Tense uses the verb to indicate the relationship between the time an action, situation, or condition occurs and the time of speaking.
I'll take the bus to work tomorrow. (The time of speaking is present. The action will take the bus is future in relation to the time of speaking in the present.)
The telephone rang and rang. (The time of speaking is present. The action telephone rang occurred before the time of speaking.)
The English language has several structures that convey the relationship of events to the time of speaking.
There are 12 verb tenses in English. The verb action can take place in the past the present or the future. There are usually word clues that give a guide as to when the verb action occurs. Within each of these times there are four different situations that occur. Simple tenses occur at a point in time, or on a repeated or habitual basis. A progressive or continuous tense indicates that the action takes place over time and these tenses always use part of the verb be as the first part of the verb phrase and end with the main verb + ing. A perfect tense always uses part of have as the first part of the verb phrase and ends with the past form of the main verb. A perfect progressive tense starts with the relevant part of the verb have followed by been and ends with the main verb + ing. If youremember these basic rules, you can always identify the verb tense being used, or use the verb tense you need without having to continually refer to a text book or table. Meanwhile, a chart like the one given here, can provide a quick and easy reference until you feel comfortable using the various verb tenses. Also pay attention to the time clues in the following chart; while some of them can be used with more than one verb tense, they do restrict the number of possibilities and help you to understand which verb tense is being used, or which verb tense you should use.
There are many words that are time clues; some can be used to indicate a number of tenses, for instance that something happened in the past or that it will happen in the future. If you learn to recognize these time clues, you will find them very helpful. Note that some time clues can be used with more than one verb tense and also that this table is not a complete listing of all the time clues that can be used with all of the tenses
Neither the Simple Present nor the Simple Past uses auxiliary verbs in indicative statements. The Simple Future, however, uses will. Questions in the Simple Present use do or does as the auxiliary; in the Simple Past did is used.
Most people sleep an average of eight hours.
I swim twice a week.
I go swimming twice a week.
Before you arrive, I'll have everything ready. (You will arrive. I'll have everything ready before then.)
If he comes, Mary will leave. (He will probably come. Mary will leave then.)
I walked to work yesterday. (regular verb)
I took the bus today. (irregular verb)
I was in a hurry. (the verb to be)
Many verbs are irregular in the Simple Past. These irregular forms need to be learned. See Irregular Verbs at the end of this section.
I will go swimming tomorrow.
I expect most people will vote yes in the referendum.
However, I hope most will vote no.
Spring will come again.
The poor will always be with us.
I'll put the kettle on in case he wants a cup of tea when he gets in. (purpose)
If the executive accepts the proposal, George will have the contract drawn up immediately. (condition)
The government will deploy some of the regiments as soon as the UN Security Council gives the go-ahead. (time)
He'll have a lot of explaining to do.
The doctor will be away all next week.
The students will know immediately whether or not they've passed their exam.
The Finance Minister will make the new budget public at the end of the month.
The British Prime Minister will meet with Sinn Fein leaders to discuss the Northern Ireland situation.
The telephone's ringing.
I'll go and see what the problem is.
The doctor is having a problem with a patient in D-12.
I'll go and see what the problem is.
The progressive tenses all use the relevant part of be as the auxiliary verb, and the main verb has an -ing ending.
|present||am, is, are||work||-ing|
What are you doing right now? (Note the question word order with the subject you between the two elements of the verb phrase).
I'm looking out my kitchen window, admiring the view. (Note the parallel structure here that allows omission of I'm before admiring).
He's working on his PhD.
What are you doing next Saturday evening?
We are having Bob and Sue over for dinner. We invited them last week.
The verb is going + to do (something) is a commonly used structure for expressing future intent.
We are going to watch a movie next Saturday evening.
We are goingto have Bob and Sue over for dinner.
Accidents were occurring at twice the national average.
It was getting warmer and the snow was beginning to melt.
Kate was having a bath when the fire alarm went off.
John surveyed the room. A couple was sitting in the far corner near an open hearth, holding hands, looking lovingly at each other. (Note the parallel structure).
Micha was always going on about his days in the army. (Note the position of the adverb of frequency, always.)
It's nine o'clock Monday morning and Myrna is sitting at her office desk, going through the mail. Tomorrow at nine o'clock you'll find her doing the same; she'll be sitting at her desk, going through the mail.
The perfect tenses all use the relevant part of have as the auxiliary verb, and the main verb is the past participle form.
Many verbs have an irregular past participle; these irregular past participles must be learned. See Irregular Verbs at the end of this section.
He has been in administration for fifteen years. (He was in administration. He still is in administration. The present perfect links the past and the present.)
I have been depressed all week. (I was depressed on Monday. The week isn't over, and I am still depressed. The present perfect links the past and the present.)
(On the telephone) Wait a minute. Pete can talk to you himself. He has just walked in the door. (Note that he has can be abbreviated to he's).
Everyone has only just heard about the lay-offs. The vice-president sent a memo around an hour ago.
The Sorenson's house is looking very good. They've had it completely redecorated. (The effect of the redecorating is felt in the present. Also, note the abbreviation for have.)
Things in the office are a bit chaotic at the moment because our office manager, Carol, has gone on a two-month leave of absence. Her leave started two weeks ago. (Carol went away two weeks ago, but her leaving has affected the present, hence the use of the present perfect.)
Since arriving, Earl has eaten six brownies.
In the last two years, this government has axed thirty-two departments.
Marla has spent two thousand dollars in less than four hours.
The following words are often used with the present perfect:
|already||never||recently||in the past few days, weeks, etc.|
|yet||ever||lately||this week, year, century, etc.|
He's already started college, but he hasn't had any results yet.
He's matured a lot since he started.
Jane has never had any difficulty making friends.
Have you ever been abroad?
Things have worked out well so far.
There have been a lot of absences recently.
I haven't seen Greg around lately. Is he alright?
In the last few days, the station has had over eighty requests for that song.
I've read that technology has advanced more in this century than in the previous ten.
In 1965, Lynda got a job as liaison officer with a large oil company. Before that, she had worked as a journalist in Toronto for two years.
By this time next year, we will have finished all the decorating in the house.
Before she leaves on holiday next month, she will have reserved her hotel accommodations.
The perfect progressive tenses use the relevant perfect tense of the verb be as the auxiliary verbs; the main verb has the -ing progressive ending.
|present||have been, has been||watch||-ing|
|future||will have been||watch||-ing|
He has been watching T.V. all day. I wish he'd turn it off.
I have been teaching for fifteen years.
Your clothes are all muddy. I've been playing football.
Betty had been out walking all that day and came home tired.
Medical interns work very long hours. By the time Ben finishes tomorrow, he will have been working for 30 hours.
By the time Ben finishes work later today, he will have been working for 30 hours.
There are a number of irregular verbs in English; they are irregular in the simple past form and, or, the past participle. Rather than learning each verb separately, many of the verbs can be put into a group of verbs that change their form in a similar way. If you are in any doubt about a verb, whether it is irregular or not, or the exact form that an irregular verb takes, your dictionary is a good reference. Many dictionaries contain a supplement listing a large number of irregular verbs alphabetically; they all indicate in the main listing if a verb is irregular, and if so the form(s) it takes.
|Note:||V = vowel|
|C = consonant|
The simple past and past participle forms are the same.
The simple past is different from the other verb forms; the past participle is the same as the infinitive.
The verb form stays the same in the infinitive, simple past and past participle.
The simple past is the same as the verb name; the past participle is different
The passive form of verbs is not often used in writing now; most instructors prefer their students to use the active voice as it gives more power to the writing and it is more direct. There are special circumstances, however, when using a passive construction is preferable. It is also important to recognize passive constructions when you are reading so that you can understand them correctly.
Someone stole my pen. (Active)
My pen was stolen. (Passive)
There are circumstances, however, in which the passive voice is preferred.
Someone broke into the warehouse on 106 and 8th. (Active)
The warehouse on 106 and 8th was broken into. (Passive)
Some people built the temple in 600 A.D. (Active)
The temple was built in 600 A.D. (Passive)
The audience greeted Ivan Slavinski, the star performer, with wild applause. (Active)
Ivan Slavinski, the star performer, was greeted with wild applause. (Passive)
People did not establish states in Australia until fairly recently in human history. (Active)
States were not established in Australia until fairly recently in human history. (Passive)
|Simple||You were heard||You are heard||You will be heard|
|Progressive||You were being heard*||You are being heard||You will be being heard*|
|Perfect||You had been heard||You have been heard||You will have been heard|
|Perfect Progressive||You had been being heard**||You have been being heard**||You will have been being heard**|
* These verb forms are unusual.
** These verb forms are not in general use as they are very awkward.
There are three steps necessary in transforming an active sentence into a passive one:
Someone burned the house down.
The house was (the simple past tense—the same as burned)
The house was burned down.
To refer to the original subject of the sentence, a fourth step is needed:
The house was burned down by someone.
Points to remember:
Only transitive verbs (there must be an object) can be put into the passive.
Auxiliary verbs are retained in the passive transformation.
Subject-verb agreement rules apply to passive sentences just as they do to active ones.
They sued him for breach of contract. (The object of sued is him.)
He was sued for breach of contract.
They would have killed him if you hadn't stepped in.
He would have been killed if you hadn't stepped in. (The auxiliary verbs are retained. Only the main verb is transformed.)
They are tearing down the old city hall.
The old city hall is being torn down. (The new subject, city hall is singular, so the verb be must agree with it.)
The English language has three moods: indicative, imperative, and subjunctive. The subjunctive is a mood that applies to verbs and which, therefore, has present, past, and perfect forms.
It was an exceptionally cold day. (simple past, active)
The President of France is expected to arrive in Ottawa next week. (simple present, passive)
Auxiliary verbs are needed to make questions. The auxiliary verb(s) is used in the relevant verb tense; the main verb is the base form of the verb.
Do you understand this grammar? (simple present, active)
What will be in the new budget? (simple future, active)
Why wasn't the matter raised before? (simple past, passive)
Did your friends arrive on time? (simple past, active)
Auxiliary verbs in the relevant verb tense are used to provide emphasis to statements in the Simple Present or Simple Past—statement word order is maintained.
I did not forget your birthday. I mailed you a card last week. (simple past)
She does have a beautiful voice. (simple present)
Write your name, address and telephone number in the top right hand corner of your paper.
Send the parcel express.
Don't forget the meeting.
Do remember to be there at 9.00 a.m. sharp.
Use of the subjunctive is gradually disappearing, but there are still a number of structures and idioms that use the subjunctive. The subjunctive uses the name (base) form of the verb. The present subjunctive is used in the following situations:
|move (official procedure)
The association asks that the council revoke the by-law.
I suggest that the department wait for institutional direction before preceding.
Bobby recommended that Lucy stay with us over the holidays.
Jordan moved that the membership fee be reduced to $100.00 per annum.
|that . . .|
|is that . .|
It is essential that she be present at the hearing.
It is imperative that he deliver the message himself.
The rule is that a student be over eighteen.
The recommendation is that students seek counselling.
In certain idioms
God save the Queen.
May peace be with you.
Heaven help us!
Far be it from me to interfere.
Long live the King!
Be that as it may, I still think it's wrong.
Spring will come again, come what may.
Constructions with if; even if / only if
Unless (means except if . . .)
Whether or not
In case/in the event (that)
|Wish + a noun clause||simple present + (that)
e.g., I wish (that)
I had more of money.*
|Generally true||simple present + (that)
e.g., I wish (that)
I exercised more.
|Statement referring to the past||simple present
e.g., I wish (that)
I had paid attention to the teacher.
|A promise, certainty, possibility or ability||simple present
e.g., I wish (that)
|modal (would/could) + verb name
I would be a better student.
I could study more effectively.
*If the verb be is used, then to be formally correct use were in these constructions, e.g., I wish (that) I were rich. This usage is called the subjunctive.
Note that the meaning is present or future and that were is used for all persons. The 2nd conditional is used for unreal, hypothetical, or improbable situations in the present or future:
If I were you, I'd resign.
If I had a million dollars, I'd buy a sail boat and sail around the world.
If everyone worked a four-day week, we would have a much healthier society, spiritually and economically.
Many fathers wish that they had more time to spend with their children.
We have often wished that we could move to a warmer country. (Note the past modal could.)
I wish I were taller.
She wished it would stop raining. (Note the past modal would.)
If only he would phone!
If only there were more time!
It is time he grew up and took responsibility for himself.
It's about time Michael showed some respect.
It is high time I fixed that fence.
He struts about as though he owned the place.
She sounds as though she had plums in her mouth.
My parents treat me as though I were a child.
I would rather Mary attended next week's conference.
I would rather he went on Monday.
Note: The subjunctive is not governed by subject-verb agreement rules. This is important to remember when using those structures requiring the present subjunctive and those requiring the past subjunctive of be (e.g., If I were you.)
In formal writing, the rules for the subjunctive are firm even though in speech and informal writing alternative forms are more common.
The perfect subjunctive is used:
The 3rd conditional refers or speculates about situations in the past. The situation described in the 3rd conditional did not occur in reality:
If we hadn't had the tent, we would have been stuck for shelter that night.
If he had told her that he loved her, she would have accepted his proposal.
I wish I had studied harder at school.
She wished she hadn't cut her hair.
If only he hadn't lost his temper!
If only I had taken your advice!
You look as though you had seen a ghost.
My stomach felt as though someone had kicked it.
I would rather he had told me the truth.
They would rather their daughter had stayed in school, of course.
Modals are part of a verb phrase; they give more information about the main verb by qualifying it in some way. Modals also have an effect on the grammar of the verb phrase; after a modal, the infinitive form (verb name) is used. Some modals can be used with different time references, present, past or future; others are restricted to one or two time frames. Some modals can be used in negative expressions, others cannot, and sometimes when used in a negative expression the usage changes. The chart below summarizes the time frames that are possible with the modals and their most common usages.
Note that in many cases the present and future constructions are the same; the difference is in the context and any specific time clues that are used.
There are a few basic rules regarding the use of infinitives and gerunds.
Infinitives and gerunds are noun forms. If used before the main verb, they are the subject of the verb; after the main verb, they are the object of the verb.
If a preposition is used after the verb, do not use an infinitive.
If a common expression ends with a preposition, then it may be followed by a gerund.
We cannot afford to wait.
That will cause him to think again.
They are allowed to stay out past midnight.
Please allow her to be absent tomorrow.
I admit getting defensive when I am incorrectly blamed for something.
You advised me to take that course.
You advised taking that course.
In addition, some verb phrases take gerunds e.g., carry on (doing something), or put off (doing something). Also, infinitives may be used after a number of adjectives, e.g., happy (to do something) or determined (to do something), or other structures.
For further explanation and more examples of any of this grammar, please consult a grammar reference book.
Updated April 10 2017 by Student & Academic Services