Past, present, irregular—keeping verb tenses straight can seem daunting. But it doesn’t have to be! Here are the easy explanations and examples for all verb tenses, and how to use them correctly.
There are six verb tenses in English. Each of the six tenses has two forms: basic and progressive(also known as “perfect”). The following table shows the six forms for the verb to talk.
|Tense||Basic Form||Progressive Form|
|Future||will talk||will be talking|
|Present perfect||have talked||have been talking|
|Past perfect||had talked||had been talking|
|Future perfect||will have talked||will have been talking|
As the preceding table indicates, you form verb tense from principal parts and helping verbs. Every English verb has four main parts, as the following table shows.
|Present||Present Participle||Past||Past Participle|
- The present is used to form the present tense (I talk) and the future (I will talk). Notice that you have to use the helping verb will to show the future tense.
- The present participle forms all six of the progressive forms (I am talking, I was talking, and so on).
- The past forms only one tense—you guessed it, the past (I talked).
- The past participle forms the last three tenses: the present perfect (I have talked), the past perfect (I had talked), and the future perfect (I will have talked). To form the past participle, start with a helping verb such as is, are, was, or has been. Then add the principal part of the verb.
English verbs are traditionally divided into two classes, according to the ways they form their past tense and past participles.
- Some verbs are regular. This means they form the past tense and past participle by adding -d, -ed, or -t to the present form but don’t change their vowel, as in walk, walked, walked.
- Irregular verbs don’t form the past by adding -ed or -d. The principal parts of irregular verbs are formed in many different ways.
- Sometimes, irregular verbs change tense without changing their endings. Instead, they usually travel in time by changing a vowel and adding -n or -en, as in begin, began, begun.
- Other times, they change their vowel and add -d or -t, as in lose, lost, lost.
- Or they may not change at all, such as set, set, set, andput, put, put.
The following chart shows the most common irregular verbs.
|Present Tense||Past Tense||Past Participle|
|bear||bore||born or borne|
|dive||dived or dove||dived|
|get||got||gotten or got|
|prove||proved||proved or proven|
|show||showed||showed or shown|
|wake||woke or waked||woken or waked|
Okay, so now you know that verbs form different tenses to show different times. Now you have to learn how to use the tenses correctly to show the timing of one event in relation to another. And we all know that in life, timing is everything.
Get your bearings with the following table. It shows how the tenses are related.
|Simple past||Simple present||Simple future|
|Present perfect||Future perfect|
|Past progressive||Present progressive||Future progressive|
|Present perfect progressive||Future perfect|
|Past perfect progressive|
- Use the two present forms (simple present and present progressive) to show events that take place now.
- Use the six past forms (simple past, present perfect, past perfect, past progressive, present perfect progressive,and past perfect progressive) to show events that took place before the present.
- Use the four future forms (simple future, future perfect, future progressive, andfuture perfect progressive) to show events that take place in the future.
What’s past may be past, but only if you get your past tenses straight. Use the following table to leave the past in the past.
|Simple past||Completed action||We finished the tofu.|
|Completed condition||We were sad; no more tofu.|
|Present perfect||Completed action||We have finished the tofu.|
|Completed condition||We have been sad.|
|Continuing action||We have burped for hours.|
|Continuing condition||I have been here for days.|
|Past perfect||Action completed before another||I had eaten all the tofu before you returned|
|Condition completed before another||I had been sad before the new tofu arrived.|
|Past progressive||Continuous completed action||I was snoring that week.|
|Present perfect progressive||Action going into present||I have been snoring all week.|
|Past perfect progressive||Continuing action interrupted by another||I had been snoring when the house collapsed.|
Back to the Future
This table explains the future tenses.
|Simple future||Future action||The sponge will dry.|
|Future condition||I will be happy when it does.|
|Future perfect||Future action done before another||By the time you read this, the sponge will be dry.|
|Future condition done before another||The sponge will have been on the window for a week.|
|Future progressive||Continuing future action||They will be buying sponges this week.|
|Future perfect progressive||Continuing future action done before another||When we lunch next week, I will have been pumping iron for at least a week.|
Verbs may seem tricky, but they don’t have to be. Just keep these rules in mind, and you’ll always know how to use them!