English Tenses Made Simple

English tenses are simpler when we go back to basics.

Each tense pattern is a combination of the same four basic parts (-ed, -ing, and -en).


present form, present simple tensepast form, past simple tensehave -en, present perfect simplewill would, future simple tensebe -ing, present progressive / present continuous tense

With Real Grammar, we look at the meanings of these parts.

This is a little different from the traditional approach which presents 12 (or 16 or more) tense patterns and rules for when to use them.

Understanding the meaning of these parts and why speakers choose to add them gives you several advantages over the traditional approach.

Why? Simplicity.

Focusing your study on the parts and what they mean makes things much easier:

  • Usage rules often have exceptions, but if we think in terms of parts, the meaning always holds true.
  • Usage rules are limited to the few situations the rule covers. Parts can be used in any situation with confidence.
  • Usage rules focus heavily on correctness. But by thinking about connected parts, you focus on connecting words for clear communication.

How do we do it?

We can add these basic parts to verbs.

We look at the core meaning of each of these parts then explore the ways they can be combined and the new meanings they make. Then, we compare these patterns to see why people might use them in different situations.

Every combination of these parts is possible in English, giving us sixteen sentence patterns.

These parts have core meanings that can be combined in different ways to communicate different ideas.

Table of English tenses: past - present and future. Chart with combinations of key parts and examples. The key parts: -ed (past form), be -ing, have -en, will/would. Sentence patterns: present simple, present progressive, present perfect, present perfect progressive, past simple, past progressive, past perfect, past perfect progressive, future simple, future progressive, future perfect, future perfect progressive, conditional simple, conditional progressive, conditional perfect, and conditional perfect progressive.
English Tense Table: The possible combinations of the 4 basic parts.

example parts
will past form have -en be -ing
1 She plays the drums.
2 She played the drums.
3 She is playing the drums.
4 She was playing the drums.
5 She has played the drums.
6 She had played the drums.
7 She has been playing the drums.
8 She had been playing the drums.
9 She will play the drums.
10 She would play the drums.
11 She will be playing the drums.
12 She would be playing the drums.
13 She will have played the drums.
14 She would have played the drums.
15 She will have been playing the drums.
16 She would have been playing the drums.

These sentence patterns all have their own names. These are traditional linguistic terms for what many people call the 16 English tenses:

1. present simple   2. past simple   3. present progressive/present continuous   4. past progressive/past continuous   5. present perfect simple   6. past perfect simple   7. present perfect progressive/present perfect continuous   8. past perfect progressive/ past perfect continuous   9. future simple   10. conditional simple   11. future progressive/future continuous   12. conditional progressive/conditional continuous   13. future perfect simple   14. conditional perfect simple   15. future perfect progressive/future perfect continuous   16. conditional perfect progressive/ conditional perfect continuous

As you can see these terms are quite complex. If you are not familiar with these terms, don’t worry.

On this site we refer to the parts: present form, past form; and use the words that make up the other parts: be -ing, have -en, will and would.

Native speakers don’t know the linguistic terminology. What they do know is what each of these sentences means.

Learners have enough words to learn so we prefer to simply say what each part is. This way you can focus more attention on using words to communicate and understanding what they mean.

Focusing on what is important

There is one big problem with studying usage rules for each of these tenses:

This is too much to remember

You often don’t have time to recall and accurately apply all of this when using English in real life.

  • You are asked to remember rules for when to use them.
  • You are asked to remember exceptions for when these rules don’t quite fit.

One good thing about studying these structures is that they help you become familiar with English sentences through practice, but is that enough for you to use the language well?


Understanding how tenses work

These twelve “tense” structures are all combinations of the same basic parts:

  • Use the first verb in the present form or past form*
  • Use “will” or not (or would, can/could, shall/should, may/might or must)
  • Use “have -en” or not
  • Use “be -ing” or not

Instead of memorizing usage rules for each of the twelve “tense” structures – which is a lot to remember, we can explore each of these simple ideas and why people choose to use them. We see how these parts are combined, and the meanings that each part adds to our sentences. And the best thing is: there are no exceptions!

These parts actually allow us to make more than the classic twelve structures. See the often-forgotten structures.

* English verbs have no future form. Even though will is often used when talking about the future, it is the present form (the past form of will is would).


A quick overview

It all starts with a verb (the present form / base form)

The present form generally refers to the present-future. It can be built on to add meaning.

More about the present form

The past form (adding the past form)

We use an irregular past form of a verb or add -ed to refer to a time that is NOT the present-future. This is typically the past, but not always, such as hypothetical situations (I wish I had more time – this is an imaginary situation that doesn’t happen in the present or future).

More about the past form

Will/would (adding a modal verb)

Will and would can be added when there are options or possibilities and a choice is made.

Will (the present form) is particularly useful when talking about the future as the future is often unknown, so a speaker has to consider what is possible.

Would (the past form) is useful when talking about hypothetical situations that we are imagining (what is possible in our imaginations) or the past (what was possible).

More about will

Have -en (adding the perfect aspect)

Have -en can be added to show that something happened before the time being talked about, and there is a result.

More about have -en

Be -ing (adding the progressive aspect)

Be -ing can be added to show something is not finished. We may interpret this in different ways in different contexts:

What are you doing now? I’m studying English. (happening now – not finished)

What language are you studying at school? I’m studying English. (what I’m doing in general – started but not finished)

What are you doing tomorrow? I’m studying English. (happening in the future – not started, not finished)

More about be -ing

A big advantage

Traditional usage rules are limited to the uses that the rules cover, so there are many situations that don’t fit the rules that are considered ‘more advanced grammar’ (explained with additional rules) or exceptions.

Understanding the meaning of each part enables you to use it in any situation when it is useful. When native speakers speak they often don’t follow the rules that are in traditional text books. This is because communication isn’t based on rules. It is based on meaning. Native speakers understand what is being said because they understand the combination of the parts, and you can too!

The next step in your studies

Becoming familiar with the sentence patterns is a good first step. Once you are familiar, the next step is to deepen your understanding of what these parts mean so you can use them for meaningful communication. When studying grammar you can think about the meanings of these optional parts. Is the meaning different without them? Why do we choose to use it?

Our goal as language learners is to communicate effectively. So once we are familiar with basic English sentences, we can look at the words that are being used, and better understand what they mean and how they are combined. Every time we encounter each part it deepens our understanding of how English verbs are used.

Breaking the language down into meaningful parts is much easier to understand. And it fits the common view of language: that language is made up of words and words have meaning.




Read more: Teachers’ introduction to Real Grammar