English Verb Tenses Explained

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.

Examples of the Six Verb Tenses

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
Present talk am talking
Past talked was talking
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

Principal Parts of Verbs

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
talk talking talked talked
play playing played played
    • 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.

Forming Past Tenses

English verbs are traditionally divided into two classes, according to the ways they form their past tense and past participles.

  1. 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.
  2. 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
arise arose arisen
bear bore born or borne
beat beat beaten
become became become
begin began begun
bend bent bent
bite bit bitten
blow blew blown
break broke broken
bring brought brought
burst burst burst
catch caught caught
choose chose chosen
come came come
creep crept crept
dig dug dug
dive dived or dove dived
do did done
draw drew drawn
drink drank drunk
drive drove driven
eat ate eaten
fall fell fallen
fight fought fought
fly flew flown
forget forgot forgotten
forgive forgave forgiven
freeze froze frozen
get got gotten or got
give gave given
go went gone
grow grew grown
hang hung hung
hang (execute) hanged hanged
hide hid hidden
hold held held
hurt hurt hurt
kneel knelt knelt
know knew known
lay laid laid
lead led led
lie (horizontal) lay lain
lie (falsehood) lied lied
lose lost lost
prove proved proved or proven
ride rode ridden
ring rang rung
rise rose risen
run ran run
say said said
see saw seen
shake shook shaken
show showed showed or shown
shrink shrank shrunk
sing sang sung
sink sank sunk
speak spoke spoken
spring sprang sprung
steal stole stolen
strive strove striven
swear swore sworn
swim swam swum
take took taken
teach taught taught
tear tore torn
throw threw thrown
wake woke or waked woken or waked
wear wore worn
write wrote written

Using Verb Tense Correctly

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.

Past Present Future
Simple past Simple present Simple future
Present perfect Future perfect
Past 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.

Past Tense

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.

Tense Use Example
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.

Tense Use Example
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!

Author: Janet Carr

Fashion, beauty and animal loving language consultant from South Africa living in Stockholm, Sweden.

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