English grammatical tenses are often taught one after the other, without paying much attention to how they all fit together.
In this article, we take the traditional view of English tenses and turn it on its head to see if we can create a better understanding of how each one is related.
Before you start
This article is not suitable for:
- English learners at levels A1 or A2 (beginner or elementary)
This article is suitable for:
- English learners at levels B1, B2 or C1 (intermediate, upper-intermediate or advanced)
- English learners who already have already studied most or all of the grammatical tenses
Tenses are easy, right?
- past actions happened in the past
- present actions happen now
- future actions happen in the future
Steve - "Where's Lucy?" (Present Simple)
Sarah - "Oh, she's gone out for lunch." (Present Perfect Simple)
Steve is asking where Lucy is now, but Sarah replies by describing an action that Lucy did (go out) in the past.
But they're both using present tenses. So what's going on?
Before we move on, we need to make sure we understand some important language related to English grammatical tenses.
* Actually there's no future tense in English. Instead, we use the present tense to talk about the future (for example, 'be going to'). But it's still helpful to think of it as a future tense.
** The perfect aspect has two forms: perfect simple and perfect continuous. When people just say 'past perfect', 'present perfect' or 'future perfect', they are talking about the simple form.
The trouble with tenses
Many learners think of English grammar like this:
past perfect (simple)
past perfect continuous
present perfect (simple)
present perfect continuous
future perfect (simple)
future perfect continuous
One of the reasons I think learners have difficulty with English grammar is because they often think of the tense first and the aspect second.
It's often very useful to think about it the other way around, as you can get a clearer understanding of how the aspects work.
Aspect first, Tense second
This change leads to the following:
future perfect (simple & continuous)
But, let's just check another two important words.
However, there are many verbs that can be both actions or states in different situations.
The continuous aspect
As you'd guess, 'continuous' actions are, well, continuous.
Here are some examples:
Present Continuous - Sorry, I can't hear you. They're playing music.
Past Continuous - She was working hard when her boss walked in.
Future Continuous - Tomorrow evening, we'll be sitting on a plane to Paris! I can't wait!
In all three time-frames, the action starts before and continues until after another action or time point in the sentence.
For continuous states that started before and finished after another point in time, we don't think of these as involving any kind of movement, change or process. Instead, we think of them as things that generally stay the same.
Because of this, we don't use the continuous aspect to describe them. Instead, we often use the simple aspect:
- Present Continuous -> Present Simple
I am having a car(now) -> I have a car (now).
- Past Continuous -> Past Simple
When I lived in New York, I was loving going to cafes-> When I lived in New York, I loved going to cafes.
- Future Continuous -> Future Simple
You want to start going to the gym? I
'll be believing it when I see it!-> I'll believe it when I see it!
The perfect aspect
Ok, here's the trick.
Perfect means 'before but related to', so:
- 'present perfect' means 'before but related to now'
- 'past perfect' means 'before but related to a past action or point in time'
- 'future perfect' means 'before but related to a future action or point in time'.
- Look at your clothes! You look like you've been in a fight! (something I see now that let's me guess what has happened just before)
- "Are you ready?"
-> "I've just finished!" (I'm answering your question now by telling you about an action that finished before now)
And perhaps you were wondering about the differences between perfect simple and perfect continuous?
Well, it's usually a choice that the write uses to emphasise something in the sentence:
- I've written four emails already this morning!*
- I've been writing emails all morning!*
* The perfect simple aspect is often used to emphasise how many actions happen, or completed actions.
** The perfect continuous aspect is often used to emphasise how long an action takes or temporary, unfinished or repeated actions.
The simple aspect
Did you see how with both the continuous and perfect aspects, we were comparing an action to another action or point in time?
You can think of the simple aspect as 'simple' because describes actions or states that either:
a) do not have a time period (they are always true)
b) happen at one specific point or period in time (but are not related to another point in time).
Let's look at some examples:
Present Simple (the time period is 'past, present and future')
- 'I go to work by bus' (my daily habit that is always true)
- 'Water boils at 100 degrees' (a fact that is always true)
- 'The bus leaves at 6pm' (a fact that is true every day or a fact that is true just one time)
Past Simple (at a specific point or period in time in the past)
- 'In 2005, he graduated from Harvard' (single, completed action at a past point in time)
- 'She went to the museum every day for the six weeks she was in London' (repeated action within a past time period)
Future Simple (instant decisions/promises/offers or general predictions made at the time of speaking)
- 'The phone's ringing. I'll get it (an instant decision made now)
- 'I guess he'll arrive in half an hour or so' (a general prediction made now)
Careful, we don't really use the future simple to talk about future plans.
Instead, we borrow the present continuous tense in two ways:
- Specific future arrangements - 'We're meeting up at 9pm.' (present continuous)
- General future plans - 'The manager's going to see what he can do and then he'll get back to you.' (present continuous - 'be going to')
By looking at the similarity of the aspects across all the English tenses, hopefully you've managed to create some useful links in your mind that will help you in your learning.
Let me know if you find this way of thinking useful in the comment section below and feel free to share this article with your friends by clicking on the Share button to the left (mobile) or below (desktop).