How to Learn English Tenses Easily & Effectively

You read this blog.
You are reading this blog.
You have read this blog.
You have been reading this blog.

Doesn’t all these sentences mean the same? I mean, what’s the difference? All the sentences are present tense. So, can’t I interchange them?

The answer is – NO. They aren’t the same. The meaning and usage are different.

Tenses are easy, trust me. All you need to know is the formula and you will never make any mistake in tenses.

What are tenses?

Tenses are used to show the time of action – Present, Past and Future. Now, divide these further into four types:

  • Simple
  • Continuous
  • Perfect
  • Perfect Continuous

I am going to show you the ways to learn English tenses easily and effectively.

Here is a list of topics covered in the blog. You may skip to any topic:

Tenses Chart

Simple Present Tense

Present Continuous Tense

Present Perfect Tense

Present Perfect Continuous Tense

Simple Past Tense

Past Continuous Tense

Past Perfect Tense

Past Perfect Continuous Tense

Simple Future Tense

Future Continuous Tense

Future Perfect Tense

Future Perfect Continuous Tense

Simple Present Tense:

First you understand the structure of this tense:

Structure: Subject + present tense of verb (1st form of verb)

Example: He plays.

Simple Present Tense is used to show a habit, practice, repeated action, custom, general truth, permanent activity etc.

This tense have words such as often, daily, seldom, always, generally, usually, never, sometimes, occasionally, rarely, frequently etc.

I will tell you another secret to memorize this tense. Simple Present Tense will neither have the -ing form of words like eating, drinking etc. nor will it have the words have, has and had.

Have a look at these examples:

  • I read newspaper in the morning.
  • Steve usually knows everyone.
  • John often gets late for movies.
  • Ana always eats on time.
  • He seldom comes home late.

To show Historic Present:

When you are narrating something that happened in the past, you can use simple present tense. Like below:

  • Now the King addresses the brave soldiers going for the war.

This tense is also known as dramatic present, and narrative present.

To show Future Arrangement:

You can also use simple present tense to show an arrangement that is made in the future like below:

  • Pearl leaves for New York tomorrow.
  • My father arrives from Australia next week.

Present Continuous Tense:

Structure: Subject + is/are/am + verb + ing

Action in Progress:

  • You are reading this blog.

The above sentence shows an action in progress. You can use present continuous to show an action that is going on at the time of speaking.

Future action or arrangement:

  • You are going to read this blog tomorrow.

This means there is a definite arrangement in the near future.

Actions taking place currently, but not at the time of speaking:

You may use this tense to show an action that is an ongoing process or in which you are engaged in. It is not necessary that the action is going on at the time of speaking.

  • He is running for governor.
  • Peter is living in New York.

Stative Verbs or Non-progressive verbs

There are few verbs which do not take an -ing form. Such verbs are called stative verbs or non-progressive verbs.

You may refer to the examples below:

Perception: hear, see, prefer, taste, smell, please

Thought: mean, mind, know, think

Possession: belong, have, comprise, own, possess, contain

Feelings or state of mind: want, wish, love, believe, like, hate, desire

General: seem, appear, resemble, require, stand, become, affect, look, cost, face

Type Incorrect Correct
Perception He is hearing the song. He hears the song.
Thought John is not meaning that. John does not mean that.
Possession Eve is owning a super-bike. Eve owns a super-bike
Possession This theater is belonging to Mike. This theater belongs to Mike.
Possession The homeless man is having no house. The homeless man has no house.
Possession The movie is containing good moral. The movie contains good moral.
Feelings or State of Mind Steve is not hating the dog. Steve does not hate the dog.
General The river is flowing in the heart of the forest. The river flows in the heart of the forest.

Present Perfect Tense

Structure: Subject + has/have

  • You have read the blog.

The best way you can identify present perfect tense is that it has the auxiliary verb have or has. Have is used with I, you, we and all the plural nouns, and has is used with all the singular nouns (he, she, it etc).

Guys, remember the thumb rule, has and have should always be followed by the third form of verb or the past participle.

I have seen the movie. Here seen is the third form of the verb or past participle of see.

So, coming back to Present Perfect tense, this tense is used to talk about something that happened in the immediate past. But, if you specify a particular point of time when the action has occurred it will be Simple Past Tense.

So, in short, you can use have or has in the sentence to show actions that happened in the past but not at a definite point in time.

Here are few examples:

Present Perfect Correct Present Perfect Incorrect Simple Past Correct
We have seen this movie already. We have seen this movie last night. We saw this movie last night.
I have been to Sydney. I have been to Sydney yesterday. I went to Sydney yesterday.
She has lied to us on numerous occasions. She has lied to us this morning. She lied to us thing morning.
Elisabeth has seen Titanic on TV. Elisabeth has seen Titanic on TV last night. Elisabeth saw Titanic on TV last night.

As you can see, under the Present perfect correct, there is no specific time mentioned. Under Present perfect incorrect, there is a specific time mentioned. So, if you have to mention a specific time, then the tense cannot be present perfect, it should be simple past.

When you use Present prefect tense, that means that the action has already completed at the time of speaking. Usually, you may use these adverbs and conjunctions in this tense: just, recently, ever, yet, so far, lately, before, after, of late, till, by the time etc.

Just is usually used to mean already or now or exactly.

  • I have just finished reading the book.
  • He has already left for work.

When you use ever it means any time in the past or always.

So far, yet and till means up to now or up to this. These words usually have negative implications.

Of late and lately means recently in present perfect tense.

An action started in the past still continuing in the present:

You may use this tense to show an action that started in the past and is still continuing. This is usually used with prepositions for and since.

  • Jenny has lived in Dubai for 10 years.
  • I have the bike since I was in high school.

Even though the above sentences show a definite time, we still use present perfect tense. That is because the actions mentioned in the sentences are still true in the present.

You may want to note down, that the usage of for and since:

For is used to specify the duration of time and connect it to the present.

Since is used to specify the point of time at which the specific action began.

Present Perfect Continuous Tense

Structure: Subject + has/have + verb + ing

You might know this tense by a different name present perfect progressive tense as well.

This tense is very close in meaning to Present Prefect Tense but there are many key differences.

Action started in the past and still continuing in the present:

You may use this tense to show something that began in the past and is still happening in the present.

During such scenarios, we usually specify the duration of time using the words for and since. But, at times we do not have to specify the duration at all.

Isn’t that the same rule with Present Perfect Tense also? Then, whats the difference?

Here, have a look at these examples to get a better understanding:

  1. We have been living in Sydney.
  2. We have been living in Sydney for 10 years.
  3. We have been living in Sydney since I was a kid.
  4. We have been living in Sydney all my life.

All the above sentences mean that the speaker still lives in Sydney. Only thing that changes in each sentence is the duration of time.

Now, check these sentences:

  1. We have lived in Sydney for 10 years.
  2. We have lived in Sydney since I was a kid.
  3. We have lived in Sydney all my life.

Here, except for the first sentence, all the sentences mean the same. If you change the first sentence to present perfect, it will be:

We have lived in Sydney.

That would mean, the speaker no longer lives there. This distinction is very important, as it highlights when you want to use present perfect continuous and present perfect.

To Emphasis the duration of time:

Present perfect continuous is used to put the emphasis on how long the action has taken along with the fact that the action is still going on.

Examples:

  1. He has studied for three months. (Present Perfect)
  2. He has been studying for three months. (Present Perfect Continuous)

As you can see there is a slight difference in both the sentences. The first sentence is reporting the completed result, however, in the second sentence the focus shifts on the fact that three months is a long period.

To show action that has been happening lately or completed recently

Present perfect continuous tense is used to show an action that has started lately. It is not necessary happening at the time of speaking.

Examples:

  • Gill has been coming to play late a lot.
  • I have noticed that you have been spending lot of time watching TV lately.
  • I am irritated because your dog has been barking all night.

Simple Past Tense

Structure: Subject + was/were

This tense is also known as Past Indefinite Tense.

Past Habit

Simple Past tense is used to show a past habit and is generally indicated by never, always, often, seldom, frequently, usually, rarely, normally, daily, generally, used to, occasionally, would, sometimes, etc.

Examples:

  • He never drank tea.
  • She always carried bible.
  • I used to go to college by train.
  • My mom would go to the temple daily.

Single completed action

  • (A)This tense is used to show a single action that was completed in the past.
  • (B)You may use these words to denote a specific point of time: ever since, since, earlier, back, ago, before, last, yesterday, the other day (use any point of time in the past) etc.

Look at the examples below:

Examples:

  • I met my teacher yesterday.
  • Mike bought a new bike 2 years ago.
  1. (C)You should not combine the present tense with past tense.
  • I have met my teacher yesterday. (have is present tense, and met is past tense. this is incorrect)
  • Mike has bought a car 2 years ago. (has is used for present perfect tense, and you do not specify the time in present perfect tense. Hence, this sentence is incorrect.)

Note: If you specify a point of time, it is Simple Past.

Hypothetical situations:

We use Simple Past tense for hypothetical situations.

Examples:

  • I wish it was Sunday.
  • I wish I didn’t have to go to classes today.

Past Continuous Tense

Structure: Subject + was/were + verb + ing

This tense is also known as Past Progressive Tense.

Past Action in progress:

This tense is used to show an action that was in progress at a certain time in the past.

Examples:

  • I was laughing.
  • Ross was leaving that morning.

Definite future arrangement in the past:

Example:

  • I asked him what was he doing next weekend.

Before and After an Action Took Place:

Examples:

  • I was watching a movie when my friend came home.
  • We were listening to the music when the storm approached.

Before a Certain Time:

Examples:

  • I was writing my blog at 4 am in the morning.
  • 3 months ago, I was working at a coffee shop near my house.

Specified or Unspecified Length of Time:

Examples

  • My phone was ringing. (unspecified time)
  • My phone was ringing for an hour. (specified time)

Repeated or Frequent Action:

Examples:

  • You guys were fighting all the time, that is why I decided to leave.
  • He was often worrying that he wouldn’t be able to afford the trip to Malaysia.

Development or Growth Over a Period of Time:

Examples:

  • His eyesight was getting better as the days went by.
  • The atmosphere was changing, I felt that.

Story Narration:

Examples:

  • I was dining at the hotel when the accident took place.
  • When I entered the garden, the children were playing, and the birds were chirping.

Past Perfect Tense

Structure: Subject + had + past participle (3rd form of verb)

An action that took place before another action:

This tense is used to show an action that took place before another action. The preceding action was completed before the succeeding action.

Examples:

  • I had gone to the college yesterday before you came home.
  • I had gone to the college yesterday. (this would be incorrect, as you are specifying a time, but preceding action is not implied)
  • When I reached the movie theater, the movie had started.
  • I had not taken the keys before I left the house.

Note: The position of the past perfect tense does not make any difference. No matter where you place it, it always refers to an earlier action.

The above point is especially important when you use the conjunction when

Example:

  1. Tina cooked lunch when he came home.
  2. Tine had cooked lunch when he came home.

Sentence 1. It looks like Tina started cooking at the same time as he came in.

Sentence 2.  It is clear that Tina had already cooked dinner before he came home.

Action before a specific point of time:

Examples:

  • Until last week, I had never considered getting married.
  • I had expected to be abroad by this morning.

Only one action is given:

At times only one action is specified, in such cases the words used are: before, after, recently, just, ever, yet, so far, till (time), by the time, etc.

Examples:

  • I had already read that book.
  • I had returned from work just then.

Used for action which had not taken place:

This tense is used to show action which had not taken place using the words: hope, want, think, mean, intend, suppose.

Examples:

  • I had wanted to give you the book. (this mean – did not give the book)
  • I had expected to reach on time. (did not reach on time)

Past Perfect Continuous Tense

Structure: Subject + had + been + verb + ing

An action that began in the past and was continuing till another action started in the past.

Examples:

I had been waiting for a long time when the train finally arrived.

My son had been playing with his toys, but then he started to cry.

She had been studying all night, so she was too tired to go out this morning.

Interrupted Actions in the Past:

Example: Julie had been reading book at the bus-stop when the earthquake hit.

If I have to break down both the actions in this tense it would be as Action 1 and Action 2:

Action 1: An action was in progress (in the above example: Julie had been reading book at the bus-stop )

Action 2: This action marks the completion of Action 1 (in the above example: when the earthquake hit)

Examples: 

He had been travelling around Asia when he heard about his exam dates.

John had been living at his native place before he got the job in the city.

Cause of past event/situation/action:

This tense is used to indicate that the continuous action that was finished in the past was a result of an event, situation or an action in the past.

Examples:

She could not play with the kids in the morning because she had been studying all night.

He was very sweaty because she had been playing for nearly two hours.

Simple Future Tense

Structure: Subject + will/shall + verb

Example: I will go tomorrow.

Simple Future Tense is used to express an action that is to take place in future.

The most common words used in this tense are: presently (soon), soon, a few moments, next year, next week, next month, shortly etc.

Examples:

My teacher will come here shortly.

I will travel next month.

You will notice that in future tense you use the words shall and will. The uses of shall and will are as follows:

Future Continuous Tense

Structure: Subject + will/shall + be + verb + ing

This tense is used to show an action that will be in progress in future.

Examples:

He will be waiting for me when I reach the theater.

Mostly it will be raining when you reach Sydney.

Future Predictions:

Don’t call me after 9 PM: I will be sleeping.

By the time you reach home, we’ll be having dinner.

Future Perfect Tense

Structure: Subject + will/shall + have + past participle

This tense is used to show an action that will be completed at a specific time in the future.

Example:

This Monday, I will have worked here for 1 year.

Sometimes we use words like before, till (time), by the time, ever, just, after, yet, so far, already, recently.

Examples:

My mother will have already prepared food when I reach home.

I will have written the letter by lunch today.

Future Perfect Continuous Tense

Structure: Subject + will/shall + have + been + verb + ing

Cause of a Result in Future:

Examples:

He will be hungry because he will have been playing straight through lunch.

You’re going to be tired since you will have been working out all afternoon.

Tenses are an integral part of the sentence construction because if you mix them up, or use incorrectly, it can even change the meaning of the sentence.

Tenses are very important to transform sentences from active voice to passive voice and many other grammatical functions.

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