Tenses – how to understand them

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Tenses – definition

tenses The term tenses refers to the temporal aspect of verbs in use.

redbtn There are many tenses in English to express past, present, and future.



The child brings joy into their lives.
Paris is the capital of France.
Paul is looking for the cat.

PAST tense

It was a wonderful day for all of us.
Judith had left the key on the table.
Fred had been about to leave when the telephone rang

FUTURE tense

The wedding will be a splendid affair.
I am going to stop smoking.
Stephen goes to college next week.


redbtn All languages have tenses. It is interesting that English is the only modern European language which has no future tense as a designated term.

redbtn The future tense in English is expressed by using other tenses or by the semantic context.

redbtn In the example ‘Stephen goes to college next week’ the term ‘Stephen goes’ is present tense. It is the context in this case – created by the phrase ‘next week’ – which tells us that we are being informed about the future.

redbtn NB! Hold on to your hat! This topic can become quite complex.

redbtn There are many tenses in the English Language. They are all varieties of past, present, and future.

redbtn The following examples have all been placed in a context so that the complexity and the range of English tenses can be appreciated.

redbtn The names for tenses vary from one grammar text book to the next. Don’t worry about the exact name. It is more important to

  • assess whether the statement is in past, present, or future
  • look for any auxiliary verbs (‘to have’ and ‘to be’) used to construct the tense

redbtn Varieties of the past tense

I ran (so that I could be here at this moment)
I have run (all the way here)
I was running (when I fell over a few minutes ago)
I had run (so that I could arrive on time yesterday)
I have been running (and that’s why I’m out of breath now)
I had been running (and that’s why I fell over yesterday)
I used to run (but I have walked for some time now)

redbtn Varieties of the present tense

I run (to work every morining)
I am running (and that’s why I’m out of breath)
I have been running (for fifteen minutes, and I’m still running)

redbtn Varieties of the future tense

I shall run (so that I’ll arrive on time)
I will run (so don’t try to stop me)
I shall be running (to work for the foreeeable future to keep fit)
I shall have run (twelve miles by tomorrow morning)
I shall have been running (to work each morning for two weeks by next Friday)
I run (tomorrow because that’s the day of the race)

redbtn In some instances of these future varieties ‘shall’ and ‘will’ are auxiliaries deriving from the Old English ‘to wish’ or ‘to want’.

redbtn In order to assess whether an action or a state of existence is expressed in the past, present or future tense, it is important to have an idea of a fixed point in time from which the action or state is valued.

redbtn For example ‘I shall have been running’ implies a point in the future from which the past of that time is being viewed.

redbtn “I run into the house and there’s a masked gunman waiting to rob me!” looks like the simple present, but in fact it refers to an event in the past. Technicallly this is known as the vivid present and is mainly used in speech to add a sense of drama to an account of an exciting event.

Self-assessment quiz follows …

© Roy Johnson 2004

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