English Tenses Made Simple
Here is a simpler way of thinking about English tenses. Tenses are often taught starting with grammar rules. This quickly becomes complicated because there are so many different rules to remember for different situations and exceptions to these rules. It is very hard to apply these rules in real-time, and many students struggle to form sentences when speaking. We don’t think about rules when we make sentences in our first language(s), so why should we in another language?
People make sentences for communication. When we communicate, we think about meaning. Words have meaning. Parts of words have meaning.
Let’s start with the meanings of the parts that make up the traditional tenses.
To understand tenses, all you have to do is become familiar with the patterns and understand what they mean.
The 4 key parts
Here are four simple parts that are added to verbs to add meaning.
In English, there are two basic tenses, present and past:
An -ed can be added to change most verbs into the past form. Many common verbs have their own past forms.
Other parts can be added to make other tenses. Some other common parts are: am/are/is doing, have/has done, and will.
What do the parts mean?
Each part has a basic meaning. We understand what people are talking about because of the basic meaning of these words and the situation.
The past form (did)
We use a past form of a verb or add -ed to refer to a time that is NOT the present-future.
They ate breakfast this morning.
I didn’t play the drums yesterday.
Did you live in England last year?
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.)
They’ll eat breakfast.
I won’t play the drums.
Will you live in England?
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).
Have -en/-ed (have done)
Have -en/-ed can be added to show that something happened before the time being talked about, and there is a result.
They have eaten breakfast.
I haven’t played the drums today.
Have you lived in England?
Be -ing (is doing)
Be -ing can be added to show something is not finished.
They are eating breakfast.
I’m not playing the drums.
Are you living in England now?
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)
People usually keep things simple. But, people sometimes use more than one part. All of these sixteen sentence patterns (often called the 16 tenses) are possible.
The table below shows how each part can be added, in either the past tense or present tense.
It’s also a good idea to look at more examples to get a feel for how people use these tenses.
Is there a future tense?
You may have seen other tense tables with a column for future, using will. Will is common when talking about the future, but there are many ways of talking about the future. All of the present tenses are common when talking about the future.
But, will is a very useful word.
When we move will to another part of the tense table, we can focus more on the true meaning of will, and how to use it. People use will when they say what they decide or predict (which is very useful when talking about the future).
Putting will in the present column also suggests that we can use will when talking about the present. This is another use of will that may be more common than you think!
How many tenses does English have?
Before I said that some people refer to these sentences as the 16 English tenses. But many other people say there are 12… But if we think about past, present and future, are there three? But in the table there are two basic tenses: present and past. How many tenses are there?
It depends on how you look at it. People can’t agree on a number.
But what everyone agrees on is that these parts exist.
- Verbs can take an -ed ending or past form.
- be doing and have done are useful parts of English grammar.
- will and would are useful English grammatical words.
So does it matter?
What does matter is understanding what these little words and parts of words mean.
English tenses and their names
Here is an example sentence. See how we can add information to it by adding extra parts.
|She plays the drums.
|She played the drums.
|She is playing the drums.
|She was playing the drums.
|She has played the drums.
|She had played the drums.
|She has been playing the drums.
|She had been playing the drums.
|She will play the drums.
|She would play the drums.
|She will be playing the drums.
|She would be playing the drums.
|She will have played the drums.
|She would have played the drums.
|She will have been playing the drums.
|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.
Native speakers don’t know the linguistic terminology. What they do know is what each of these sentences means.
Just think about how these parts come together and focus on examples and what they mean:
Words (and parts of words) have meaning
We have resources to help you understand the meaning of these parts and why speakers choose to add them. This gives you many advantages and helps you communicate more effectively. When you understand the meaning the parts add, there are no exceptions. You can understand why each tense pattern is being used, in any situation.
How about usage rules?
One way of studying these tense patterns is by learning usage rules, the problem with this is that these rules only apply some of the time, so there are many exceptions.
There is one big problem with studying usage rules for each of these tenses:
It 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.
Although these rules can be useful to tidy up your writing (helping writers keep a consistent style), they are not realistic as a process of forming sentences while speaking.
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?
Usage rules may be useful for beginners, especially to check their writing. But when speaking we don’t have enough time to apply a rule.
Our recommendation is to understand the meanings of words and sentences and become familiar with how people use them. This way you develop a sense of how to use the language.
Advantages of a meaning-based approach
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!
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 have meaning that can be used in many situations with confidence.
- Usage rules focus heavily on correctness. But by thinking about what the parts mean, you focus on making sentences for clear communication.
It’s All Connected
Here is a chart showing how these basic parts are connected. The parts can be combined into different patterns and these patterns have uses.
The usage rules described above focus on sentence patterns and uses: they tell you when to use each tense pattern. But if we simplify things down to the basic words and parts of words being used, we can better understand how it all fits together as a system of communication.
Breaking the language down into meaningful parts is much easier to understand.
Language is a system of communication. What are the parts that make up this system? How are they connected? What do they mean?
Language is made up of words and words have meaning.
Looking for a good grammar book?
Grammar helps people understand each other better.
If you are interested in a grammar book that looks at common parts of English sentences and what they mean (like -ed, will, have -en/-ed, and be -ing on this page), be sure to check out Real Grammar.
With Real Grammar you understand grammatical meaning. Grammatical meaning helps you understand more of what people say in English.
Real Grammar is grammar for communication.