Making sense of tense
|On this page...|
|Present Simple||Past Perfect|
|Present Continuous||Past Perfect Continuous|
|Present Perfect||Future Simple|
|Present Perfect Continuous||Future Continuous|
|Past Simple||Future Perfect|
|Past Continuous||Future Perfect Continuous|
Present Simple Tense
|The present simple is used for established facts and things in general.||
"A banana is
never quite straight."
"Malaysia exports rubber."
|It is also used for habitual activities or routines.||"The President gets up at five and starts work at seven."|
simple tenses are generally used with verbs of perception: sound, seem, appear, smell,
taste, look and feel (note, however, that look and
feel can also be used with the continuous
to Fiji sounds just great because the beaches
appear less crowded and the prices
seem quite reasonable."
"This French bread smells quite fresh, tastes delicious, feels very soft, and looks just great."
COMPARE: "I am not feeling very well today" and "You are looking wonderful in that new dress, my dear, but what happened to the curtains?"
|The present simple is used with hear, and with see (except when it means "to meet").||
footsteps. Quick, someone's coming!"
"I see you don't understand what I mean."
COMPARE: "She is seeing the dentist tomorrow."
|The simple tenses are always used with so called state (or stative) verbs, such as: agree, approve of, believe, belong to, consider (hold an opinion), consist of, contain, cost, depend, disagree, gather (understand), hate, have (own), know, like, loathe, love, mean, own, need, possess, prefer, realize, regret, remember, resemble, suppose, think (hold an opinion), understand, want, wish, etc.||
people believe in UFOs, but I
"Henry regrets what he did and wishes to make amends.''
"Although, of course, I don't normally approve of gossip, I do like her new autobiography. It contains a number of shocking revelations about the world of showbiz."
|The present simple is usually used with so called performative verbs (i.e. utterances that actually constitute an action), such as: accept, acknowledge, admit, advise, apologize, assume, deny, guarantee, hope, inform, predict, promise, recommend, suggest, warn, etc.||"He admits he made a big mistake, acknowledges full responsibility, accepts the consequences, apologizes from the bottom of his heart, and promises not to do it again."|
|It is used for schedules drawn up by others.||
ship sails at dawn."
"The next train leaves at half-past six."
|It is often employed when telling jokes or funny stories.||"A man wanders into a restaurant and says he could eat a horse. The waiter tells him he's come to the wrong place."|
|The present simple is favored by live sports commentators for word economy, and to convey a sense of excitement and directness.||
leads four games to one in the first
"The crowd roars as Tyson takes a huge bite out of Holyfield's ear."
|The present simple is also preferred in newspaper headlines for succinctness and where space is at a premium.||"Iraq
"Man Steals Clock, Faces Time"
"Fake Cardiologist Breaks Woman's Heart"
Present Continuous Tense
|The present continuous is used for temporary actions or events going on at or around the time of speaking.||
"The electrician is
mending a fuse."
"In London, John is staying at the Savoy."
|It is used for self-made schedules, generally for the not too distant future.||
leaving for Milan after lunch."
"Dan and Crystal are getting married in June."
|It is also used for longer-term enterprises.||
hard to become a doctor."
"Mitt Romney's running for President."
|Used with adverbs of (high) frequency to express disproval of annoying habits.||
"He is always
"She's forever losing her keys."
|The present continuous also used to set the scene for jokes or funny stories told in the present simple.||"This guy is sitting all by himself in a bar looking pretty inebriated, so the barman refuses to serve him another drink."|
|The present continuous of to be is used to react to behavior perceived as uncharacteristic for someone.||
"He really is being
stupid" (meaning this person is normally more sensible).
COMPARE: "He really is stupid" (meaning he is stupid all the time).
|The present continuous must be used with have when it is an action verb.||"She is having another baby / filet steak for dinner / a shower / a heart attack / etc."|
|Remember that so called state verbs cannot be used in continuous tense forms.||
"She is having
has a lot of money."
"She is knowing knows how to fly a plane"
"He is preferring prefers coffee to tea."
Present Perfect Tense
|The present perfect connects the recent past with the present. It explains the impact of a recent activity or occurrence on present circumstances.||
"Someone has eaten my sandwiches (which explains why now the plate is empty and I'll have to go hungry)."
"I've lost my passport (hence I cannot leave the country)."
|American English prefers the simple past tense to convey personal news. It thereby loses the subtlety of British English to clearly distinguish between recent and not so recent events.||"I lost my passport." (Today? Last week? Last year?)|
|The present perfect is used for breaking news headlines or when wishing to emphasize that something has occurred rather than exactly when it occurred.||
"Two lions have escaped from Chessington Zoo."
"Powerful tornadoes have hit Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas"
|It is also used with already, just and yet.||"Samantha has already left, but Cindy has just arrived, so I guess the party hasn't finished yet."|
|Note that American English often uses the simple past tense with already, just and yet.||"Samantha already left, but Cindy just arrived, so I guess the party didn't finish yet."|
|It is used to refer to a person's entire life experience since they were born.||"Dan has traveled a great deal, but he has never been to Greenland."|
|It is used with ever to question a person's entire life experience of something in particular.||
you ever seen a straight banana?"
"Has Chuck ever done an honest day's work in his life?"
|American English, on the other hand, prefers the simple past tense with ever.||
"Did you ever see a straight banana?"
"Did Chuck ever do an honest day's work in his life?"
|The present perfect is also used to quantify something done, or progress made so far.||
"Harry has driven 200 miles since breakfast."
"Meg has saved $8,000 toward her new BMW."
Present Perfect Continuous Tense
|Used to emphasize activities that were in progress right up to or shortly before the time of speaking and so have a direct influence on the current situation.||
has been using a computer all day
(so her eyes are now bloodshot)."
"Someone has been eating my sandwiches (so half of them are missing)."
|Used with for or since to say how long an ongoing or continuing activity has been in progress.||
has been driving for
"Meg has been saving for her BMW since last summer."
|In many other cases the present perfect continuous can be exchanged for the present perfect simple, although when the latter is chosen one tends to feel that change might be in the offing.||
"I've been living
here for ten years (in other words, I feel almost like a
"I have lived here for ten years (so perhaps it's about time I moved on to pastures greener)."
|Remember that so called state verbs cannot be used in continuous tense forms.||"I have been knowing known Samantha for 19 years."|
Past Simple Tense
|The past simple is used for activities or events completed at a specific time in the past (which is either understood or indicated by a time expression).||
"The ice sculptures attracted many visitors."
"Most of the bars closed at midnight."
|It is used for two or more completed past activities or events that occurred in sequence rather than in parallel.||"I went into town at ten, booked my summer holiday at the travel agent's, ate lunch at Pizza Hut, saw the new Bond film at the Odeon cinema, did my shopping for the weekend, and arrived home in time for tea at four."|
|The past simple corresponds to the foreground in a painting. It is used for the action in a story for which the past continuous sets the scene.||"The rock group were performing when the earthquake struck. Nobody noticed."|
|It is used with adverbs of frequency to talk about repeated actions or events in the past; would and used to are also used to talk about past habits and routines.||"Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher often slept only four hours a night. She would go to bed at one in the morning and get up at five to read the morning papers. The first thing she used to check was what they were saying about her."|
|It is used with verbs of perception: sound, seem, appear, smell, taste, look and feel (note that look and feel can also be used with the continuous tenses).||
felt very soft and
looked just great."
COMPARE: "Max wasn't feeling at all well today. He really was looking under the weather."
|The simple tenses are always used for so called state verbs such as agree, approve of, believe, belong to, consider (hold an opinion), consist, contain, cost, depend, disagree, gather (understand), hate, have (own), know, like, loathe, love, mean, own, need, possess, prefer, realize, regret, remember, resemble, suppose, think (hold an opinion), understand, want, wish, etc.||"The minister was agreeing agreed to resign, even though he wasn't thinking didn't think he was needing needed to."|
|The past simple is usually preferred with so called performative verbs (i.e. utterances which actually constitute an action) such as: accept, acknowledge, admit, advise, apologize, assume, bet, deny, guarantee, hope, inform, predict, promise, recommend, suggest, warn, etc.||"Although the rich oil sheik promised (was promising) the Hollywood actress ten million dollars in cash, a brand new Mercedes, and a house in Palm Beach, her lawyer advised her not to marry him."|
Past Continuous Tense
|The past continuous corresponds to the background in a painting. It sets the scene for all the action reported in the past simple.||"I was leaning back in my armchair staring up at the night sky. The moon was beaming brightly. All the stars were twinkling. Then it came to me: I would have to get the roof fixed."|
|It is used for temporary actions or events that were going on at or around a particular time in the past when something of shorter duration occurred.||"While I was waiting for the ferry, I ate lunch in a sushi bar. And while I was wolfing down my sushi, one piece of fish started moving."|
|It is also used for two activities of similar duration that were going on in parallel.||"I was washing the car while my wife was cleaning the house."|
|Remember that so called state verbs cannot be used in continuous tense forms.||"I was knowing knew Samantha very well."|
Past Perfect Tense
|This tense is used to talk about the pre-past, i.e. activities or events completed before (but relevant to) subsequent activities or events referred to in the past simple.||
"I had just
candlelight dinner for two when the Jehovah's Witnesses
"Rosalind, who had climbed ten flights of stairs, was now quite breathless."
"Mandy had studied Finnish for 3 years before she emigrated to Finland."
|If, however, the second action is a direct result of the first, then the past simple is used for both.||"When the artist had finally appeared on stage, everyone applauded."|
|The past perfect tense is used to report on past intentions that were sadly never realized.||"The boss had hoped to slip off to the golf course for the rest of the afternoon, but head office wanted to speak to him about disappointing sales figures."|
Past Perfect Continuous Tense
|The past perfect continuous is used to report on an activity of interest or direct relevance that was still in progress up until or immediately prior to a subsequent event in the past.||
"When the chemistry teacher returned
to the lab, he
stopped smiling. Someone
been making a stink bomb."
"Police arrested the chief executive whose chain of restaurants had been cooking the books."
|Remember that so called state verbs cannot be used in continuous tense forms.||"In 2012, I had already been knowing known Samantha for 10 years."|
Future Simple Tense
used to express pure futurity
(i.e. without any element of willpower).
|"The sun will rise tomorrow morning."|
|WILL: used when making predictions based upon one's knowledge of a person's character.||"Linda will help you, I'm sure."|
|WILL: used for plain, informal requests, as well as orders given to subordinates.||
will you post this
letter for me?"
"Sally, will you show Mr. Anderson to the accounts department, please?"
|WILL: used with emphasis to express irritation over the bad habits of others.||"My husband will always invite his friends round for a drink just as I'm trying to put the kids to bed!"|
|WILL/SHALL: used for spontaneous offers or plans made at the time of speaking, or to agree to something.||
"If you do decide to buy this car model, sir, we'll include
this sophisticated satellite
"Okay, I'll talk to my bank manager about a loan."
|WILL/SHALL: used for promises.||"Don't worry, I won't / shan't tell a soul!"|
|SHALL: sometimes used instead of WILL in the first person singular and plural in more formal style to express futurity, especially in cases where the element of willpower is involved.||
(will) be late this
"We shan't (won't) go to that nightclub anymore; their prices are exorbitant."
"We shall overcome!"
"I shall succeed!"
|SHALL: used when seeking others' approval of offers or suggestions.||
buy you a watch for your birthday?"
"Shall we all go out to dinner?"
|SHALL: used to elicit more information.||"Which restaurant shall we go to?"|
|GOING TO: used to talk about plans already made before the time of speaking.||"I'm going to buy a new digital camera. My old one doesn't seem to produce sharp enough pictures."|
|GOING TO: used when forecasting what is likely or inevitable because all the signs are there.||
"Look over there. That crazy driver's lost control. He's
"I feel awful after that raw fish. I think I'm going to throw up."
|PRESENT CONTINUOUS: often used instead of GOING TO for self-made plans and voluntary schedules, especially for the not too distant future.||
a party on Friday night."
"She's leaving home right after breakfast and driving all the way up to Tallahassee in her grandma's old car."
|PRESENT CONTINUOUS: usually preferred to the GOING TO future with GO and COME.||
"He is going
to go to New York after he
"The Smiths are going to come coming home from Canada next spring."
|PRESENT SIMPLE: used for schedules decided by others.||"He flies to Cairo on business at noon tomorrow."|
Future Continuous Tense
|Used for actions or events forecast to be in progress at or around a particular time in the future.||
"The kids will be sleeping
when I get home."
"Some Japanese schoolboys will, no doubt, still be donning 19th century black Prussian military uniforms in a hundred years' time."
|Used for future events that are the result of previous arrangements or decisions.||
"As you know, I'll
be working overtime this evening."
"Nancy will be staying at her parents' home over Christmas (she always does)."
|The future continuous tense can be used instead of the present continuous with future meaning.||"She'll be leaving home after breakfast."|
|It is also used to make extra polite enquiries about someone's future plans.||
your laptop at work today?"
"Is IBM going to be recruiting any new personnel in the near future?"
|Remember that so called state verbs cannot be used in the continuous tense forms.||"The museum is well sign-posted, so you will be knowing know which way to go."|
Future Perfect Tense
|Used for activities or events forecast to be completed by a particular time in the future.||"No matter what their academic performance, many students at Japan's most prestigious universities will have found a job one whole year before they graduate."|
|Used to quantify progress forecast to have been made at a given time in the future.||"He smokes 20 a day, so by this time next year he will have puffed his way through a further 584 meters of cigarette."|
Future Perfect Continuous Tense
|Used for activities forecast still to be in progress at some time in the future.||"By the end of 2023, we will have been flying in planes for 120 years."|
|Remember that so called state verbs cannot be used in continuous tense forms.||"Next summer, I will have been knowing known Samantha for 20 years."|