A challenge that learners of English often face is the number of tenses in English and when to use them. Especially if their native language has only a few tenses (such as Mandarin), the variety of tenses in English can be daunting. For students whose native language also has a large number of tenses (such as Spanish), it may be a challenge to learn the uses of their English equivalents, which are not always the same. Let’s go through a review of active tenses in English.
Tenses and Aspects
Before we begin looking at active tenses, we need to look at a few terms. Grammatically speaking, the “tense” of the verb refers to the time that the verb indicates. For this review, we are going to talk about three tenses: present, past and future. In addition to these tenses, there are aspects, which indicate the duration of the action. The aspects in English are simple, continuous/progressive (two names for the same thing) and perfect. Additionally, you can combine continuous and perfect to create the perfect continuous. When you combine the tenses and aspects, you get the different verb forms taught in language classes. As there are three tenses and four aspects, these combine to make twelve verb forms.
So what makes it active? For active tenses, the subject performs the action (verb) of the sentence. For passive tenses, the subject receives the action of the sentence. Most sentences in English are in active tenses. These are what we will review here.
Indicative Mood (Active tenses)
A mood in the grammatical sense is a characteristic of a verb that follows specific inflexion patterns. This means how a verb changes to show the number, the person speaking, how the verb is being used, the function of the verb, etc. In English, the ‘mood’ is a simple concept. If you are reading this post, you already understand the indicative mood. English uses this mood approximately 90-95% of the time. English uses the indicative mood for factual statements, asking questions or expressing opinions as if they were facts. When you think about conjugation and making tenses in English, it is the indicative mood that you are thinking about.
There are a few more, such as the infinitive (or root) and the present and past participles. These will be introduced as needed, such as the infinitive below.
The infinitive of a verb is the base state of the verb without any inflexion. It has not changed in any way to reflect the tense or aspect. In English, the infinitive is easily identifiable because English verbs in the infinitive have the word ‘to’ in front of them, such as ‘to do’, ‘to wallow’ or ‘to forgo’. The infinitive usually follows other verbs, such as the example “I like to go”. The verbs in that sentence are “to like” conjugated in the present simple tense (read on to learn more) and the verb “to go” which remains in the infinitive. In English, the first verb conjugation is the one that presents the tense and aspect of the sentence. Other verbs are usually found in the infinitive afterwards. This will be explained in more detail later.
Aspects in the Indicative Mood (Active tenses)
The simple is the simplest of the verb forms. From the infinitive, the “to” is removed and the base of the verb is conjugated to reflect the person to which the verb describes (as necessary) and the time.
In English, conjugated verbs in the simple present usually look the same as the base form (for example, “to like” -> “I like”) with the exception of the third person singular form (he/she/it), which usually has an ‘s’ or ‘es’ added to the end, such as “to like” -> “he likes” or “to go” -> “she goes”.
Here is a sample conjugation table for the verb “to see”:
|First||I see||we see|
|Second||you see||you see*|
|Third||he/she/it sees **||they see|
* Find more information on the second person plural at What is the plural of ‘you’?
** Notice the addition of the ‘s’ in the third person singular form.
The present simple has many uses. It can describe:
- repeated actions
I go to university every day.
- facts or generalisations
People from ‘hot’ countries tolerate heat better than people from ‘cold’ countries.
Tomorrow is Tuesday.
- planned events or arrangements in the near future
We have an appointment at 3PM.
- the present when using non-continuous verbs. Non-continuous verbs are verbs that are not usually used in the continuous form.
I am a basketball player.
- Directions or instructions
Go left, then straight.
Like the present simple, the past simple is formed by conjugating the infinitive form of the verb. However, conjugation is what differentiates the simple past form from the simple present. There are different types of conjugation for different verb types: regular and irregular.
Regular verbs are the easier of the two conjugations. Fortunately for English learners, most verbs in English are regular verbs. This means that it follows a specific pattern when conjugated in the past tense (including the past participle). For regular verbs in the past, the base form followed by ‘-ed’, ‘d’ or ‘t’ indicate the past, such as ‘to bark’ -> ‘barked’ or ‘to like” -> ‘liked’.
Strong verbs are verbs that do not follow the rule stated above when forming the past tense conjugation. In other words, they do not follow the rule of adding “-d” or “-ed”. Unfortunately for English learners, the most common verbs are irregular verbs. However, there are less than 200 and as they are common, there is lots of practice to use them! Some examples of irregular verbs include: “to go” -> “went” (highly irregular), “think” ->”thought” (vowel and consonant shifts), “to bite” -> “bit” (verb change and shortening), “to win” ->”won” (vowel shift) and “to build” -> “built” (shortening from ‘-ded’ to ‘-t’).
*Note if you are wondering, ‘where the hell does this all come from?’, you can thank German, which also has this concept of weak and strong verbs that forms the irregular verbs.
The uses of the simple past are similar to the uses of the simple present. They are:
- a completed action in the past
I went home yesterday.
- a series of completed actions
I went to the bank, withdrew some money, then went home.
- duration in the past
I lived in London for 12 years.
- habits in the past
As a child, I attended school every day.
- generalisations or truths in the past
He was a heavy baby.
Unlikely the simple past and the simple present, the simple future is a little more difficult to construct. Rather than just conjugating the verb, the simple future uses the verb ‘will’ or ‘shall’ along with the verb in question. The future simple has the following uses:
- to talk about future predictions (either likely or unlikely but possible) or things that haven’t happened yet
The moon will be full tonight.
- Promises / requests / refusals / offers
I’ll help you with your homework.
Will you help me?
I won’t (will not) do that!
Will you do it for €10?
The continuous progressive form is made up to two parts: the verb that has the meaning (also known as the ‘main verb’) and a ‘helper verb’ (called the auxiliary verb). In the case of the progressive, the verb ‘to be’ is the auxiliary verb. The auxiliary verb, which goes first, changes to the correct tense (past, present, future) and the main verb is in the present participle form. But what is the present participle?
The Present Participle
A present participle is a verb form that is used to show the ongoing nature of an action and is used in the continuous or perfect continuous verb forms. The present participle changes the infinitive verb, such as “to go” by removing the “to” and adding “-ing”. This means that the present participle of “to go” -> “going”. There are some verbs where the last letter of the verb is removed when the letter makes the same sound or is not usually combined in this fashion when writing in English. An example is “to like”, which becomes “liking”. These verbs usually end in “-e” (for example, ‘like’, ‘make’, ‘take’).
The present progressive is a combination of the auxiliary verb ‘to be’ in the present tense and the main verb in the present participle form. Here are the conjugations of the verb ‘to be’ in the present tense.
|First||I am||we are|
|Second||you are||you are|
|Third||he/she/it is||they are|
*Note that the conjugation of the verb ‘to be’ is highly irregular. Read The Most Important Word in the English Language and Its History to find out why.
- to talk about an ongoing action
I am going to the store. (“to go” -> “going”)
Image: The bird is dancing.
- Longer actions that are still ongoing
She is studying to become a doctor. (“to study” -> “study”)
- Repetition of actions (with the word ‘always’
They are always arriving late to class. (“to arrive” -> “arriving”
There is an additional use for the present progressive that is vital to learning English: you can use the present continuous to talk about the future. You still form it the say way (the conjugated verb “to be” in the present simple + present participle of the verb ‘to go’) as the present progressive; you use it to speak about planned actions in the near future. For example:
Tomorrow I am going home.
This use, also known as the “going to” future, can be combined with infinitive verbs afterwards, such as the following:
I am going to go shopping when I finish work.
Like the present progressive, the past progressive uses the auxiliary verb ‘to be’ in the past tense and the main verb in the present participle form (-ing). The past forms of the verb ‘to be’ are listed below:
|First||I was||we were|
|Second||you were||you were|
|Third||he/she/it was||they were|
The past progressive can be used to show:
- interrupted actions in the past
I was going to work when I saw him.
- an ongoing action that was done at a certain time
I was eating dinner at 8PM.
- parallel actions
I was cleaning the dishes while he was cleaning the table.
- the atmosphere of a situation in the past
It was 9AM. The sun was shining and the birds were singing.
- repetition (and irritation) using the word ‘always’ of something in the past
She was always arriving late when she worked there.
Like the past and present progressive forms, the future progressive uses the auxiliary verb ‘to be’ and the main verb in the present participle. What makes the future progressive different is that it also uses either ‘will’ or ‘going to’ to show that it is in the future (“Will” vs “Going to” vs “Shall” Future). After these words, the following verb is not conjugated, meaning that the verb ‘to be’ is not changed. After ‘will’, the bare infinitive is used (i.e. ‘will be …’); after ‘going to’, the bare infinitive is used (‘going to be …’).
The future progressive can be used to show:
- interrupted actions in the future
I will be going to work when she calls.
- an ongoing action that will be done at a certain time
I will be eating dinner at 8PM.
The perfect aspect in its base form expresses a completed action. So if it expresses a completed action, what makes it different from the simple past, which also expresses a completed action? Read more about the Simple Past vs Present Perfect.
The perfect aspect is formed by using an auxiliary verb (‘to have’) and the past participle of the verb. But what is the past participle?
The Past Participle
A past participle is a verb form that shows that an action is complete, showing that it was in the past. Forming the past participle is not as simple as forming the present participle. This is because English has two types of “verb strengths”: weak and strong (see more about strong and weak verbs under the ‘Past simple’ section). The past participle is related to the past simple form of the verb and its strength. Sometimes, this is the same form as the past simple. For example, the verb ‘to bring’ in the simple past is ‘brought’ and the past participle is also ‘brought’. This is not always the case, such as the verb ‘to arise’, which is ‘arose’ in the simple past and ‘arisen’ as a past participle.
For regular (weak) verbs, the past participle is usually the main stem of the verb with either ‘-ed’, ‘-d’ or ‘-t’ added to the end. Example include:
to add -> added (past simple) -> added (past participle)
to beg -> begged -> begged
to yell -> yelled -> yelled
For irregular (strong) verbs, you simply have to learn the past participle. Some follow patterns but there are always exceptions to the rule:
to read -> read -> read
to cut -> cut -> cut
to bring -> brought ->brought
to throw -> threw -> thrown
In the present tense, the verb ‘to have’ is in the present tense (conjugation table below) followed by the past participle of the main verb.
|First||I have||we have|
|Second||you have||you have|
|Third||he/she/it has||they have|
The present perfect is used to:
- express an action at an unspecified time in the past that has relevance to right now
I have written 20 reports for this class.
- show a duration of an action started in the past that is still ongoing or until now
I have had a runny nose for the past few days. – note the verb ‘have’ is used twice, once as the auxiliary verb and once as the main verb meaning ‘to possess’
The past perfect is like the present perfect but shifted to the past. That means that the auxiliary verb is in the past and the main verb is in the past participle.
- express a completed action before a time in the past
I had studied English before moving to the UK.
- show a duration of an action started in the past that is was ongoing at a point in the past
In 2018, Alex had been in London for 6 years. – note ‘been’ is the past participle of ‘to be’
The future perfect is not used very often in English because its sole use is to show a completed action in the future that will be relevant to another action that happens. For example:
I will have been there for a month before you arrive.
As you can see, it is formed using the verb ‘will’ plus the main and auxiliary verbs in their respective forms for the perfect aspect (in this case, the bare infinitive and the past participle).
Perfect Continuous Form
The perfect continuous or perfect progressive is a combination of the perfect and continuous aspects that also combines the structures. The perfect continuous form needs to auxiliary verbs (‘to be’ and ‘to have’) as well as the main verb. It starts with the verb ‘to have’ conjugated in the desired, followed by the verb ‘to be’ in the past participle (‘been’) and then the main verb in the present participle form (‘-ing’).
Present Perfect Continuous
- duration from the past until now
We have been talking to each other for the past hour.
- with the words ‘recently’ or ‘lately’ to show repetition
Lately, I have been walking up the mountain to see the sunset.
Past Perfect Continuous
- duration from the past to a point in the past
We had been talking to each other for over an hour when I received a message.
- the cause of something in the past
We were tired because we had been working out all day.
Future Perfect Continuous
The future perfect continuous is used very rarely because it talks about actions that will be ongoing in the future in reference to another point in the future.
We will have been talking to each other for an hour when dinner is ready.
The future perfect continuous is formed using the verb ‘will’, followed by ‘to have’ in the bare infinitive (‘have’), then ‘to be’ in the past participle (‘been’) and lastly the main verb in the present participle (‘-ing’).
Imperative Mood (Active tenses)
Ahh so now we are done. Wait, WHAT? THERE IS MORE?!? Not to worry, the imperative mood is a very small and simple mood from the terms of how it is used and verb conjugations. To start with, there aren’t any! The imperative mood in English is used to give commands to people. In this mood, we don’t even have to use a subject as the subject ‘you’ is implied. This leaves us with a very simple construction: the verb in its bare form + whatever is being commanded to be done. For example:
Go to your room!
One of the easiest ways to recognise the imperative mood (and therefore a command) is because the subject is missing and these sentences are usually written with an exclamation mark. In the above example, we have the verb ‘to go’ in the imperative mood (‘go’) followed by the instruction.
Other examples include:
Eat your dinner! – command in positive
Don’t talk back to me! – command in negative
Do your homework! – command in positive
Subjunctive Mood (Active tenses)
Ahh now we must be done. What wait? ANOTHER?? This is the last one, I promise, although it is probably one of the hardest to learn. The subjunctive mood is rarely used in English today as it is considered very formal or polite. In fact, many native speakers do not even realise that the subjunctive mood exists and instead use the indicative mood equivalent.
So what is the subjunctive mood?
Well, that is a difficult question to answer. The subjunctive mood is another set of conjugation rules that are used to describe wishes, hypothetical situations or conditions. While this sounds complicated, I have good news. The conjugations are almost identical to all of those presented under the indicative mood section! This is why native speakers often don’t know what the subjunctive is and use the indicative instead. The exception is the third person singular conjugation (for ‘he/she/it’). In the indicative mood, this form usually has an ‘-s/-es’ on the end (e.g. ‘I hold’, ‘he holds‘). In the subjunctive, this ‘s’ is not added. An example of the subjunctive with the verb ‘to hold’:
She demanded that he hold the candle straight up so that nothing catches fire.
Neat! So that is the present tense.
What about the past tense?
Even better news, it is exactly like the past tense of the indicative mood!
She demanded that he held the candle straight up so that nothing catches fire.
Great! There is one exception to all of this though (there always has to be one). The verb ‘to be’ has a completely different conjugation in both the present and the past than it does in the indicative mood, but actually, it is easier. In the present, the conjugation is ‘be’. Simple right? In the past, it is ‘were’ for everyone. Easy!
Present: It is important that they be stopped at once.
It is essential that he work all night long.
If he were to play with us, we would need a bigger ball.
Past: I wish I were richer. – yes the conjugation is ‘I were’, ‘you were’, ‘he/she/it were’, etc.
Congratulations! Now we have finished reviewing the active tenses! Tell me what you think in the comments below.
If you liked this post, why not check out my Learning English page for more articles. You can also find more specialised articles about Doublets (and Triplets) in English or The Basic Characteristics of Scientific Language.
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