When I was at school we didn’t learn terminology like ‘past tense’ or ‘present tense’. As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, the educational philosophy of the time was that people just pick up grammatical rules and shouldn’t have to be explicitly taught them. This theory is true to a large extent for speaking, but to a much lesser extent for writing. It is very difficult to describe grammar rules at all without using such terminology (“What, um, time are you writing in?” “Um… Now?”). Things have changed a little, and grammar is sort of half-taught, not always very well – the teachers themselves being victims of the previous generation’s follies. Rather a lot of pupils are still a little confused about tenses, and a fair few are very confused. Some have a vague notion that it’s something to do with tension.
Fear not. Andy’s Writing Tips is here with another top-rate primer.
Some teachers will tell you that there are three basic tenses – and how could there be any others: there is the past, the present and the future. This is true, as far as it goes, and we can talk about the past, present and future tenses. There are also three aspects, however, which describe the nature of the action rather than the time it occurred – simple, continuous and perfect. If English were a perfectly logical and consistent language then, there would be (three tenses times three aspects) nine tenses overall. English is not a perfectly logical and consistent language. There are actually fifty-three separate tenses in English.
Just joking. But there are a lot. Let’s go through them in turn.
Present Simple (Describes regular actions, constant states or facts)
I like orange juice. I exercise every day. I’m thirty-three.
Present with ‘will’ (Describes regular actions, especially habits or routines)
I’ll get up about six and feed the cat. Most days I’ll make myself a cup of tea and then go to work.
Present Continuous (Describes a continuous or regularly repeated action in the present)
I’m looking for my dog. I’m learning Spanish at the moment.
Present Perfect (Describes an experience or – esp. in UK English – a very recently completed action)
I’ve been to Milan. I’ve written a lot today. I’ve just finished my book (US: More often ‘I just finished my book)
Present Perfect Continuous (Esp. in UK English, describes an action that has been continued up to the moment of speaking, and may continue)
I’ve been hearing a lot of stories about you recently. I’ve been painting the garden fence.
Past Simple (Describes a single, regular or completed action or state at a specific point in the past)
I saw you yesterday. I worked in London for most of my twenties.
Past with ‘used to’ (Describes a regular action or state in the past, emphasising that it is not done now)
I used to drink a lot of coffee, but my doctor told me to cut down. I used to live in Durham.
Past with ‘would’ (Describes regular actions, especially habits or routines, in the past)
We’d often go for a walk through the woods after dinner, and we’d sometimes see deer.
Past Continuous (Describes actions that were continuing or being regularly repeated at a specified point in the past)
When she arrived, I was cooking dinner. There was a lot going on at the party.
Past Perfect (Describes an action or state that happened before the time referred to in the past simple, especially in a story)
I had almost finished the pasta when she arrived.
Past Perfect Continuous (Describes an action that was taking place up to the moment referred to in the past simple, especially in a story)
It was obvious from her expression that she had been crying.
Future Simple: will (Describes an action in the future, often a timetabled event or an intended or expected action)
The play will start at three. I’ll meet you at the gate.
Future Simple: Going to (Describes an action in the future, often a planned action)
I’m going to take a rest when I reach the bottom of the page. I’m going to visit a friend in Scotland this year.
Future Simple: Present Continuous (Describes an action in the future, often a planned action)
She’s arriving at about eight.
Future Continuous (Describes an action expected or planned to be in progress at a point in the future)
When she arrives, I’ll be cooking.
Future Perfect (Describes an action expected or planned to have been completed by a point in the future)
By the time you arrive, all the food will have been eaten.
Future Perfect Continuous (Describes an action planned or expected to be in progress up to and including a point in the future)
By the end of the year, we’ll have been living here for three years
That is a lot of tenses to remember, but you don’t really need to remember them one by one. You really just need to know that each of the three tenses can be simple, continuous, perfect or perfect continuous; and that, because English is an unscientific kind of language, there are a number of different ways to refer to the past and future, each with a slightly different function. And what’s the use of knowing all this? Well, tense isn’t something to be hung up about – it’s just useful to know. If English is your native tongue, you will already be proficient in using most or even all of the tenses above, but you may over-use some, and not use others enough. If you are able to name the tenses you use, you are able to analyse them, and decide on different ones if necessary. The mists of vagueness and uncertainty have lifted and you can bask happily in the clear air of grammatical preciseness. Ahhh!
Write another example sentence for each of the tenses in the list above.