line from left to right) but time itself is not a subject for language analysis.
Time can be a point:
    What time does the train arrive?
a resource:
    Do you have enough time?
or an occasion
    Did you have a nice time?
Tense
is a language term and strictly speaking refers to changes made to the verb to show the relationship between the action, state or event and the time at or in which it occurred.
It is possible to recognise that, for example:
    She went home
refers to past time because of the form of the verb and that
    She works here
refers to present time (and the past and the future, incidentally) because the form of the verb signals that with the -s ending on the verb.
We can also recognise that:
    She is working in her office
almost certainly refers to the present moment because of the forms of the two verbs.
English has many tense forms but only, arguably, two tenses: past and non-past.
Other languages do things differently and many will have a special form of the verb to show a future tense and may make other changes to the forms of the language to signal their connection with time.
We will not be so strict in this Unit and the next and will refer to all forms of the verb which relate it to time as a tense form.
There is often a clear relationship between time and tense form so we can be reasonably sure that:
    Mary left
refers to the past but that is not always the case because, for example:
    What would he do if Mary left?
is a reference to a possible (but unlikely) future which uses the same tense form.
Aspect
is a key concept in understanding English tenses because the language depends heavily on forms of the verb to signal how the speaker feels about the tense.  We will use two of the most important aspects of English tense forms to exemplify what is meant:
  1. For example, if I say:
        John arrived
    I am referring to an action which took place in the past and is finished as far as I am concerned.  I am saying nothing at all about where John is now.
    However, if I say
        John has arrived
    then I am saying something very different.  In effect, what I am saying is that although John's arrival is finished, the relevance of it to the present is clear to me and I want to communicate it.  What English has done with this form of the verb is embed a past event in the present to make it clear that the past event has changed the way I view the present.
    I might, therefore, go on to say:
        ... so now we can eat
    or express whatever else in the present has been affected by John's past arrival.  This is called the perfect aspect of the tense in English.
  2. The other important aspect signalled by the verb form in English is the progressive.
    I can, for example, say:
        John thinks he is Napoleon
    and am making a statement about a present condition.
    However, I can also say:
        Shush.  John is thinking
    and now I am signalling the fact that I am talking about an action in progress.  That's why it is called the progressive aspect.

Now we are clear about that, we can get on with the Unit.
Here's the menu and, as usual, clicking on the yellow arrow at the end of any section will return you to it.

Section Looking at:
A Tenses in English
What we call them and what they do.
B Talking about always
How we use verb tense forms to refer to anything non-past.
C Talking about the present
How we talk about current events and states.
D Talking about the past
How we talk about past events and states.
E Talking about the future
How we view prospective events and states.


Section A: Tenses in English


form

The forms

Here is a map which sets out the main tense forms in English.
We say in English advisedly.  The map would look very different for any other language.
At any time, you can click on areas of the table that interest you and you will be taken to a guide to that / those tense form(s).  The guides open in new tabs so just shut the page to return.
Those guides will tell you much more than this Unit can cover because we are concerned with the fundamentals, not the details.

past forms past perfect past forms present tenses present tenses future forms more future forms present perfect all tenses

The chart and the following table is available as a PDF document.


function

The functions

Here is a list of the tenses, explained in terms of their main functions and with a few examples.

What follows is not exhaustive but it covers the main uses of these tenses in English.
The fourth column contains examples of the tenses used in the passive.  Unit 5 of this course explained how that is formed and used.
The fifth column contains examples of typical time words associated with the tenses.  It is not the time words which determine the tense use, it is the concept of the tense which determines appropriate time expressions.

Tense Main uses Examples Passive forms Time adverbials
Present simple Repeated or habitual events I play tennis every Thursday The work is done here every day
seldom
never
sometimes
usually
rarely
scarcely ever
often
Generalisations Flamingos eat fish Bears are seen in these hills
Schedules The train arrives at 8 The class is timetabled to start at 9
Present conditions (with some verbs only) representing continuous states I am here
He needs money
She enjoys opera
More resources are needed
Present progressive Current events He is writing a letter A meeting is being held today
these days
now
this week
tomorrow
next Thursday
Current (background) events which may not be occurring now He is writing a book
He is studying French
The house is being decorated
Currently arranged future I'm seeing the doctor tomorrow Tomorrow's meeting is being held in Room 6
Past simple Finished past action or condition I ate at six
I lived in Brazil
I was happy
Lunch was eaten at 6 yesterday
last week
for years
at two
last month
that summer
at three
then
in those days
up to then
Repeated or habitual past action I always ate at six All our holidays were taken there
Past progressive Interrupted past action I was eating when he rang I was being told about it when she interrupted
Progressive action at a particular time I was eating at 7 The car was being serviced then
Discontinued or temporary past habit I was walking to work in those days Calls were being handled by real people then
Parallel past events or events It was raining and the wind was blowing hard
I was eating while she was watching television
Trees were being uprooted and the roads were being flooded
Present perfect A past embedded in the present which changes it I have spoken to him (so now he knows)
I have learnt French (so now I can speak it)
He has broken the pump (so now we can't use it)
The pump has been broken recently
today
this morning
just
already
yet
never
ever
To describe past experiences which change the present I have been to America (so I can speak about it) It has been explained to me
Present perfect progressive To emphasise the duration of a long event embedded in the present which changes it I've been waiting for hours (and am really cold) The road has been being repaired for years
since 1990
already
all my life
this month
Events embedded in the present which change it and are still current (this is actually continuous, not progressive) She's been looking unwell for some time (and still is) She has been being treated for it for weeks
A series of repeated past events embedded in the present which change it He's been stealing money from his employer Money has been being stolen from his employer
Past perfect Completed events before others embedded in the past which explain it I had already spoken to her before he asked The tables had been laid before the guests arrived already
before
beforehand
yet
when ...
Completed long events before others embedded in the past which explain it It had rained for a week and the garden was muddy The garden had been soaked by the rain
Past perfect progressive (Un)completed long events before events in the past.  A previous event is embedded in a past event I had been playing chess for two hours before he arrived The game had been being played
To show a past result of a previous event.  The previous event is embedded in the past event He had been working too hard and was exhausted The work had been being badly done so ...
To show a repeated event embedded in a past event People had been forgetting to come so he sent a reminder Meetings had been being forgotten so ...
Future simple or will future A present promise or offer
The verb will represents willingness, not futurity
I'll write soon, I'll do the washing up
There's no butter!  I'll go and get some.
That'll be done, I promise soon
at 2 o'clock
in two days
on Friday
in 2030
soon
after a while
Predictions based on experience or hunches This will be difficult The work won't please her
Certain absolute futures I will be 45 on Monday The clocks will be put forward
Future progressive Potentially interrupted action He'll be working when you come The game will be being brought to an end when you arrive
Progressive future event happening as a matter of course at a specific time I'll be working at 7 Your statements will be being taken
Future perfect Completed event occurring before another and embedded within it which affects the second He'll have finished the book by the time I want it The book will have been written before the show by then
by Thursday
by the time ...
before ...
beforehand
To show causal connections between future events He'll have repaired the car and then we can use it The car will have been repaired
States occurring before future events (certain verbs only) which change the second event I'll have been at the hotel for a day or two before I can call you The manager will have been asked the question many times
Future perfect progressive Future progressive events embedded in later events which alter them I will have been working for over two hours before you get here The house will have been being decorated
To show causal connections between long events and states He'll have been travelling for ten hours and will be tired The car will have been being driven too fast and ...
To show a repeated previous event embedded in a future event I'll have been trying to call him for two hours by then
going to To express current intention I'm not going to put up with it That is going to be done by me tomorrow
soon
afterwards
before 6
To express prediction based on current evidence or experience Look at those clouds.  It's going to rain any minute The party is going to be spoilt by the rain
used to Past habits (generally only for events) I used to drink lots of coffee
I used to take my holidays in Spain
This used to be done here then
in those days
at that time

Some of the examples in the fourth column are disputable and some would aver that they are never used.
They are used, in fact, but only rarely.

The names of the tenses are quite logically constructed and that will help you to remember them.  The only variation is whether people prefer to say simple present rather than present simple, for example, and the terms are all synonymous so it really doesn't matter.

This unit will not consider all these forms because we are reserving some for Unit 7 which considers aspect more thoroughly.
At the end of each section of this unit, there is a time-line representation of the meaning of the tense form.
If you would like to see more of those, click here (new tab).


learn

Learn more

If you want to discover more now about tenses of all kinds, go to:
the tenses index
which has links to other guides.



test

Take a test

Try a test with the chart before you.
Then refresh the test and try again without using the chart to help you.
If you follow any other guides on this site to tense forms, you will come across plenty more tests.

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Section B: talking about always


man

He works for a bank

Here we are on quite safe ground because most languages use a simple present tense for to talk about things which are true now, were true in the past and will (probably) remain true.
We put in the probably there because as we all know the future is by definition not certain and that, as we shall see later, is a fact which determines how we think about it and which in turn determines the forms we use to talk about it.

The form we use predominately in English is the simple form of the verb.  We do not, usually, use a form such as:
    He is working in a bank
because that implies that the work is temporary rather than permanent.
We also do not use a perfect form such as
    He has worked in a bank
because that implies that he no longer does.

We use the present simple tense to talk about: for example
Repeated or habitual events We take our holidays in France
Perennial truths Water boils at 100°C
Generalisations People respond well to sincerity
Schedules The train leaves at six and takes 50 minutes to get to London
Mental states and abilities Snakes frighten me

The verb forms look like this, using the same example:

Positive Negative Interrogative Negative interrogative
I work
You work
He / She / It work
s
We work
They work
I don't work
You don't work
He / She / It do
esn't work
We don't work
They don't work
Do I work?
Do you work?
Do
es he / she / it work?
Do we work?
Do they work?
Don't I work?
Don't you work?
Do
esn't he / she / it work?
Don't we work?
Don't they work?

Apart from the fact that English is unusual in using the verb do to make negatives and interrogatives in the simple present tense (and the simple past) that all seems quite straightforward.
However, there are three issues to consider:

  1. In the simple present tense, English has a single inflexion, either -s or -es added to the verb in the third-person singular.  No other form is inflected at all so we use the base form of the verb.
    Most languages have a more sophisticated set of inflexions which makes life comparatively simple when learning English but also means that learners very often forget to use the single inflexion that English does demand.
    The exceptions are:
    1. The verb be which is very irregular and changes from be to am, is and are
    2. The verb have which drops the final two letters in the second-person singular form and adds an -s to make has
  2. Some verbs, mostly those which refer to mental states, wishes and perception are also used in the present simple to refer not to always but to a current (i.e., present) condition or state.  For example:
        I like this food
        I want to go home now
        I love this weather
        I see him now

    all refer to a current, not permanent situation.
  3. The central copular verb, be, which we encountered in Unit 3 is also used to refer to both temporary states and permanent ones so, for example:
        A litre is 1000 millilitres
    refers to a permanent condition but
        The dog is in the bathroom
    refers to the present, non-permanent situation.
    Other copular verbs can also refer to temporary states with a simple present tense form, for example:
        I feel hungry

    clearly does not refer to a permanent condition but to a present-only state.
    With other verbs, this is not the case so
        I take the train to work
    is a reference to always but if we want to refer to a specific present condition or a specific temporary habit we need to use a different form:
        I am taking the train to work
    The difference here is in how the verb is used.
    When its use is what is called stative, it refers to the present, not always, so
        She appears unhappy
        It smells bad
        That tastes good

    etc. all refer to the present only and not to a permanent condition.
    We can use these verbs in what is called a dynamic form as in:
        She is tasting the food
    which has a different meaning, of course.

We shall encounter issues with the stative vs. dynamic uses of verbs elsewhere in this Unit.

time line

Time lines

A diagrammatic representation of always time is simple enough.
It looks like this for repeated events:
present simple
and like this for durative, events or states:
durative


learn

Learn more

If you want to discover more now about how we talk about always, go to:
always time



test

Take a test

To make sure you have understood so far, try a test of your knowledge of always time.
Use the 'Back' button to return when you have done that.

arrow


Section C: talking about the present


hotel

She is staying in a hotel

We saw, in the last section, that some verbs refer to a present state, event or action even though they are in the present simple tense.  Therefore, for example:
    The house looks a bit untidy
does not refer to always but to its present condition only.
We can use a real present-tense form and convert that to:
    The house is looking a bit untidy
with no change in meaning.
However, if we change:
    He lives in London
to
    He is living in London
we clearly do change the signal we send: the first suggests a permanent situation and the second suggest that living in London is a present situation only and is temporary.

dynamic

Stative and Dynamic verb uses

The difference is that some verbs can be used statively as in:
    I feel unwell
and can also be used dynamically as in:
    I am feeling unwell
with no, or very little, change in meaning.
Other verbs are not so obliging and have different meanings depending on how they are used.
Verbs which are generally, not always, used with a stative meaning in the simple present are:

  1. Verbs of possession or relations between things such as be, appear, consist, contain, cost, have, depend, fit, include, involve, matter, mean, measure, owe, own, possess, seem, weigh and so on.  So we get, e.g.:
        It weighs three pounds (not is weighing)
        The jacket doesn't fit me (not isn't fitting)
  2. Verbs of sensations: feel, hear, look, see, smell, sound, taste, touch.  So we get, e.g.:
        It tastes delicious (not is tasting)
        That smells awful (not is smelling)
  3. Verbs referring to emotional states such as adore, appreciate, care, desire, dislike, hate, hope, like, love, mind, need, prefer, value, want, wish.  So we get, e.g.:
        I appreciate your time (not am appreciating)
        I love the summer (not am loving)
  4. Verbs referring to mental processes and states such as agree, astonish, believe, concern, deny, disagree, doubt, expect, flabbergast, forget, imagine, impress, know, please, promise, realise, recognise, remember, satisfy, suppose, surprise, think, understand.  So we get, e.g.:
        I deny taking it (not am denying)
        I recognised her at once (not was recognising)

In some books and on some sites, you will find these verbs referred to as stative verbs.  That's not quite accurate because it is better put as verbs normally used statively because, with a change in meaning, we can use most of them dynamically so we allow, for example:
    She is measuring me for a new dress
    You're looking well
    I'm hating this music
    Please wait a minute, I'm thinking about it

and so on.

However, for nearly all the other verbs in the language (around 30,000 of them) reference to the present is signalled by the present progressive which is formed with be + an -ing form (and you will see and hear it called the present continuous, too).

The following are all examples, in red, of the tense used to refer to a current event or activity:

  1. They are looking for her phone
  2. I am working in London this week
  3. He is outside washing the car
  4. She is catching up with the rest of the runners
  5. I am staying for three days

However, as we saw with the present simple, the present progressive does not always signal the same kind of event.
Here's how we use the tense (mostly):

We use the present progressive tense to talk about: for example
Current events I am just heating up the soup now
Current (background) events which may not be occurring now The woman in that car is writing a book
Currently arranged future We are driving to London tomorrow

You may find that the last of these is referred to as the present progressive or continuous for the future and that is one way to look at it (but the wrong way).
The tense is a present form and refers to a present arrangement, not a future event (which may not happen).

Stative and dynamic uses are also in play here, of course, so, for example:
    I like this music
probably refers to a current feeling rather than a permanent state, whereas:
    I like her music
refers to a permanent feeling.

On the other hand
    She is being silly
refers to the present and not a permanent state, but
    She is silly
refers to always.

There is one more form that is often spoken of as a future form: going + to.
In a sentence like:
    I am going to see him tomorrow
you may be forgiven for thinking that the reference is only to the future and that is the way many people interpret it.
However, a moment's thought reveals that it carries the same meaning as:
    It is my current intention to see him tomorrow
so the form is a present tense with reference to a present intention and intentions, as we know from the meaning of the word, are always concerned with the future.
In other words, this is a question of meaning, not grammatical form.

sure?

Are you sure?

We are generally fairly certain about events that occur repeatedly, habitually or perennially but even when we speak about the present, we are not always sure we are right.
So, for example, when someone asks:
    What's Mary doing?
the response may be
    She's reading in the garden
but if we can't actually see her we can use other forms to show a bit of doubt such as:
    She may be reading in the garden
    She could be sitting in the garden

and so on.
There is more about this in Unit 8 which considers modal auxiliary verbs and a little more below when we come to consider how we talk about the future (which is even less certain than the present, of course.

grump

The other present tense

Have I upset you?  

We saw above that we can use a present progressive form to talk about arrangements and intentions (which both refer to the future) and we can also use a present tense to talk about the effects now of a past event.
Here's how we do it:

The reference to the past event: the effect on the present
Mary has telephoned so I can tell you what she said
The dog has escaped so I need you to help me look for her
It has rained a lot recently and the garden is very muddy

Many teachers and, alas, teacher trainers and materials writers, seem to believe that this tense form refers to the past.
It does not and the clue is the name of the tense: the present perfect.
What this tense form does is relate a past event to the present and signal that the present is now the way it is because the past event occurred.  In other words, it embeds the past in the present, and does not refer explicitly to the past: it describes the present.
Another reason that this is obviously a present tense lies in the fact that the effect can sometimes leap the present and refer to a future situation as in, e.g.:
    It has snowed for hours ... so the trains will be cancelled

Here are some more examples of the tense in action.  What might be the present effects?
Click on the eye open when you have an idea.

Mary has cooked
eye open
I have just come back from France
eye open
The train has been delayed
eye open
I have spoken to the doctor
eye open
My pen has run out
eye open

Occasionally, too, you will find websites and others who aver that the present perfect refers to recent events but that is not necessarily the case because we can say:
    Peter has learned French (so now he can speak it)
and the learning could have taken place at any time.
Often, of course, the past event is quite recent because that is how cause and effect work but it is not a characteristic of the present perfect.  It is a characteristic of the universe.

form

Forming tenses with be and have

When tenses are formed with the verbs be and have the forms are somewhat simpler because we do not use do to make questions and negatives but use the simple inversion rule which many other languages, especially European ones, also use.
It works like this:

Progressive forms with be
Positive Negative Interrogative Negative interrogative
I am working
You are working
He / She / It is working

We are working
They are working
I'm not working
You aren't working
He / She / It isn't working
We aren't working
They aren't working
Am I working?
Are you working?
Is he / she / it working?
Are we working?
Are they working?
Aren't I working?
Aren't you working?
Isn't he / she / it working?
Aren't we working?
Aren't they working?
Perfect forms with have
I have worked
You have worked
He / She / It has worked
We have worked
They have worked
I haven't worked
You haven't worked
He / She / It hasn't worked
We haven't worked
They haven't worked
Have I worked?
Have you worked?
Has he / she / it worked?
Have we worked?
Have they worked?
Haven't I worked?
Haven't you worked?
Hasn't he / she / it worked?
Haven't we worked?
Haven't they worked

The one to watch is the first form in the fourth column:
We do not say *Amn't I but prefer Aren't I.
It's simply an idiomatic usage and until a couple of hundred years ago, amn't I was quite common.

time line

Time lines

Time lines are a bit more complicated for current time.
We can use something like this for the idea of a current event or state:
present progressive
but it is more difficult to separate that from one to show a background event rather than a current event.
For a current arrangement or intention we can represent the idea as:
present progressive future
or
going to
It looks like this for the present perfect to talk about the effect of a past event:
present perfect


learn

Learn more

For much more about how we talk about the present, go to:
present time



test

Take a test

To make sure you have understood so far, try a test of the ways we talk about the present.
Use the 'Back' button to return when you have done that.

arrow


Section D: talking about the past


knight

In those days ...

Here, because we are not focused on aspect as much as on tense, we will consider just four tense forms which we use to refer to the past.

  1. The past simple as in, e.g.:
        I walked to work
        I studied hard at university
  2. The past progressive, as in, e.g.:
        She was working last night
        I was sitting on the train when I had the idea
        I was staying at the Ritz at the time
        She was working in the garden while I was doing the cooking
  3. The past perfect as in, e.g.:
        I had finished before the boss arrived
        I had studied the language for years by then
  4. used to and would as in, e.g.:
        We used to have lunch in the park
        She would get worried when I was late home

We'll take them one at a time.

castle

The past simple (or simple past)

This tense is the one everyone recognises as a past form and it translates directly into hundreds of other languages which use a simple form (with an ending or other change to signal the tense) for a past, completed action.
As we saw in Unit 3, one small issue is that many common verbs in English happen to be irregular and do not take the simple -d or -ed ending as the past-tense inflexion.
Refer to the list in that unit for the forms of irregular past tenses.
The form is used to refer to two sorts of states, events or actions:

We use the past simple tense to talk about: for example
Finished past action or condition I lost my way
Repeated or habitual past action We took our holidays at the seaside when I was a child

The past simple is an absolute tense which means it is independent of any other time and not relative.
For this reason it occurs frequently with absolute-time markers such as last, month, in July, in 1976, before the war, when he was 10 and so on.
It rarely occurs, in British English, with markers such as recently, yet, just, since.  However, in American and other varieties, the form does occur with these markers so we encounter:
    Did she just leave?
when a British-English speaker would probably prefer:
    Has she just left?

An issue with the regular past forms (and regular past participle forms) is how the ending is pronounced: it may be as d, t or ed.  There is a guide linked below to the pronunciation.

road

The past progressive

The past progressive is more complicated because it is not a truly absolute tense.  If we compare:
    We drove to London
with
    We were driving to London
it is clear that the second of these events was probably unfinished.  Certainly, the form does not imply that the event was finished but the first sentence clearly refers to a completed action.  It is, in the jargon, perfective (not perfect).
It is the unfinished, or non-finite aspect that makes the tense hard for people to learn because many languages do not have a dedicated form for this idea.

We use the past progressive tense to talk about: for example
A background activity She was living in London when she met her husband
An interrupted (or not) past action She was riding her bike when she had the accident
An action in progress at a particular time We were sitting in the garden in the sunshine
Parallel past events or events John was playing the piano while Mary was playing the flute

We'll look at each in turn:

  1. The use of the progressive form to refer to a background event should be familiar to you now from the section above on talking about the present.
    We use it in the same way when we are talking about the past as in, e.g.:
        She was teaching at that school when she bought her first house
    in which we know that the teaching and house buying cannot have happened at the same time so the first action forms the background to the second.
  2. We also use the form in a related way to refer to actions which are interrupted (either to be continued or not depending on the meaning (not the form) of the sentence).
    For example:
        I was walking home when I met John and went to the pub
    in which the walking was terminated by the visit to the pub and we do not know (or much care) whether it continued later.
    We can also have:
        I was walking home when the idea came to me
    in which it seems that the walking continued after the idea arrived.
    Sometimes, we do not know if the action continued or not so in:
        I was working in the garden when he rang
    may mean that I did or did not answer the call.
  3. Sometimes, we simply want to emphasise the fact that an action took a long time (it was, in the jargon, durative) so we use this tense as in:
        It was raining for hours and hours
  4. Finally, we use the form to refer to two (or more) long-lasting events that ran parallel in time as in, e.g.:
        John was reading while I was working
queen

The past perfect

We saw above that the present perfect embeds a past event in the present which it has changed in some way.
The past perfect does exactly the same but both actions, states or events are set in the past and completed.
We only use this tense when we wish to make the sequence clear.  When it's obvious, we can simply use two past simple forms.
For example:
    He had met her before and remembered her name
and in that it is made clear that the first action has changed the second.  It is the pre-past embedded in the past just as the present perfect refers to the past embedded in the present.

smoke

used to and would

We saw above that we can use the simple past to refer to past habits so we can have:
    I swam in the sea when I was on holiday
to mean that I repeatedly swam in the sea in the past.
However, English also has an unusual dedicated form which refers to past habits which are no longer.  Two, in fact:
    I used to swim in the sea when I was on holiday
which implies that I no longer take holidays where this is possible.
and
    I would swim in the sea when I was on holiday
which implies exactly the same thing.
There are, in fact, some restrictions on the use of this forms which the guides linked at the end will explain.

time line

Time lines

Past time lines are helpful because languages vary considerably and it is important to help our students any way we can when it comes to understanding past concepts.
The simple past for a completed event can be shown like this:
past simple
The interrupted past can be visualised like this:
past progressive
in which we have event 1 (cycling) terminated by event 2 (the accident).
We can also illustrate the continuing event 1, like this:
past progressive
in which event 1 continues after event 2.
Parallel, long-duration events can be shown like this:
parallel
Showing background events is slightly trickier but we can try something like:
background
The past perfect can be shown to embedding a pre-past event in the past in a similar way to how we do it for the present perfect, like this:
past perfect
The discontinued past habit structures can be illustrated in two ways (one for an action and one for a state):
used to
used to
and in both cases we show that the action or event is terminated.


learn

Learn more

If you want to discover more now about pronunciation, go to:
pronouncing past endings
Otherwise, try:
past time
which does not dwell overmuch on the past simple but does consider other past forms and concepts.



test

Take a test

To make sure you have understood so far, try a test of your knowledge of past forms.
Use the 'Back' button to return when you have done that.

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Section E: talking about the future


crystal

One day ...

The future is, as is often pointed out, unknowable.
We are, therefore, in the realms of speculation and that explains how English uses certain forms to talk about the future.
We have, above, dismissed both:
    I am meeting John later
and
    I am going see a doctor about this pain
as not being future forms at all because the first refers to a current arrangement and the second to a current intention, both of which are present conditions so it is unsurprising that English uses a present form for them.

From the outset, we should make something clear.
The word will is a modal auxiliary verb that refers to willingness and volition so, for example:
    I'll get that for you
is not a future tense form, it is an expression of current willingness.
We will not be considering modal auxiliary verb uses here because that is reserved for Unit 8 of this course.
However, because the future is always in doubt, we often use modal auxiliary verbs and other expressions which signal the doubtfulness such as is exemplified here:
certain

English speakers use these kinds of verbs very frequently to talk about the future and reserve the two tenses we have identified here for quite limited uses.

This leaves us with some very simple choices to talk about the future sensibly.  Again, because this unit is more about tense than aspect, we'll only consider two forms.
It is true that English does not have a future tense because we make no changes to the verb forms to denote a future reference.
This is unlike, for example, French, Spanish and Italian which all have distinct inflexions on the verb to show the future tense.
Other languages, such as German and Dutch are much more like English in this respect.
However, the two forms we have selected here function as future tense forms even if they are not specifically inflected to show it.

The two forms are:

  1. The simple or will future as in, e.g.:
        I will get my new car tomorrow
        This will be a long job
        High tide will be at 6
  2. The future progressive, as in, e.g.:
        She will be working late tonight
        I'll be having my dinner then so call later

We'll take them one at a time.

simple

The simple or will future

Two functions of this tense form used for real future reference concern us here.

We use the future simple tense to talk about: for example
Predictions based on experience or knowledge She'll be happy to see you
Certain absolute future events My son will be ten tomorrow

Here are a few examples of these uses:

  1. Prediction based on experience (and sometimes just hunches):
        I expect Joan will be late as usual
        This won't be easy
        It'll take a while
        The morning will be fine and dry but cloud will build in the afternoon and most areas will see some rain before the evening.
  2. Absolute futures:
        Mercury will be visible in the southern sky this evening
        My birthday will be on a Thursday next year

In the use exemplified in 1., above, it is very common to add an expression which relates to the speaker's certainty of the event so we encounter, for example:
    I don't think that will help
    I hope John will be there
    I wonder if she will come

etc.

In the use exemplified in 2., above, a simple present tense is often substituted to get, e.g.:
    The planets are aligned on the 4th May
    My birthday is on a Thursday this year

and so on, because the sense is one of a timetabled event and parallels expressions we saw above when talking about scheduled events such as:
    The London trains leave at ten past every hour.

You may read about the will future being used for what is sometimes called a spontaneous decision and that may be exemplified in a mini-dialogue as:
    A: There's no milk!
    B: Oh, I'll go and get some from the shop.
or something equally unlikely.
The truth of the matter is that this form does not refer to the future per se although an action may follow.  It refers to the speaker's current (not future) willingness to commit to doing something.  It is therefore a modal auxiliary verb expressing willingness, not a tense marker.  Much confusion is caused in the minds of learners by people who refer to it as a future form.
In any case, the future event may not happen because the next line of the dialogue could be something like:
    Don't bother.  George can stop on his way home and get some.

road

The future progressive

This form also has three related functions.

We use the future progressive tense to talk about: for example
Potentially interrupted actions He'll be working in the garden most of the day
The future as a matter of course I'll be staying at The Grand
Predicted temporary state or habit I'll be taking the train while the car's with you
  1. Potential interruption:
    The use of the progressive form to refer to a background event which may or may not be interrupted should be familiar to you now from the sections above on talking about the present and the past.  This is a parallel with those uses so we may also encounter, e.g.:
        I'll be staying with my brother during the conference so I don't need a hotel
        They'll be having lunch about now so call later

    etc.
    The difference here is, naturally, that we do not know whether any interruption will occur but we do know that there is a potential for it.
  2. The second use is often quite hard for learners to grasp because it is peculiar to English.
    It refers to something which occurs as a matter of course and is akin to the timetabled use of the present simple or progressive (with either of which it can often be replaced).  For example:
        We'll be arriving at Calais at 16:40
        The professor will be giving a lecture at that time
        The sun'll be shining at that time of year in Greece

    all of which can be rephrased using a present-tense form.
  3. Predicted temporary state or habit:
    We use this form for temporary conditions which we are committed to.  For example:
        I'll be teaching her class while she's on holiday
        They'll be taking the bus to school this term
        Nobody will be working in the office on Bank Holidays

time line

Time lines

Future time lines are helpful because they can focus on the nature of the difference between a current arrangement or intention and a real future form.  See above for the ways that the latter two can be illustrated.
The future simple for a predicted event can be shows like this:
will
and the future progressive form may be imagined like this:
will be
and like this when it refers to temporary future habits:
future progressive


learn

Learn more

If you want to discover more about how we refer to the future, go to:
future time



test

Take a test

To make sure you have understood so far, try a test of your knowledge of future forms.
Use the 'Back' button to return when you have done that.

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