What are the most important tenses in English?

If you are an English learning beginner, conjugation and tenses can be difficult when you realize how many there are. Even advanced English learners get their tenses mixed up sometimes!  

Although it may seem like there are hundreds of tenses in the English language, all you need to do to be able to communicate in most situations is master the three most common ones. Read on to learn more about how to use the most important tenses in English.

What tenses to learn in English

There are a total of 12 tenses in the English language. These are: 

  • Three present tenses: The simple present, the present progressive, and the present perfect progressive. However, the present perfect progressive is rarely used. 

  • Five past tenses: The simple past (also known as the preterite), the present perfect, the past progressive, the past perfect, and the past perfect progressive 

  • Four future tenses: The simple future, the future perfect, the future progressive, and the future perfect progressive 

Although this looks like a daunting list, there is no need to panic! The three most commonly used tenses are the simple present, the simple past tense, and the simple future. When you start English courses for beginners, it is likely that you will learn these tenses first. Keep reading to learn how to use each one.

The simple present tense

The simple present tense, or the present tense, talks about what is happening or what is true in that moment. This is likely to be the tense you learn first when you start your English journey. The present tense can be used to talk about... 

  • What something is: “I am tired”, “You are a teacher” 

  • Your opinions and preferences: “I think that...”, “She likes apples” 

  • Your habits or daily routine: “I wake up early”, “I do not eat meat” 

Conjugating the present tense is easy: Subject + infinitive (without the ‘to’). For the third person singular it is: Subject + infinitive (+s).  

For example: I run, you run, he/she runs, we run, you run, they run. 

Remember that if the verb ends in ‘ss’, you must add 'es' for the third person singular form. 

For example: I miss, you miss, he/she misses, we miss, you miss, they miss. 

The simple past tense

The simple past tense, or the past tense, is nearly always used in English to talk about what happened in the past. It can be used to talk about... 

  • What you did: “I visited Paris” 

  • What happened in your past: “I was a happy child” 

To conjugate regular verbs in the past tense, you use: Subject + infinitive (+ed). 

For example: I walked, I loved, I called. 

Irregular verbs are a little trickier, but all it takes is practice to learn which ones do what. When you learn English online with EF English Live, your teacher can help you focus on verbs you find difficult and teach you how to use them in different sentences.  

For example: I did (do), I ate (eat), I saw (see). 

The simple future tense

The simple future tense, also known as the future tense, is used to talk about what will happen. You can conjugate the simple future using: Subject + ‘will’ + the verb in the simple present. 

For example: I will travel, I will eat, I will do. 

Why are these tenses important?

The simple present, past, and future tense are important to learn because they are used so often. Even if you only use these three tenses to start with, you should be able to get your meaning across. 

If you practice these tenses regularly, you will start to build a solid foundation in English and start communicating more effectively. Once you have learned the most common irregular verbs, you will notice how easily you can form sentences and tell people about your habits, your past, and your daily routine. 

Our private online English lessons can help you learn even faster. In fact, our new Efekta Hyperclass™ uses a conversation-based and interactive virtual learning environment to put you in real-life scenarios that will get you speaking English from day one. 

Additional tenses to learn

Feel like you have a good grasp of the present, past, and future tenses? Well done! There are a few additional verb tenses that are useful to know once you have mastered the main ones. These include: 

  • The present perfect 

This tense is used to talk about a past action that has an effect on the present. You can form the present perfect using: Subject + ‘have’ + infinitive (+ed). For example: “I have lived here for a year”. 

  • The past perfect 

Also called the pluperfect, this tense uses the past tense of ‘have’, ‘had’, and the past participle. The pluperfect is used to describe something that happened before another action, where both actions are in the past. You can form this tense using: Subject + ‘had been’ + infinitive (+ing). For example: “I had been studying English for a year when I decided to move abroad”. 

  • The present continuous: 

We use this tense to talk about an action in progress. You form the present continuous using: Subject + ‘am/are’ + infinitive (+ing). For example: “I am working”. The present continuous can also be used to talk about an action in the future. For example: “I am going to the beach tomorrow”. Remember to add ‘am/are’ before the verb. 

Remote English courses are a great way to discover new tenses and practice them alongside fellow learners. Learn the past, present, and future tenses with EF English Live’s online English courses. We have taught millions of other learners how to speak English through our award-winning Efekta Method™. 

Dedicating regular time to learning the tenses will be your key to faster progress. If you manage to practice the three most common tenses in everyday situations, even better! Learning English is not always an uphill climb. There will be days when you get frustrated. There will be days when you feel like you have not learned anything new. The important thing is not to give up. 

We know you can do it. Good luck!