20) Tense in verbs

Tense

Tense is probably the most important concept to understand in verbs. Tenses are commonly broken down into past, present and future versions of the aspects simple, progressive, perfect, and perfect progressive. It should be noted from the beginning that tense and time are not perfectly aligned. That is to say, some tenses, such as the present tense, can express events that are not in the present. So, while tense and time are very strongly linked, many will say it is the inflection on the verb, or the construction used, which defines a tense. Moreover, many say that there is no future tense in the English language, because there is no inflection on a verb which makes it future. As we go through the tenses we will initially discuss what is commonly called the future tense. Then, at the end, we will discuss the arguments which say that English doesn’t have a future tense.

You may find this resource useful for finding the spellings of various forms of the verbs.

Let’s start with the past, present and future tenses in the simple, or no, aspect.

1) Tenses in the simple, or no, aspect

The simple aspect is a way of denoting that these forms are not in the progressive (continuous) or perfect (complete) aspects. Therefore, they are sometimes also called the ‘indefinite’ aspect because the inflection alone is not specifying whether the event is continuous/ongoing or complete, even though we can often decipher this from other aspects of the sentence. For example:

David drank the water.

Here ‘drank’ is the simple past tense version of ‘drink’ and is telling us that this action happened in the past, but we don’t know whether it is completed or ongoing. However, we can change this by adding other words into the sentence, as in:

David drank the water yesterday.

Now it is clear the event was completed yesterday.

1.1 Simple past tense

The simple past tense is formed by taking the base form of the verb (form in dictionary) and then changing it depending on the regular and irregular forms we saw earlier. The simple past tense relates to events in the past relative to the person writing (first person), being addressed (second person) or being written about (third person). The following table breaks down the differences in singular and plural, as well as first, second and third person:

  Singular examples Plural examples
First person I was happy.

I jumped over it.

We were happy.

We jumped over it.

Second person You were happy.

You jumped over it.

You were happy.

You jumped over it.

Third person He was happy.

He jumped over it.

David drank the water .

They were happy.

They jumped over it.

The swans drank the water.

Let’s have a think about exactly what the past tense is saying. For example:

I was happy.

This is telling us that the writer, in the past at some point, used to be happy. It isn’t telling exactly when this happiness occurred, just that it did occur. Is it telling us that the past event is finished? It does suggest that the happiness started at some point in the past, and then finished at some point before now.

Let’s look at another example:

They ate all our food.

Again, this event happened in the past, but we don’t know exactly when. There is also an implication that this event is finished now, and therefore that it started at some point in the past, and finished at some point before now.

For spellings take a look at the regular and irregular verb sections from earlier, use a dictionary, or, as mentioned, go here.

1.2 Simple present tense

The simple present tense is formed by either simply using the base form of the verb, or adding an ‘s’, ‘es’ or ‘ies’ onto the end of it when in the third person singular. The simple present tense is more complicated in its meaning than the simple past tense. While it can be used for something that is happening right now, like:

I am lost.

it is also used in events which are not happening at this very moment, such as:

I play football regularly.

and for relating specific events in the future such as:

The football match starts at 3pm.

Before we look at examples of these, let’s quickly look at the spelling rules for the third person singular.

1) If the base form of the verb is regular, just add ‘s’. So, ‘play’ is regular because its past simple and past participle forms are the regular form ‘played’; consequently, we just add ‘s’ in the simple present tense third person singular. Therefore, the first person singular:

I play football regularly.

becomes

He plays football regularly.

2) The verbs that end in in ss, sh, ch, o, x and z are an exception to the above rule, and should have es added on to the end, whether they are regular, or irregular. For example:

They kiss regularly.

He kisses regularly.

They punish everyone who misbehaves.

She punishes everyone who misbehaves.

They catch the ball well.

He catches the ball well.

They do win regularly.

He does win regularly.

They mix up everything.

He mixes up everything.

They buzz the bell all day.

He buzzes the bell all day.

3) The verbs that end consonant + y are another exception, and they change the ‘y’ to ‘i’ then add ‘es’, therefore ending in ‘ies’. For example:

I cry regularly.

He cries regularly.

Now we know the spellings, let’s take a look at some examples of the different types of meanings.

Events happening right now

The most straight forward use of the present tense is for events happening right now. See below for a table with examples from the first, second and third person.

  Singular examples Plural examples
First person I am happy. We are happy.
Second person You are happy. You are happy.
Third person He is happy.

He drinks the water.

They are happy.

They drink the water.

As we can see, this is something happening right at this moment. You might answer the phone to your boss asking you to come in to work with ‘I am in bed.’ There is no ambiguity here about when this is happening.

Events in the future with a specific time

Present simple tenses can also allude to the future, on the condition that we know a specific time when this is happening. See the table below for some examples:

  Singular Plural
First person I am ready for work by 5am.

I drive to work at 5am.

We are ready for work by 5am.

We drive to work at 5am.

Second person You are ready for work by 5am.

You drive to work at 5am.

You are ready for work by 5am .

You drive to work at 5am.

Third person He is ready for work by 5am.

John gets ready for work by 5am.

It begins at 3pm.

They are ready for work by 5am.

The employees get ready for work by 5am.

So why is this considered the present tense? Well, mainly, because it uses the same spellings. Notice the verb form plus the added ‘s’ for the verb in the third person singular ‘John gets ready for work by 5am’, and the verb form alone for the third person plural ‘The employees get ready for work by 5am’.

General statements

Some present tense sentences make general statements. These are a little less obvious to spot as the present tense, but you can always tell from the spelling. See the table for some examples:

  Singular Plural
First person I am a human being.

I drive a car.

I love apples.

We are human beings.

We drive a car.

We love apples.

Second person You are a human being.

You drive a car.

You love apples.

You are a human being.

You drive a car.

You love apples.

Third person He is a human being.

John is a car driver.

Peter loves apples.

They are human beings.

They are car drivers.

Apple farmers love apples.

So why is this in the present simple tense? Again, the spelling is the same. However, this time, there is a closer link. When we say something like:

I am a human being.

we do mean that is the case right now. That could change in the future, if we genetically engineer ourselves into oblivion – or someone sneakily changes the meaning of the term in the dictionary – but we are proposing it to be true in the present. A better example is:

I drive a car.

This is something that is true in the present. However, it might not be in the future, if we sell a car, give up driving or driverless cars become commonplace. Similarly:

I love apples.

is something that is true now; the writer may have hated apples when a kid, and may stop liking them in the future. So, while these might not seem obviously present tense on first examination, if we think about them a little bit more deeply, they do relate to the present.

1.3 Simple future tense

The future simple tense looks at an event in the future and can be made using:

‘will’ + the verb in base form or ‘am/is/are’ + ‘going to’ + the base form of the verb.

As I said before, some argue no future tenses exist in the English language, and we deal with that later in the final section. For now, let’s leave that aside and look at some examples of what is commonly described as the simple future tense, starting with ‘will’ + the verb in base form:

  Singular Plural
First person I will not go to Goa.

I will drive a car.

I will be relieved.

We will not go to Goa.

We will drive a car.

We will be relieved.

Second person You will not go to Goa.

You will drive a car.

You will be relieved.

You will not go to Goa.

You will drive a car.

You will be relieved.

Third person He will not go to Goa.

John will drive a car.

Peter will be relieved.

They will not go to Goa.

They will drive a car.

They will be relieved.

As we can see from the table, there is more than one way of talking about a future event. One of them is to use the word ‘will’ or the phrases ‘will not’ or ‘will be’ followed by the verb, as in:

I will not go to Goa.

This ‘will’ form is usually reserved for actions, or conditions, that are perceived as definite. However, there are some differences depending on whether it is in the first, second and third person. In the first person:

I will go for a walk at 5pm.

or

I will not be getting out of bed this morning.

seems very certain, as the person is talking about themselves, and, at the very least, their intentions. Once we move into the second person it starts to sound a bit more like a command:

You will not go to Goa.

When we move into the third person it becomes a bit more like a perceived idea of what someone else will do, as in:

Peter will be relieved.

Now let’s look at the same table but with ‘am/is/are’ + ‘going to’ + base form of the verb instead:

  Singular Plural
First person I am going to visit Goa.

I am going to buy a car.

I am going to be relieved.

We are going to visit to Goa.

We are going to buy a car.

We are going to be relieved.

Second person You are going to visit Goa.

You are going to buy a car.

You are going to be relieved.

You are going to visit Goa.

You are going to buy a car.

You are going to be relieved.

Third person He is going to visit Goa.

John is going to buy a car.

Peter is going to be relieved.

They are going to visit Goa.

They are going to buy a car.

They are going to be relieved.

These all also talk about future events, but some argue for a subtle difference between the two. If we compare these two:

I will visit Goa.

I am going to visit Goa.

the latter form does sound a little less strong, as though it is less likely to happen. We see this when we compare two second person examples as well, as in:

You will visit Goa.

You are going to visit Goa.

Do you notice, again, that the second form is less insistent than the first?

2) Progressive tenses

The progressive tenses are similar to the 3 simple ones we have just seen, but they relate to ongoing, or continuous, actions, in the past, present and future. Progressive tenses all use present participles: the ‘ing’ form of a verb which relates to continuous actions. Let’s take a look at the 3 perspectives.

2.1 Progressive past tense

The progressive past tense uses:

‘was/were’ + present participle of the verb (‘ing’ ending)

to show an event in the past which is in the middle of happening, sometimes in relation to another past event. This differs to the simple past tense which talks about a completed event in the past. Let’s compare the two:

Simple past tense: ‘I walked home late last night; later on I realised I was in love.

Progressive past tense: ‘I was walking home late last night when I realised I love her.’

Firstly, notice that the simple tense example has the past tense of the base form ‘walk’ which is ‘walked’, and the progressive past tense example uses ‘was’ + the present participle of ‘walk’, which is ‘walking’. Notice how the simple past tense example is talking about the past event (the walk) as though it is finished, while the progressive past tense example is talking about the past event (the walk) as though it is still continuing. Moreover, because the past progressive tense transports us right into an event in the past that is still happening, it has an extra sense of drama attached to it. To be clear, the event is over now, but the retelling of it is putting us in the moment. In the simple past tense example we have two separate clauses which don’t really seem that linked, whereas the progressive past tense example allows us to link the two clauses together – via the subordinate conjunction ‘when’ – allowing us to show that it was during the walk home that the realisation of love occurred.

Here is another comparative example, using ‘were’:

Simple past tense: ‘They were lost in the woods all night.’

Progressive past tense: ‘They were discussing their insecurities when they realised they were lost in the woods.’

Again, in the simple past tense, the event in the past is complete while in the progressive past tense we are transported to their discussion in the past, which is ongoing.

Here is a table of examples for the progressive past tense:

  Singular examples Plural examples
First person I was singing all night. We were singing all night.
Second person You were singing all night. You were singing all night.
Third person He was singing all night. They were singing all night.

2.2 Progressive present tense

The progressive present tense uses:

the different forms of ‘to be’ (‘am/is/are’) + the present participle ending for a verb (‘ing’)

to show something that is (or is not) happening directly in the present moment. The difference between this and the simple present tense can sometimes be quite minor, so let’s have a look at some comparisons:

Simple present tense: I am drunk.

Progressive present tense: I am drinking.

In the simple present tense we see that the person is in the state of drunkenness right in this moment, while in the progressive present we see the person is currently doing the activity of drinking, right in this moment. Let’s look at another example:

Simple present tense: He is at work by 5am.

Progressive present tense: He is starting work at 5am.

The simple present tense example is giving us a general statement about a future event (being at work) which is generally completed at a particular time (5am), whereas the progressive present tense example is presenting an ongoing event (work) that is beginning at a particular time (5am). So, again, the difference is the simple tense relates to completed events, and the progressive relates to ongoing ones.

As with the simple present tense, it is strange that sometimes present tense forms talk about future events, and this will form part of the argument as to why some think there isn’t a true future tense in the English language.

Here is a table with some examples:

  Singular examples Plural examples
First person I am drinking. We are drinking.
Second person You are drinking. You are drinking.
Third person He is drinking. They are drinking.

2.3 Progressive future tense

The progressive future tense uses:

‘will be’ or ‘am/is/are going to be’ + the present participle of the verb (‘ing’ form)

to send us to the very moment of a future event. This is different to simple future tense which talks about a future event as though it is completed. Let’s look at some comparisons:

Simple future tense: ‘You will be relieved when it is over.’

Progressive future tense: ‘You will be relieving yourself when the play is over.’

The simple future tense tells us about a completed future event (being relieved) whereas the progressive future tells us about a future event that is still ongoing (relieving yourself).

Here is a table of examples using ‘will be’ + present participle of the verb:

  Singular Plural
First person I will be running for mayor. We will be running for mayor.
Second person You will be running for mayor. You will be running for mayor.
Third person He will be running for mayor. They will be running for mayor.

Here is a table of examples using ‘am/is/are + ‘going to be’ + the present participle of the verb:

  Singular Plural
First person I am going to be running for mayor. We are going to be running for mayor.
Second person You are going to be running for mayor. You are going to be running for mayor.
Third person He is going to be running for mayor. They are going to be running for mayor.

Again, there is perhaps a subtle difference here, with the ‘am/is/are’ + ‘going to be’ + present participle form being less powerful than the ‘will be’ + present participle one. For example:

I will be running for mayor.

I am going to be running for mayor.

The latter seems a tiny bit less insistent. I think we always see it more clearly with the second person:

You will be running for mayor.

You are going to be running for mayor.

I can imagine the ‘will be’ example being used when someone is being forced to run for mayor; in contrast, I can imagine the ‘are going to be’ one being used to give the good news that it is happening.

3) Perfect tenses

There are also perfect tenses for past, present and future. These tell us about something which was completed in the past, present or future, and often relate to an event that happened in conjunction with this event. The term ‘perfect’ has a few different definitions, but I think, in this instance, it is definitions like ‘Complete; thorough; utter’ that made the term be chosen. This is because, in the perfect tenses, we are talking about events that have been completed. However, as we have seen earlier, other tenses allow this like the simple past tense:

I ate the apple.

This is describing a completed event in the past. However, if we compare this with the perfect past tense, we get:

I had eaten an apple before dinner.

Notice here that it is about a completed event in the past which occurred before another event. Perfect tenses much more commonly relate to completed events that happened in conjunction with another event.

3.1 Perfect past tense

The perfect past tense form involves:

‘had’ + the past participle

to show a completed event in the past. However, the simple past tense is also able to show completed events in the past, so let’s compare the two to see what the difference is:

Simple past tense: ‘I missed the deadline.’

Perfect past tense ‘I had missed the deadline before your offer.’

The difference is subtle here because both sentences talk about a completed past event (missing the deadline). However, the perfect past tense ‘had’ naturally leads on to another event which happened after the completed past one, which, in this case, was some sort of ‘offer’. Despite this, it wouldn’t be wrong to add another event after the simple past tense. Take a look at these two examples:

Simple past tense: ‘He jumped over the wall before the security arrived.’

Perfect past tense ‘He had jumped over the wall before the security arrived.’

If there is a difference, it is even more subtle now because both are are expressing a completed event in the past (the jump), and an event which occurred after it (the security arriving). Both of these are allowed, but is there any difference between the two? My feeling is that there are two minor differences, both of which are very contentious, but which I think are worth saying just to get us looking more deeply at this tense.

1) The perfect past tense focuses slightly more on the event that happened after (the security arriving) than the simple past tense. It is as though the use of the past tense ‘had’ somehow pushes the jumping event further back in importance thus giving more importance to the second event (security arriving). You might disagree though.

2) The perfect past tense more strongly expresses that the event was completed in the past. The use of the simple past tense ‘had’ gives an extra push that this was a completed event in the past because we now have ‘had’ (indicating an event in the past) and ‘jumped’ (indicating an event in the past) rather than just ‘jumped’. The other reason for this might be because, especially in literature, we often see constructions like:

He jumped over the wall before the security could get to him. Panting on the other side, he looked for somewhere to hide.

This feels a little like the action is happening now, even though it is past tense. If we replaced it with:

He had jumped over the wall before the security could get to him. Panting on the other side, he looked for somewhere to hide.

This feels more strongly like the event happened in the past, seemingly because of the use of ‘had’.

In these two examples we used the regular verbs ‘jump’ and ‘miss’ which have the same simple past tense and past participle (‘jumped’ and ‘missed’ for both). It is interesting to compare examples using irregular verbs, because they often have different simple past tense and past participle forms. For example:

Simple past tense: ‘He chose the apple.’

Perfect past tense: ‘He had chosen the apple before she had a chance.’

Both of these are working with forms of the base form verb ‘choose’. In the simple past tense example we have the past tense of ‘choose’ which is ‘chose’, giving us ‘He chose the apple.’ This is describing a past completed event. Then, in the perfect past tense, we have ‘had’ + the past participle of ‘choose’ which is ‘chosen’, giving us ‘He had chosen the apple before she had a chance.’ This is also describing a completed past event, but it has that extra detail of another event which happened after it.

In the previous example we added the extra event on to the past simple tense, but can we take away the extra event from the perfect past tense and still have a working sentence? Let’s try:

Simple past tense: ‘He chose the apple.’

Perfect past tense: ‘He had chosen the apple.’

The perfect past tense ‘He had chosen the apple.’ feels to me like it needs that extra event after it much more than the simple past tense ‘He chose the apple.’ This highlights the difference between the two tenses, showing that the perfect past tense is much more geared towards expressing a completed event in the past in conjunction with an event after it.

Here is a table showing the ‘had’ + the past participle forms relating to person and number:

  Singular Plural
First person I had gone home before the fight. We had gone home before the fight.
Second person You had gone home before the fight. You had gone home before the fight.
Third person He had gone home before the fight. They had gone home before the fight.

3.2 Perfect present tense

The perfect present tense uses:

‘has/have’ + the past participle

to show an event that started in the past, yet is often still going on in the present. But doesn’t this mean the event is not complete? And aren’t the perfect tenses called ‘perfect’ because they relate to completed events? Let’s have a look at some examples and then try to answer these questions. Here is a sentence in the perfect present tense:

I have seen a monkey steal from a tourist many times.

Here we have the use of ‘have’ with the past participle ‘seen’ (the base form of which is ‘see’ and the simple past tense ‘saw’). So is this event complete or not? Well, in one sense, yes it is. The writer is talking about the completed past events he has witnessed of the monkey stealing from tourists. But then we move on to our next problem: doesn’t that mean this is a past event? Why is it called present? Well, there is a slight implication here that this event is happening in the present. What I mean by that is that it feels like he is watching a monkey steal from a tourist, and is talking about the previous times it has happened. Or – perhaps more accurately in this case – he has either just seen a monkey steal from someone a second ago, is warning someone that a monkey might steal from them, or is offering a suggestion as to where the tourist’s lost item might be. These are all tales of completed events about monkeys stealing in the past, which fits in more nicely with the perfect tense idea, but they hold a somewhat different implication to the past tense. Let’s put this sentence next to a similar simple past tense example to see the difference:

Present perfect tense: ‘I have seen a monkey steal from a tourist many times.’

Simple past tense: ‘I saw a monkey steal from a tourist.’

The major difference between the present perfect tense ‘I have seen a monkey steal from a tourist many times.’ and the simple past tense ‘I saw a monkey steal from a tourist.’ is that the latter is more explicitly directing to the past. There is no way the event could be continuing into the present in this simple past tense example. However, it can be difficult to differentiate sometimes, because – as I noted – the perfect present tense example could easily be used in situations where the event is in the past, and is finished now. Therefore, the best way to try and recognise it is to look at the form. Remember:

Perfect present tense:’have/has’ + the past participle of the verb

Simple past tense: uses simple past tense of the verb, such as ‘see’ becomes ‘saw’. No past participle used.

Perfect past tense: ‘had’ + the past participle of the verb.

Let’s look at some more comparisons

Perfect present tense: ‘He has run more marathons than anyone.’

Simple past tense: ‘He ran many marathons in his lifetime.’

Perfect past tense: ”He had run more marathons than me before he was 20.’

With the present perfect tense ‘He has run more marathons than anyone.’ it makes me imagine the writer standing by the track, commentating on the experience of the marathon runner as he runs past. In contrast, with the simple past tense ‘He ran many marathons in his lifetime.’ I envisage someone talking about the experience of a marathon runner who has just died. Finally, with the perfect past tense ‘He had run more marathons than me before he was 20.’ i’m imagining the runner being introduced on a TV show for an interview. The difference is subtle, and by no means concrete. Thinking these things through when writing can be useful to make sure we are not implying something we don’t want to. Then again, these sentences wouldn’t usually be alone like this; they would be in a context which make the meaning more clear.

Something to look out for, where mistakes can easily be made, is using the perfect present tense when referring to specific times, when the simple past tense would be more appropriate. For example, take a look at these two:

Simple past tense: ‘I ate a pie an hour ago.’ (correct)

Present perfect tense: ‘I have eaten a pie an hour ago.’ (incorrect)

The perfect present tense adds confusion when referring to a specific time period such as ‘an hour ago’. Why exactly is this? I think it is because the perfect present tense has that extra implication that something is happening now, and, therefore, it clashes with stating a specific time for a past event. This is similar to the difference we saw with the monkey thief example earlier on.

Interestingly, the second sentence could be changed to something like:

I have eaten a pie before. (correct)

Now we are using the non-specific time ‘before’, which sounds fine in the perfect present tense. This appears to work better because it is making a general statement, rather than relating to a specific time. This could be used in a situation where someone offers a pie as though it is some alien foodstuff, and we reply with:

I have eaten a pie before.

This relates to an event happening in the present: that is, someone offering a pie. I think this is the reason it works. Note that the simple past tense:

I ate a pie before. (Incorrect)

doesn’t sound right. It needs something extra like:

I ate a pie before coming here.

But then this doesn’t feel like it is linked to the present event, like someone offering a pie.

Here is a table of examples using ‘have/has’ + the past participle

  Singular Plural
First person I have won the race. We have won the race.
Second person You have won the race. You have won the race.
Third person He has won the race. They have won the race.

3.3 Perfect future tense

The perfect future tense uses both:

‘will have’ + past participle

and

‘am/is/are’ + ‘going to have’ + past participle

to talk about an event that will be completed at some point in the future. In case you came straight to this page, I will remind you that some say there isn’t a future tense in English, and we look at that in the final section of this page, here. For now, let’s look at an example of what is commonly called the perfect future tense

These two forms are a bit easier to use because they can be swapped around, as in:

I will have died before I can save up enough to buy a house in London.

Here we have ‘will have’ + the past participle of ‘die’ which is ‘died’ to express an idea about an event that will be completed at some point in the future, and to relate it to another event (being able to save up enough to buy a house in London). If we compare it to the simple future tense, we have:

Simple future tense: ‘I will die before I can save up enough to buy a house in London.’

Perfect future tense: ‘I will have died before I can save up enough to buy a house in London.’

Again, the perfect future tense is more geared towards linking the completed future event to another event than the simple future tense is.

Here are some tables related to number and person using:

‘will have’ + past participle:

  Singular Plural
First person I will have retired before my job becomes redundant. We will have retired before our job becomes redundant.
Second person You will have retired before your job becomes redundant. You will have retired before your job becomes redundant.
Third person He will have retired before his job becomes redundant. They will have retired before their jobs becomes redundant.

 ‘am/is/are’ + ‘going to have’ + past participle:

  Singular Plural
First person I am going to have retired before my job becomes redundant. We are going to have retired before our job becomes redundant.
Second person You are going to have retired before your job becomes redundant. You are going to have retired before your job becomes redundant.
Third person He is going to have retired before his job becomes redundant. They are going to have retired before their job becomes redundant.

Again, there is that subtle difference with ‘will have’ + the past participle being a bit stronger. Let’s compare the second person again:

You will have retired before your job becomes redundant.

You are going to have retired before your job becomes redundant.

The second sounds less aggressive, at least to my ears. Perhaps it is simply because it take more words, meaning it is less curt?

4) Perfect progressive tenses

There are also combinations of perfect and progressive tenses making up the past, present and future versions of the perfect progressive tenses. Let’s look at each of those next.

4.1 Perfect progressive past tense

The perfect progressive past tense uses:

‘had been’ + the present participle of the verb (‘ing’ ending)

to highlight a past event that was continuous in the past, but is completed now. Let’s compare it to the other past tenses.

Simple past tense: He ran many marathons before winning the gold medal.

Perfect past tense: He had run many marathons before winning the gold medal.

Perfect progressive past tense: He had been running marathons for years before winning the gold medal.

It can be hard to tell these apart. In the simple past tense we see a completed event (running) in the past. This is then related to the winning of the gold medal, but there is not that much emphasis on the connection between the two. The perfect past tense example highlights the fact that the running happened before the gold medal, making this detail feel more important in the sentence. In this way, we feel more strongly that the winning of the gold medal related to all the previous marathons he ran. The perfect progressive past tense gives a similar emphasis; however, it also highlights that the event in the past was a continuous one, making it appear more dynamic. Therefore, the running becomes something which is ongoing in the past as well as being completed.

Here is a table using the ‘had been’ + present participle form in relation to person and number:

  Singular Plural
First person I had been playing guitar for years before I let anyone listen. We had been playing guitar for years before we let anyone listen.
Second person You had been playing guitar for years before you let anyone listen. You had been playing guitar for years before you let anyone listen.
Third person He had been playing guitar for years before he let anyone listen. They had been playing guitar for years before they let anyone listen.

4.2 Perfect progressive present tense

The perfect progressive present tense uses:

‘has been’ or ‘have been’ + the present participle of the verb (‘ing’ ending)

to highlight a present ongoing event which either is continuing right now, was finished in the past or has been happening recently. Firstly, let’s look at a present ongoing event that is still continuing:

They have been playing their music loud like this every night.

Here we have ‘have been’ + the present participle of ‘play’ which is ‘playing’. We know this is an ongoing event because it says ‘like this’, telling us that the music is being played loud now. We could also give a particular time, as in:

They have been playing their music loud since 1am.

This suggests to us that the music is still going on, because of the use of the preposition ‘since’.

There are also examples where it is a bit less clear whether the event is ongoing, or finished. For example:

They have been playing their music loud every day this week.

This is more akin to saying ‘recently’, and is ambiguous as to whether they will continue to play it loud in the future, or whether it is being played right at the moment of speaking. We can also talk about a recent event in the past which was ongoing but has now finished, as in:

I have been singing today.

If we are telling someone this it likely means the singing has stopped (unless we sing it to them).

As you can see, this is quite a complex tense, which isn’t surprising seeing as it is combining present, perfect and progressive constructions.

Here is a table showing the ‘has been’ or ‘have been’ + the present participle of the verb form in relation to person and number:

  Singular Plural
First person I have been forgetting her birthday for years. We have been forgetting her birthday for years.
Second person You have been forgetting her birthday for years. You have been forgetting her birthday for years.
Third person He has been forgetting her birthday for years. They have been forgetting her birthday for years.

4.3 Perfect progressive future tense

The perfect progressive future tense uses:

‘will have been’ or ‘is/am/are going to have been’ + the present participle of the verb (‘ing’ ending)

to show a continuous event that will be finished at some point in the future which is usually detailed afterwards. In case you came straight to this page, I will remind you again that some say there isn’t a future tense in English, and we look at that in section 6, here. For now, here is an example of what is commonly called the perfect progressive future tense:

He will have been running for 5 years on Friday.

Here we have ‘will have been’ + the present participle of ‘run’ which is ‘running’ telling us about a continuous event which will be completed at a point in the future. Let’s compare it to the other future tenses:

Simple future tense: He will run 5 days a week for 5 years.

Perfect future tense: He will have ran for 5 years by the end of this year.

Perfect progressive future tense: He will have been running for 5 years on Friday.

The simple future tense is telling us about an event in the future, the perfect future tense is telling us about an event in the future which is linked to another event (the end of this year) and the perfect progressive future tense is telling us about a continuous event which will be completed at some point in the future. Essentially, the the perfect progressive future tense highlights that the event that is happening in the future (running), is an ongoing activity and links it to another event (Friday).

Here is a table showing the ‘will have been’ + present participle of the verb form in relation to number and person:

  Singular Plural
First person I will have been studying computer science for 3 years in April. We will have been studying computer science for 3 years in April.
Second person You will have been studying computer science for 3 years in April. You will have been studying computer science for 3 years in April.
Third person He will have been studying computer science for 3 years in April. They will have been studying computer science for 3 years in April.

Here is a table showing the ‘am/is/are going to have been’ + present participle of the verb form in relation to number and person:

  Singular Plural
First person I am going to have been studying computer science for 3 years in April. We are going to have been studying computer science for 3 years in April.
Second person You are going to have been studying computer science for 3 years in April. You are going to have been studying computer science for 3 years in April.
Third person He is going to have been studying computer science for 3 years in April. They are going to have been studying computer science for 3 years in April.

5) Summary table

Here is a table summarising the past, present and future tenses.

Tense / Aspect name Construction Example
Past tenses    
Simple past tense Past tense of verb I was happy.
Progressive past tense ‘was/were’ + present participle of the verb (‘ing’ ending) I was singing all night.
Perfect past tense ‘had’ + the past participle He had gone home before the fight.
Perfect progressive past tense ‘had been’ + the present participle of the verb (‘ing’ ending) He had been running marathons for years before winning the gold medal
Present tenses    
Simple present tense the base form of the verb, or adding an ‘s’, ‘es’ or ‘ies’ onto the end of it when in the third person singular. I play football regularly.
Progressive present tense different forms of ‘to be’ (‘am/is/are’) + present participle ending for a verb (‘ing’ ending) I am drinking.
Perfect present tense ‘has/have’ + the past participle We have won the race.
Perfect progressive present tense ‘has been’ or ‘have been’ + the present participle of the verb (‘ing’ ending) You have been forgetting her birthday for years.
Future tenses    
Simple future tense ‘will’ + the verb in base form I will drive a car.
Progressive future tense ‘will be’ + present participle of the verb (‘ing’ ending) We will be smiling when the party starts.
Perfect future tense ‘will have’ + past participle I will have retired before my job becomes redundant.
Perfect progressive future tense ‘will have been’+ the present participle of the verb (‘ing’ ending) He will have been studying computer science for 3 years in April.

6) Is there a future tense in English?

Many argue there is no future tense in English, and that the only tenses are past and present. Let’s take a deeper look at discussing the future in English.

6.1 There is no inflection of a verb to make it future

Many argue that there is no future tense because there is no inflection of the base form of a verb to make it into a future tense verb. They would say that there is only a past and a present tense. As we have seen, there are certain forms the base form of the verb takes on to form a past and present tense. Let’s have a quick reminder of some examples:

Base form of the verb: Miss

Past tense form of the verb: Missed (e.g, ‘I missed by a large margin.’)

Present tense form of the verb in all but third person singular: Miss (e.g., I miss her a lot.)

Present tense form of the verb in third person singular: Misses (e.g., He misses her a lot.)

So we have these inflections for present and past tense, but there is no inflection which turns ‘miss’ into a future tense verb.

6.2 There are many different ways to express the future

Saying there is no future tense is certainly not saying that there is no way to talk about the future. In fact, there are many different ways to talk about the future, and perhaps it is these different ways that should be learnt when learning about the future tense, rather than rigidly sticking to the ‘will’ forms we have so far encountered. Let’s look at some of the ways to express the future in the English language:

a) Present simple tense

Some examples of the present simple tense can express future events. For example:

I arrive in an hour.

Here we have the simple present tense form of the verb ‘arrive’ which is expressing arriving at a place at 1 hour into the future.

b) Progressive present tense

Some examples of the progressive present tense – which is formed by ‘am/is/are’ + the present participle – can express future events. For example:

He is running the marathon tomorrow.

Here we have the present participle of the base form verb ‘run’ – which is ‘running’ – combining with ‘is’ in a sentence which is describing an action which will be ongoing in the future.

c) Simple past tense

The simple past tense form can be used to express the future in ‘if’ conditionals. For example:

If you arrived in an hour, we could get to the concert in time.

Here we are using the simple past tense of the base form verb ‘arrive’ – which is ‘arrived’ – to express a hypothetical event in the future (arriving in an hour).

d) Perfect progressive past tense

Some examples of the perfect progressive past form – which is formed by ‘had been’ + the present participle of the verb – can also express the future. For example:

If he had been running next week, we could have gone to give him support.

Here we are using ‘had been’ + the present participle form of ‘run’ – which is ‘running’ – to talk about an ongoing situation in the future. As with the previous, this is a hypothetical sentence – and it implies that the event (giving support) cannot happen because he isn’t running next week.

e) Will forms

We have already looked at the will forms, but here is a quick summary, for completion:

Simple future: ‘will” + base form of verb (e.g., ‘I will go home tomorrow.’)

Progressive future : ‘will be’ + present participle (e.g., ‘I will be going home tomorrow.’)

Perfect future : ‘will have’ + past participle (e.g., ‘I will have arrived tomorrow.’)

Perfect progressive future : ‘will have been’ + present participle (e.g., ‘I will have been travelling for two days by tomorrow.’)

f) Constructions using ‘going to’ forms

As we have seen in the future tenses sections, there are examples of constructions using ‘going to’ which are similar to the ‘will’ forms. Here is a quick summary:

Simple future tense: ‘am/is/are’ + ‘going to’ + the base form of the verb (e.g., ‘I am going to run home.’)

Progressive future tense: : ‘am/is/are’ + ‘going to be’ + present participle of the verb (e.g., ‘I am going to be running home.’)

Perfect future tense: ‘am/is/are’ + ‘going to have’ + past participle (e.g., ‘I am going to have ran 10 miles by the time I get home.’)

Perfect progressive future tense: ‘am/is/are going to have been’ + present participle (e.g., ‘I am going to have been running for 5 years on Friday.’)

g) Constructions using ‘about to’

People sometimes also use ‘about to’ to express the future, in constructions involving:

‘am/is/are’ + ‘about to’ + usually the base form of the verb.

For example:

I am about to go on stage in 5 minutes.

Here we have ‘am’ + ‘about to’ + the base form verb ‘go’ to express something that is going to happen very soon in the future.

6.3 There are many different ways to express the past and present

There are also many different ways to express the past and the present. This detracts from the idea that the future tense isn’t a tense because there are many different ways not using ‘will’ forms to express it. However, many will likely say this is irrelevant because the vital point is the fact that there is no way to inflect a verb to make it future tense. Perhaps the best thing to take away from this is to realise there are many ways of expressing all of the tenses, and our goal should be to understand and be able to use them all to express ourselves in as many different situations as possible. Considering this, let’s look at the different ways to express the past and present, starting with the past.

6.3.1 There are many different ways to express the past

Let’s have a quick look at all the ways to express the past, including those ways which don’t involve the past tense.

a) Past tense forms

Let’s quickly summarise the already covered past tense forms:

Simple past tense: Past tense regular (e.g., ‘I ate the cake.’)

Progressive past tense: ‘was/were’ + present participle (e.g., ‘I was eating the cake earlier.’)

Perfect past tense: ‘had’ + past participle (e.g., ‘I had eaten the cake earlier on in the day.’)

Perfect progressive past tense: ‘had been’ + present participle (e.g., ‘I had been eating the cake before she walked in.’)

b) Perfect present tense

There are some examples where the present perfect tense – which is formed by ‘have/has’ + past participle – can express an event in the past. For example:

I have been here before.

Here ‘have’ + the past participle of the base verb ‘be’ – which is ‘been’ – are being used to talk about an event in the past (being in this location previously). It should also be noted that it is simultaneously talking about something happening in the present because it is saying that the subject (I) was in a location they are presently in (present time) in the past (past time).

c) Perfect progressive present tense

There are some examples where the perfect progressive present tense – which is formed by ‘have been/has been’ + the present participle – can express the past. For example:

I have been cooking.

Here we are using ‘have been’ + the present participle of the base form ‘cook – which is ‘cooking’ – to talk about the past. It should be noted that there is also the potential for this to mean that the cooking started in the past, and is continuing into the present.

d) Perfect future construction

There are some examples where the perfect future construction – which is created with ‘will have’ + past participle – can talk about the past. For example:

The car will have been broken for 10 years tomorrow.

Here we have ‘will have been’ + the past participle of the base form ‘break’ – which is ‘broken’ – being used to to talk about an event in the past (the car not working). It should be noted that the event is also being expressed as being continuous in the present, and it is indicating towards a future event (10 years since broken).

e) Perfect progressive future construction

There are some examples where the perfect progressive future construction – which is formed by ‘will have been’ + the present participle – can express the past. For example:

I will have been working for 40 years next year.

Here we have ‘will have been’ + the present participle of the base form ‘work’ – which is ‘working – expressing an event in the past (years of working). It should be noted that the event is also being expressed as being continuous in the present, and it is indicating towards a future event (40 year anniversary).

6.3.2 There are many different ways to express the present

There are also many different ways to express the present. Let’s look at them:

a) Present tense forms

Let’s have a quick summary of the present tense forms:

Simple present tense: Present tense regular (e.g., ‘I eat cake.’)

Progressive present tense: uses the different forms of ‘be’ (‘am/is/are’) + the present participle (e.g, ‘I am waiting here.’)

Perfect present tense: ‘has/have’ + past participle (e.g., ‘I have finished.)

Perfect progressive present tense: ‘has /have been’ + present participle (e.g., ‘We have been running for 5 hours so far.’)

Let’s take a closer look at the perfect present tense example: 

Perfect present tense: ‘has/have’ + past participle (e.g., ‘I have finished.)

With this example, imagine you are writing a letter while a friend is waiting for you to finish, so you can both go out. Once you are done, you say ‘I have finished.’ This is talking about the present because it just happened; however, there is also a link to a past event because the writing took place in the past.

Now let’s take a closer look at the perfect progressive present tense example:

Perfect progressive present tense: ‘has /have been’ + present participle (e.g., ‘We have been running for 5 hours so far.’)

Again, this is a little contentious, because it is talking about a past continuous event (the running for 5 hours) but it is also in the present because the running is still continuing.

b) Simple past tense

Some examples of the simple past tense can express the present. For example:

If he asked me now, I would say yes.

Here the simple past tense of the base form ‘ask’ – which is ‘asked’ – is being used to talk about a hypothetical situation in the present (being asked something right now).

c) Perfect progressive past tense

Some examples of the perfect progressive past tense – which is made by ‘had been’ + the present participle – can express the present.

If I had been training now, we could have trained together.

Here we have ‘had been’ + the present participle of the base form ‘train’, which is ‘training’, to express a hypothetical situation in the present.

d) Simple future constructions

Some examples of the simple future construction – which is made up of ‘will’ + the base form of the verb – can express the present. For example:

I will start my essay now.

Here we have ‘will’ + the base form ‘start’ to talk about a present event (beginning the essay right at this moment).

e) Perfect future constructions

Some examples of the perfect future construction – which is made by ‘will have’ + the past participle – can express the present, though not strictly the present. We saw this in the corresponding past example, so let’s use that example again:

The car will have been broken for 10 years tomorrow.

Here we have ‘will have been’ + the past participle of the base form ‘break’ – which is ‘broken’ – expressing an event in the past (the car not working) that is continuing in the present, and also indicating towards a future event (10 years since broken).

d) Perfect progressive future constructions

There are some examples where the perfect progressive future construction – which is formed by ‘will have been’ + the present participle – can express the present. We also saw this in the corresponding past example, so let’s use that example again:

I will have been working for 40 years next year.

Here we have ‘will have been’ + the present participle of the base form ‘work’ – which is ‘working – expressing an event in the past (years of working) that is continuing in the present, and indicating towards a future event (40 year anniversary).

6.5 ‘Will’ is a modal auxiliary

Remember, also, that ‘will’ is a modal auxiliary, and has many other functions that aren’t related to a future tense.

7) Questions

1) Discuss the simple tense forms

2) Discuss the progressive tense forms

3) Discuss the perfect tense forms

4) Discuss the perfect progressive tense forms

5) Is there a future tense in English?

OK, we are finally done with tenses. Let’s move on to mood in verbs.

21) Mood in verbs

Posted in English Grammar