Sunday, July 22, 2012

English verb tenses

One of the things language students fear most is learning the verbal forms, as they can be really complex. Just have a look at the conjugation of verbs in French and Spanish: there are so many different moods, tenses... and you also have to learn the different endings of the persons! That can be complicated and time-consuming! However, English verbs are so simple to learn compared with the verbal forms in those languages that I always tell my students they are lucky to be learning English and not Spanish.
Image by Paalia

In English there are three verbal moods or modes: indicative, subjunctive and imperative. The most widely used is the indicative, as the subjunctive has almost disappeared from the language and is only used in certain types of sentences like the conditionals; and the imperative has only one form, which is the same as the infinitive.
So, today, we are only going to deal with the indicative mood in the active voice, and we will just see the form and not the uses of the tenses, which have been dealt with in previous posts.

Apart from the tenses, there are other verbal forms that do not change:

  • the present participle or gerund, also called “the -ing form”. (working)
  • the past participle, which ends in -ed for regular verbs (worked), while for the irregular verbs, it’s the third column (break, broke, broken)
Both these forms help us construct the tenses as we are going to see right now.

All the tenses express either the present, the past or the future and they all follow the same pattern, so it’s really easy to learn them:

  • Simple
  • Continuous
  • Perfect:
    • simple
    • continuous


The simple tenses use the infinitive or root of the verb:
  • In the present they do not add any suffixes to the root, except for the -s in the third person.
  • In the past they add the suffix -ed to the root (only in regular verbs, of course).
  • In the future they go with the verb will and do not add any suffixes.
The continuous tenses need the auxiliary verb to be:
  • In the present the verb to be is in the present: am / is / are.
  • In the past the verb to be is in the past: was / were.
  • In the future the verb to be follows the auxiliary will.
The perfect tenses need the auxiliary have:
  • In the present, have is in the present: have / has.
  • In the past have is in the past: had.
  • In the future, have follows the auxiliary verb will.
Notice that the perfect tenses can either be simple or continuous. In the latter case, apart from the auxiliary have, they also need the verb to be. Besides, the auxiliary have is always followed by a past participle, while the auxiliary to be is always followed by the -ing form.

Let’s have a look at this table to see the conjugation of the verb to work. Please, note that I have left out the pronouns when there is no difference in inflexion.

SIMPLE I work /he works worked will work
CONTINUOUS I am /you are /he is working I was /you were working will be working
PERFECT SIMPLE I have / he has worked had worked will have worked
PERFECT CONT. I have / he has been working had been working will have been working

Now, do you agree with me that learning the English tenses is as easy as ABC?
If you want to check that you can remember the names of the tenses, do this exercise:

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