The English Verb Tenses, and Their Relationship

Samantha Ruff
December 17, 2019 ·
7 min read
Grammar

English, like all languages, has verb tenses. But no two languages are exactly the same when it comes to the verb tenses they have, or even how they are used.

The table below reveals all the major verb tenses in English (there may be other niche tenses which are only used in very specific circumstances) and what they are for.

Verb tenseExampleUsage
Present SimpleI like pizzato speak about things in general
Present ContinuousI’m thinking about getting a dog.1) to speak about something happening now, or 2) to speak about a plan in the future
Past SimpleI went to the zoo yesterdayto speak about an action or situation that is finished
Past ContinuousI was playing tennis at 3pm yesterday when it started to rain.to speak about an action that was in progress at a particular time (typically used with past simple)
Present PerfectI’ve been in London for three years.1) to speak about something which started in the past and continues now, or 2) to speak about something in the past that displays a current consequence, or 3) to speak about life experiences (when you do not clarify ‘when’
Present Perfect ContinuousI’ve been living in London for three years.1) to speak about something which started in the past and continues now, or 2) to speak about an action that has been repeated consistently over a period that continues now, or 3) to speak about an action that has been repeated and is the cause of a current consequence
Past PerfectI hadn’t seen the new Star Wars film so I went to see it yesterdayto speak about an action or event that occurred before another past action or event
Past perfect continuousI had been living in New York for three years before I visited the Statue of Libertyto speak about an action that progressed for a period of time, or was repeated, before another past action or event
Future SimpleI will go to the park tomorrow.1) to speak about a future action that has been decided at the moment, or 2) to make a promise, or 3) to make a prediction
‘going to’ for futureI’m going to go to Canada next year1) to speak about a future intention (but not necessarily a plan) or to make a prediction
Future continuousI will be living in New York this time next yearto talk about a future action that will be in progress as a certain point in the future
Future perfectBy July next year, I will have celebrated my 40th birthdayto speak about an event that has occurred before a fixed moment in the future
Future perfect continuousBy July next year, I will have been living in New York for three yearsto speak about a continuous action or event (usually specified by time) that began at a point before a fixed time in the future
The imperativeSit down!to give an order
Present simple emphaticI do like pizzato be emphatic about a general action or situation
Past simple emphaticI did like pizza.1) to be emphatic about an action or situation in the past, or 2) to emphasize that a situation has changed

The table below reveals many of the major verb tenses in English, along with the other tenses they are typically used with. The collaborative nature of the verb tenses is one of the most difficult things to learn, as it is this aspect which can be most different between languages.

For this reason, it’s important to learn how to use verb tenses together. In fact, this is one of the keys to becoming fluent.

Verb tenseCan be used alone?Typically used together withExample
Present SimpleYesPresent Continuous / Past Simple / Future SimpleI like pizza but I’m getting fat so I don’t eat it every day.
Present ContinuousYesPresent simpleI’m thinking about getting a dog as I love animals.
Past SimpleYesPresent simple / Past continuous / Present perfectI went to the zoo yesterday, but it was raining.
Past ContinuousNoPast simpleI was playing tennis at 3pm yesterday when it started to rain.
Present PerfectYesPast simpleI’ve been in London for three years and before that I lived in Spain.
Present Perfect ContinuousYesPast simpleI’ve been living in London for three years and before that I lived in Spain.
Past PerfectNoPast simpleI hadn’t seen the new Star Wars film so I went to see it yesterday
Future SimpleYesPresent simpleI will go to the park tomorrow because I love parks.

These are not all the tenses in English, but they are all of the most common. The ONLY tenses in English that MUST be used with other tenses (unless you state a specific time*) are past continuous and past perfect.

Past continuous is used to tell us when a longer action in the past was interrupted by another action (therefore, it MUST be used with another tense). For example,

“I was playing tennis yesterday when it started to rain.”

(playing tennis = long action that was interrupted, started to rain = the action that was the cause of the interruption)

Past perfect is used to talk about an action or situation that happened before another action.

“I hadn’t seen the new Star Wars film, so I went to see it yesterday.”

(hadn’t seen = the action that was the furthest in the past, went to see = the most recent past action)

* If you state a specific time, you can avoid the need to use these verb tenses in conjunction with another. For example:

“At 2 PM yesterday I was watching TV.”

“In June 2002, I had been living in London for nearly two years.”

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