Understanding Verb Tenses in English


Following up with our explanation about verbs, in this article I will address this topic that has proven to be quite challenging for English students, verb tenses. Besides showing the action or state of being in the sentence, the verb also indicates the time this action took place.

There are some languages (Thai for example), where the verb has basically one form, no matter if the sentence is about the past, the present, or the future, the verb is the same. In these cases, extra words – Tomorrow, yesterday, now and so forth – indicate the time. This is not the case in English. In this language, six different verb tenses express time, and each of these tenses places the action or the state of being at a point in time.

Three of the six English tenses are called simple and the other three are called perfect. My intention here is not to go deep into their construction, but rather to touch upon the basis of each. Will address each one in detail in further articles, although I will go further into the present perfect tense as it is so common.

Making it simple

The three simple tenses are present, past and future. Each of the simple tenses has two forms, one is the plain tense. It doesn’t have a special name and are just called present, past or future. What do they do? They show actions or states of being at a point in time, but it doesn’t always specify a specific moment. The other form is called progressive. It shows actions or a state of being that is in progress.

Present Tense

The simple present tense serves two main purposes. It describes when an event is happening at the moment, or when an event happens regularly. It has two forms – one is called present and the other is called progressive. Depending on the speaker, simple present tenses might be formed by using the root form or by adding -es or -s to the ending. For example:


John studies medicine

My dad likes to ride horses


Mike and Lola are swimming too fast

You care studying too much

Past Tense

This one tells you what happened before the present time. It has two forms (you can start to see a pattern here) the simple past and past progressive. Let’s look at two example sentences.

Simple past:

I slept at my friend’s house

I woke up at 7:30 a.m yesterday

Past progressive:

While Diana was sleeping, her cat Aurora destroyed her whole apartment

Mike was playing video games at this house

Future Tense

As its name says, future tense talks about what has not happened yet. This simple tense is the only one that always needs helping verbs to convey meaning, even for its plain version. Simple future verb tenses are formed with the structure will + (root form of the verb). However, the is a second way to demonstrate that something will happen in a later point in time, by using going to. Let’s see some examples:

  • I will go to the doctor’s office tomorrow
  • My friend will join us later
  • We are going to do it eventually

How to use them correctly

What’s the difference between each pair of simple tense forms? Really, not that much. People often interchange these forms without creating any problems. However, there are some differences that need to be considered.

Present and present progressive

The simple present tense may be used for things that are generally true at the present time but are not necessarily happening right now. Ex.

Susanne visits her family every Sunday

If you all Susanne on Sunday, she might not pick up as she is eating cookies with her grandma (visits is in present tense). Now, let’s talk a little bit more about Susanne.

Susanne is playing with her dog Spike

This sentence means that right now (is playing is in the progressive form), as you write the sentence, Susanne is throwing a bone to her dog and hoping he gets it back.

Past and past progressive

The difference between the plain past tense and the past progressive tense is pretty much the same as in the present tense. The single-word form often shows what happened in the past more generally, whilst the progressive form may indicate an action or state of being is happening on a regular basis.

Mike went to the store and bought some clothes

This sentence means that at some point in the past Mike decided to spend his precious money to get ready for Christmas (went and brought are in past tense).

While Mike was shopping, his wife was buying a brand new car

This sentence means at the exact moment he was buying that nice Polo shirt, his wife was giving herself a brand new Audi. Here they go his life savings (was shopping and was buying are in the progressive form of the past tense).

Future and future progressive

You won’t find much difference between these two. The progressive gives you slightly more of a sense of being in the middle of things. For example:

The actor will be playing Hamlet

The actor’s actions in the sentence above may be a little bit more immediate than

The actor will play Hamlet

In the first example, will be playing is in the progressive form of the future tense. In the second example, will play is in the future tense.

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