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:

Monday, July 2, 2012

Last or latest?

Last and latest are both superlative forms of the word late, but they do not have the same meaning:
  • Last means “final”. The Tempest was Shakespeare’s last play. (He didn’t write any other after that and, being long dead, he won’t write any more).
  • Latest means “newest”, “most recent”. Dan Brown’s latest novel is The Lost Symbol. (That’s his newest novel, but not the last one, because he is alive and kicking, so he can still write more and he will probably do so).
Late also has two comparative forms: one is regular (later) and the other is irregular (latter). They cannot be used as synonyms either:
  • Later means “afterwards”. It is widely used as a connector of time and sequence along with words like: then, next, after that, etc.
  • Latter refers to the second of two things or people mentioned: I love my two cousins, George and Don, but the latter is clearly my favourite. In this example, “the latter” refers to the second cousin mentioned: Don. If we wanted to refer to George, we would use the term former, which means “the first of the above mentioned”.

The word late can be used as an adjective or an adverb:
  • adjective: She got married in her late twenties.
  • adverb: The birthday card arrived three days late.
There is another adverb derived from late: lately, which means “recently”: I haven’t heard from Peter lately. (Note that this adverb is usually used with a perfect tense).
Another adverb related to late is lastly, which is used to introduce the last in a list of things. I’ve got many things to do this weekend: first I'm going to the supermarket, secondly to the zoo, and lastly to the cinema.
For more information about the difference between adjectives and adverbs you can read this previous post.

  • Last but not least is used when mentioning the last person or thing of a group, in order to state that they are not less important than the others. And last but not least, I’d like to thank my parents for their help and support.
  • At (long) last: after much delay, finally. At last we’re home!
  • Last orders: the last opportunity for people to buy drinks in a pub before it closes. It’s mainly used in British English.
  • The day /week /month before last is the penultimate day, week or month.
  • The last straw is the last in a series of events that, when added to the others, makes the situation unbearable. It’s a variation of the Arabic proverb the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Now you can do this exercise to check how much you have learnt.

Fancy another exercise? Choose the correct word.

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