The Basics of Tense

When you’re speaking English, the most common sentence construction to use is Subject-Verb-Object. The verb in the sentence tells you when in time the sentence is happening, if the action was completed, or if the action is still continuing. This time frame is what we call the verb ‘tense’.

Strictly speaking, English only has two tenses: the Present and the Past. It is also common to talk about the future in English, of course, but linguists generally don’t regard the future as a ‘tense’, because talking about the future relies on context, such as saying “Next month” or “Tomorrow”, and does not rely on grammar.

Let’s look at the Present Tense first. You can use the Present Tense to talk about what is happening now (the present), as well as talk about the future. Confusingly, you can also use the Present Tense to talk about the past if you’re telling a story, but we will look at that later.

English has four Present Tense forms:

Present Simple: I play
Present Continuous: I am playing
Present Perfect: I have played
Present Perfect Continuous: I have been playing

You can use these forms to talk about the present:

“He plays tennis.”
“He has worked at EF for one year.”
“He is playing tennis.”
“He has been working at EF for one year.”

You can also use these forms to talk about the future, but you will need to provide some context for your sentences. For example:

“His flight departs at 8pm this evening.”
“I’ll let you know when I get to the airport.”
“She’s going out tonight.”
“Meet me in the café after you’ve finished studying.”
“You’ll need a rest after you have been playing rugby again.”

If you’re telling someone a story or about events that happened in the past, then it’s natural to use the Present Tense. For example:

“I look at her, and say, ‘Where are you going?’”

Even though the story is in the past, using the Present Tense makes it feel like the story is happening now, and makes the people listening feel more involved. This is a common thing for English speakers to do and the context makes it clear that the events are in the past.

The Past Tense, on the other hand, is used to talk about actions completed in the past, as well as hypothetical or imagined situations that are not true. You can also use the Past Tense when you want to be polite. It is formed in a similar way to the Present Tense, but the meaning is of course very different.

Just like the Present Tense, there are four forms of the Past Tense:

Past Simple: I played
Past Continuous: I was playing
Past Perfect: I had played
Past Perfect Continuous: I had been playing

You can use these forms to talk about the past:

“He played tennis.”
“He had worked at EF for one year.”
“He was playing tennis.”
“He had been working at EF for one year.”

You can use the Past Tense to talk about hypothetical or imagined situations. For example:

“What will happen if we got lost?”

You can also use the Past Tense when expressing wishes:

“I wish I had remembered my camera!” (I forgot my camera)

… as well as for conditional sentences in the present or future:

“You could pass the test if you studied harder.”
“We would win if my brother was playing too.”

If you want to be very polite, you can use the Past Tense to ask questions or make requests:

“Excuse me, I was wondering if you could help me.”

Next time you need some help, or you’re looking for a restaurant, or even if you get lost, try using that sentence with passers-by. You’ll be surprised how many people are happy to help!

Even though the future isn’t a ‘tense’, we should still have a look at it. The basic sentences that you can use to talk about future plans or events are:

“I am going to play football tomorrow.”
“I’m playing football tomorrow.”

Both these sentences have the same meaning but it is more common to use the second sentence when talking with your friends or in a casual situation.

Tenses aren’t always easy to get right, but remember that using the right context is almost as important as getting the grammar right. Let us know in the comments section what tenses you have trouble with or any ‘tense’ study tips you have to share