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A Guide to English Language Verb Tense

written by: Saoirse OMara • edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • updated: 8/2/2012

This comprehensive guide to the English language verb tenses lists all English tenses and includes progressive tenses and passive voice as well. Furthermore, it offers help with common problems for ESL students.

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    The English language has many tenses which can be confusing to ESL learners. This guide of English language verb tenses wants to provide a comprehensive overview for teachers and students alike.

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    Present Tense

    Simple Present: Simple present is used to describe everyday actions (routines), conditions, skills, and facts as well as to talk about texts, etc. Sometimes, it is even used to express future events, e.g.: the arrival times of trains or buses or travel plans. To build it, you just use the infinitive form of the verb and add an “s" for the third person singular. Some exceptions don’t have the “s" added, though, like can.

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    Past Tenses

    There are three past tenses in the English language: present perfect, simple past and past perfect. While most ESL students have problems with telling the present perfect and simple past apart, the use of the past perfect is easy. When teaching past tenses, you should teach present perfect and simple past in one block, including at least one lesson on how to know which of the two tenses to use in which situation.

    Present Perfect: The present perfect is built with the correct form of the verb “have" and the past participle. It is used to describe actions which still have relevance to the present or which haven’t finished yet (see Present Perfect vs. Simple Past for more explanations).

    Simple Past: The regular form of the simple past is the same as the past participle. This past tense is used to describe actions of the past which have no relevance to the present and have definitely ended (see Present Perfect vs. Simple Past for more explanations).

    Past Perfect: The past perfect is built with the simple past form of “have" plus the past participle. It is used to say that the action took place even before another action which stands in the simple past, e.g.: “I had called my friend before I left the house". It can also be used to express that an action or event began before the second action and didn’t end until then (compare present perfect--simple present).

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    Future Tenses

    The English language knows three future tenses: will-future, going to-future and future perfect. When you teach future tenses to your students, make sure to teach the will-future and going to-future in a block as students often have difficulties to choose the right one.

    Will-Future: The will-future is built with the verb will plus the infinitive. It is used for future events which can’t be influenced by the speaker, for speculations and for spontaneous decisions. In addition, the will-future is used in conditional sentences of the first type.

    Going to-Future: The going to-future is accordingly built by the present progressive of “go" (be going to) and the infinitive of the verb in question. It is used to express plans (e.g.: the vacation which is already booked) or to talk about events which are very probable or definitely going to happen (e.g.: a pregnant woman is going to give birth soon).

    Future Perfect: The future perfect is built with will plus have plus past participle. It describes that an action will have been finished by a certain time, e.g.: “I will have written this article by tomorrow night." In addition to this use, it can also express a speculation that something has already happened in the past, e.g.: “He will have already written the article."

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    Conditional Tenses

    The English language knows two conditional forms: conditional I and conditional II.

    Conditional I: Conditional I is built with would plus the infinitive. Its main use is as “future tense of the past," which means that it expresses future events from a point of view which lies in the past. Its second use is in conditional sentences of the second type.

    Conditional II: Conditional II is built with would plus have plus the infinitive. Along the lines of the use of conditional I, conditional II works as future perfect from a past point of view. It is also used in conditional sentences of the third type.

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    Progressive Tenses

    Progressive tenses are easy to build. All you need to know is how to put the verb “be" in every tense. You just need the proper form of “be" and add the present participle of the verb you need, e.g.: have been going. For guidance on how to use it, see “Simple Tense vs. Progressive Tense."

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    Passive Voice

    The passive voice is used whenever the object or the action is more important than the initiator or the initiator isn’t known. It is built similar to the progressive forms, only that you use the past participle instead of the present participle.

    To change an active sentence into a passive sentence, you take the active’s object as subject. If you need to (or want to) include the active subject (the initiator) as well, you add it with “by."

    Example: Edison invented the light bulb. --> The light bulb was invented by Edison.

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    Common Problems

    Present Perfect vs. Simple Past: You use the present perfect in situations when you want to stress that something happened (or didn’t happen) in the past without mentioning when it happened. Furthermore, you use the present perfect for any actions which still have relevance for the present or which still haven’t ended. In contrast to that, you use the simple past to stress when something happened (or didn’t happen) in the past. Normally, you mention the exact time or time span too (or you can easily guess it from the context). Indicators for simple past are words like ago, last week or when. Whenever you use the simple past, the action ended in the past.

    Will-Future vs. Going to-Future: The main difference between these two future tenses is the degree of certainty. “Going to" is only used if the speaker has the intention of doing something or if something is very probable to happen. The will-future, on the other hand, is used for spontaneous decisions, uncertain events, wishes etc.

    Simple Tense vs. Progressive Tense: While you use the simple forms for routinely activities, long-lasting states and actions which have been finished, the progressive forms are used for actions which take place at the very moment of speaking or which still last.

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    How to Build the Participles

    Present Participle: The present participle is built by adding “-ing" to the infinitive verb, e.g.: go --> going. If the verb ends on an “e," it is dropped, e.g.: have --> having.

    Past Participle: The regular past participle is built by adding “-ed" to the infinitive verb, e.g.: talk --> talked. If the verb already ends on an “e," only a “d" is added.

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    Englisch Grammatik, Buch und Zeit Verlag (Germany), 2005

    Englisch G Grammatik, Cornelsen Verlag (Germany), 1999