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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.

Chart—Active Verb Tenses

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

Chart—Time Clues and Verb Tense

The Simple 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.

Simple Present

  • for habitual, routine, recurring actions

    Most people sleep an average of eight hours.
    I swim twice a week.
    I go swimming twice a week.

  • in subordinate clauses when referring to future action

    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.)

Simple Past

  • for actions that start and are completed in the past at a definite time

    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.

Simple Future

  • to indicate an action yet to occur

    I will go swimming tomorrow.

  • to express the speaker's opinions, speculations, hopes, or assumptions about the future. When used in this way, a clause introducing the main clause usually contains a verb such as the following:

    assume expect suppose
    be afraid hope think
    believe know wonder

    I expect most people will vote yes in the referendum.
    However, I hope most will vote no.

  • for habitual actions which will continue to occur in the future

    Spring will come again.
    The poor will always be with us.

  • in main clauses of particular structures: condition, time, and purpose

    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)

  • with verbs that cannot be used in the progressive form

    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.

  • for formal announcements of future plans (in newspapers, and radio and television news broadcasts)

    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.

  • for intention at the moment of decision; that is, an immediate response or reaction to a present 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.

Progressive Tenses

The progressive tenses all use the relevant part of be as the auxiliary verb, and the main verb has an -ing ending.

past was, were work -ing
present am, is, are work -ing
future will be work -ing

Present Progressive

  • for actions that start before, and continue during and after the time of speaking in the present

    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).

  • for a situation or action in progress but not necessarily occurring at the exact time of speaking

    He's working on his PhD.

  • for definite arrangements in the near future

    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.

Past Progressive

  • for past actions that occur over a period of time

    Accidents were occurring at twice the national average.

  • for past actions that occur gradually

    It was getting warmer and the snow was beginning to melt.

  • for actions that begin before, and continue during and after the time of speaking in the past. The time of speaking is usually indicated by a time clause or phrase.

    Kate was having a bath when the fire alarm went off.

  • for descriptions (also possible with the present progressive)

    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).

  • with always to indicate a past action that annoyed or irritated the speaker (also possible with the present progressive)

    Micha was always going on about his days in the army. (Note the position of the adverb of frequency, always.)

Future Progressive

  • for actions that start before, continue during and after a point in time in the future

    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.

Perfect Tenses

The perfect tenses all use the relevant part of have as the auxiliary verb, and the main verb is the past participle form.

past had walked
present have, has walked
future will have walked

Many verbs have an irregular past participle; these irregular past participles must be learned. See Irregular Verbs at the end of this section.

Present Perfect

  • with indefinite time to connect the past with the present

    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.)

  • with just for recently completed actions

    (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.

  • for past actions whose results are still having an impact or influence on conditions in the present

    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.)

  • with definite quantities, the present perfect must be used; the present perfect progressive cannot be used with definite quantities

    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.
since just so far

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.

Past Perfect

  • connects an earlier past with the past

    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.

Future Perfect

  • connects two future events, one of which occurs before the other

    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.

Perfect Progressive Tenses

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.

past had been watch -ing
present have been, has been watch -ing
future will have been watch -ing

Present Perfect Progressive

  • for an action that began in the past and continues during and after the time of speaking in the present. The emphasis is on duration and the notion that the action will continue.

    He has been watching T.V. all day. I wish he'd turn it off.
    I have been teaching for fifteen years.

  • for a recently completed action whose effects are still evident

    Your clothes are all muddy. I've been playing football.

Past Perfect Progressive

  • for actions that began and continued up to but stopped shortly before a point of time in the past

    Betty had been out walking all that day and came home tired.

Future Perfect Progressive

  • connects an event that occurs over time in the future but before another event

    Medical interns work very long hours. By the time Ben finishes tomorrow, he will have been working for 30 hours.

  • connects an event that occurs over time, that started in the past and will continue into the future.

    By the time Ben finishes work later today, he will have been working for 30 hours.

Irregular Verbs

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

Group I Verbs

  • The verb name, the simple past and past participle forms are all different.
  • The past participle forms ends in n.
  • Vowel change in simple past and past participle
Chart—Group I Verbs

Group II Verbs

The simple past and past participle forms are the same.

Chart—Group II Verbs

Group III

The simple past is different from the other verb forms; the past participle is the same as the infinitive.

Chart—Group III Verbs

Group IV

The verb form stays the same in the infinitive, simple past and past participle.

Chart—Group IV Verbs

Group V

The simple past is the same as the verb name; the past participle is different

Chart—Group V Verbs


The English language has two voices, active and passive; however, in formal writing, the active voice is always preferred because it is more direct and forceful than the passive.

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.

  • When the doer of the action is not known

    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)

  • When the receiver of the action is more important than the doer.

    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)

Past Present Future
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.

Changing the Active to the Passive

There are three steps necessary in transforming an active sentence into a passive one:

  • Make the object of the sentence the subject.

    Someone burned the house down.

  • Put the verb be into the same form as the active verb.

    The house was (the simple past tense—the same as burned)

  • Put the active verb into its past participle form.

    The house was burned down.

To refer to the original subject of the sentence, a fourth step is needed:

  • Make the subject the object of a preposition, usually by.

    The house was burned down by someone.

Points to remember:

  1. Only transitive verbs (there must be an object) can be put into the passive.

  2. Auxiliary verbs are retained in the passive transformation.

  3. 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.


  • used in statements or questions or for emphasis.


    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)


  • used for commands (the subject you is understood, thus the base form of the verb is used)

    Write your name, address and telephone number in the top right hand corner of your paper.
    Send the parcel express.

  • A negative command uses don't.

    Don't forget the meeting.

  • An emphatic command uses do.

    Do remember to be there at 9.00 a.m. sharp.


  • refers to something happening in unreal time.

    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:

    In that-clauses following these verbs:

    Examples: advise
    move (official procedure)
    prefer (would)

    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.

    In that-clauses following proposal clauses:

    Examples: It is important
    that . . .
    The rule
    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.


  • If is the most common word used to introduce adverbial clauses of condition (conditionals); other words that introduce these clauses are:

    Constructions with if; even if / only if
    Unless (means except if . . .)
    Whether or not
    Providing/provided (that)
    In case/in the event (that)

Conditional and Hypothetical Expressions

Hypothetical Constructions

Usage Wish Clause
Wish + a noun clause simple present + (that)
e.g., I wish (that)
simple past
I had more of money.*
Generally true simple present + (that)
e.g., I wish (that)
simple past
I exercised more.
Statement referring to the past simple present
e.g., I wish (that)
past perfect
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.

  • The past subjunctive is used in conditional and hypothetical situations:

    In the if-clause of 2nd conditional sentences

    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.

    In that-clauses following wish when referring to a present or future situation

    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.)

    In that-clauses following if only

    If only he would phone!
    If only there were more time!

    In clauses following It is 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.

    In clauses introduced by as if or as though when making improbable comparisons

    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.

    In clauses followed by would rather

    • the past subjunctive is required when referring to a present or future situation

      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.

    • Perfect Subjunctive

      The perfect subjunctive is used:

      In the if-clauses of 3rd conditional sentences

      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.

      In that-clauses following wish when expressing regret about a past situation that did not occur

      I wish I had studied harder at school.
      She wished she hadn't cut her hair.

      In clauses following if only when expressing regret about a past action that did not occur

      If only he hadn't lost his temper!
      If only I had taken your advice!

      In clauses introduced by as if or as though when making an improbable comparison to a past action

      You look as though you had seen a ghost.
      My stomach felt as though someone had kicked it.

      In clauses introduced by would rather when describing a situation in the past and which is contrary to what really happened

      I would rather he had told me the truth.
      They would rather their daughter had stayed in school, of course.

Modals and Related Expressions

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.

Chart—Modals and Related Expressions

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.

Verbals—Infinitives and Gerunds

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.

  • Verb + infinitive (A):

    We cannot afford to wait.

  • Verb + (pro)noun + infinitive (B):

    That will cause him to think again.

  • A or B:

    They are allowed to stay out past midnight.
    Please allow her to be absent tomorrow.

  • Verb + gerund:

    I admit getting defensive when I am incorrectly blamed for something.

  • Verb + infinitive or gerund:

    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.

Chart—Infinitives and Gerunds

Updated April 10 2017 by Student & Academic Services

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