In this lesson, you can get a big picture understanding of English verb tenses. You’ll learn what connects English verb forms, which will make it easier for you to learn and understand verb tenses in English.
QUIZ: English Verb Tenses
Test how well you know the different verb tenses in English. Do you know how to form them? Do you understand when to use them?
This quiz has 20 questions. First there are five True or False questions about terminology and form, followed by five questions where you need to identify the verb forms highlighted.
In the second half, you must write verbs in the correct tense, then compare several forms and choose any that are correct in a given context. The quiz gets harder as you go on!
When you’ve finished, you’ll see your score. You can then click ‘Restart Quiz’ to have another go, or ‘View Questions’ to review the correct answers.
Time limit: 0
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You have already completed the quiz before. Hence you can not start it again.
Let’s do a quick test. Can you recognise these three verb forms?
I was having dinner this time yesterday.
He’s been sitting there for hours.
Where will you be next week?
Do you know the answers? Let’s check!
In the first sentence, the time is past, and the aspect is continuous: it’s past continuous.
In the second sentence, the time is present, and the aspect is perfect continuous: it’s present perfect continuous.
In the third sentence, the time is future, and the aspect is simple: it’s future simple.
You don’t need to remember all of this right now. What you should remember: all English verb forms are made of these two parts: time plus aspect.
One more point: different teachers, books and courses sometimes use different words for these things.
For example, some books use the word ‘progressive’ instead of ‘continuous’. So, instead of ‘present continuous’, they say ‘present progressive’.
Other words have the same problem. For example, the words ‘tense’ and ‘aspect’ are used in different ways by different people.
Our advice? Don’t think too much about the words. Focus on the ideas. I understand it can be confusing, but it’s really not your problem that people don’t use these words consistently!
Next, let’s talk more about time.
2. Past, Present and Future English Verb Forms
I said we’re going to talk about past, present and future, but really, we’re mostly going to talk about the future.
Why—why is the future different?
English verbs have past and present forms. For example:
be – was
do – did
want – wanted
So, to make a present form past, just change the present verb to a past verb, like this:
I go shopping once a week. → I went shopping once a week.
She’s running in the park. → She was running in the park.
We haven’t seen it yet. → We hadn’t seen it yet.
It doesn’t matter if the aspect is simple, continuous, perfect or perfect continuous. Using a present or a past verb decides whether the meaning is present or past.
That’s almost too simple, right? But what about the future?
There are no future verb forms; you can’t change the verb to make it future. So, you have to add something before the verb. For example:
I’ll be waiting for you outside the station.
When are you going to tell her?
He might join us later.
Now, you can see why the future is more complicated. There are many things you can add before the verb to give it a future meaning. You saw examples with will, be going to and might, but there are other possibilities.
It’s also very common to use present verb forms with a future meaning, like this:
What are you doing this weekend?
Class starts at 10:00.
What should you remember from all this?
Remember that every verb has only one past form, and only one present form, but there are many possible future forms. There isn’t one ‘future tense’ in English.
Now, let’s talk about aspect.
3. Simple Verb Forms
Look at three sentences:
I went to Rome last year.
I go to work by bus.
I’ll go with you.
What are these three verb forms?
They’re all simple: past simple, present simple, and future simple.
You can see that for the past and present simple, you just use the present or past form of the verb, without adding anything.
So, I went to Rome or I’ll go with you describe single actions in the past or the future.
I go to work by bus describes a repeated action in the present.
The present simple can’t generally be used to talk about single actions. The present simple generally expresses repeated actions or states.
The past and future simple can be used to talk about single actions, repeated actions or states. For example:
I went to Rome every year until 2012.
I’ll go with you on Tuesday and Wednesday, but I can’t on Thursday.
So, what about continuous verb forms?
4. Continuous Verb Forms
Let’s start with three examples:
I was eating dinner at seven o’clock last night.
I’m eating a tuna sandwich.
This time next week, I’ll be eating fresh seafood on an island!
These three sentences are all continuous: past continuous, present continuous and future continuous.
Can you see what connects them?
First, all continuous forms use the verb be, together with an -ing verb.
So, to make a continuous form, take the verb be in the past, present or future, then add your main verb with -ing on the end. For example:
She was telling me a really interesting story.
They aren’t helping at all.
It’ll be getting dark at five o’clock.
What about the meaning of continuous forms? Can you see what connects these examples?
Continuous forms describe things which are incomplete. Generally, continuous forms are used to talk about one moment in time.
So, you say I was eating dinner at seven o’clock last night because you’re talking about a moment in time (seven o’clock), and something incomplete—you hadn’t finished your dinner at that moment.
In the sentence She was telling me a really interesting story, you’re talking about a moment in time when she was in the middle of her story. You use a continuous form because, at that moment, she hadn’t finished her story.
Okay, but what about perfect verb forms?
5. Perfect Verb Forms
Again, let’s start with some examples:
He hadn’t finished speaking.
She’s finished all her homework.
We‘ll have finished everything by Friday.
What do you notice?
All perfect tenses use the verb have in the past, present or future form.
After have, you use a past participle to make the perfect form.
So, for example, to make the past perfect, you take the past form of have, which is had, and add a past participle.
We hadn’t thought about it.
I had never tried miso soup before.
For the future perfect, take the future form of have, which could be will have, and add a past participle, like this:
I’ll have finished all by exams by this time next year.
What about the meaning of perfect verb forms? Can you see anything which connects these three sentences?
Perfect verb forms connect two points in time.
For example, He hadn’t finished speaking is past perfect. This connects two different times or actions in the past.
To understand this, you need a longer sentence with more information. For example:
He hadn’t finished speaking when everybody started to leave.
The perfect form connects the two different actions.
This is the best way to think about perfect verb forms: perfect English verb forms connect two points in time.
How does this work in the present?
She’s finished all her homework.
This is present perfect. What two points in time does this connect?
It connects the present and the past.
She’s finished her homework in the past (before now), and now her homework is done and ready to be checked (in the present).
What about the future?
We‘ll have finished everything by Friday.
This is the future perfect. In this case, it connects the present to a point in the future.
When you say We’ll have finished everything by Friday, you mean that you’ll finish everything some time between now and Friday.
You don’t know exactly when you’ll finish everything, but you know that it will be somewhere in this period between now and the future.
Finally, let’s look at perfect continuous forms.
6. Perfect Continuous Verb Forms
Here are three examples to begin:
She’d been feeling much better.
We’ve been waiting for ages.
By the end of the day, we’ll have been working without a break for 14 hours.
What do you notice?
You can see that perfect continuous forms are a mix of the perfect and the continuous, which is logical, right?
They’re perfect forms because they use a form of have plus a past participle, which in perfect continuous verb forms is always the same: been.
They’re continuous forms because they use be plus a main verb with -ing.
How do you set the time of a perfect continuous form?
You set the time by changing the form of have. Use a past, present or future form of have, plus been, plus a verb with -ing.
Let’s practise! Here’s a sentence in the present simple.
I walk through the forest.
Can you change this sentence into the three perfect continuous forms: past, present and future? Pause the video and try it!
Ready? Let’s check your answers:
I had been walking through the forest.
I’ve been walking through the forest.
I will have been walking through the forest.
Did you get them right?
Next, let’s talk about the meaning of perfect continuous forms.
Again, the meaning is a combination of the two aspects: perfect and continuous.
So, the meaning is perfect because these forms connect two points in time.
I had been walking through the forest…
…when something else happened.
I had been walking through the forest for hours before I realised I was lost.
Like you saw before, the perfect aspect is used to connect two points in the past.
What about the continuous side? What meaning does that add?
It adds the idea of something incomplete or temporary.
If you say, She’d been feeling much better, this suggests she was feeling ill either before or after she was feeling better.
If you say, We’ve been waiting for ages, you mean that you still haven’t got what you came for. The action—waiting—is incomplete.
If you say, By the end of the day, we’ll have been working without a break for 14 hours, you mean that your work still won’t be finished at the end of the day.
The past and future perfect continuous forms are rare, but you still need them sometimes.
Okay, so now you’ve seen an overview of all the English verb forms.
First of all, remember that this lesson is meant to give you the big picture. You’ve seen what connects different English verb tenses, and how verb forms are different from each other.
However, you’ve seen the most general connections and differences. This can help you to understand English tenses, but remember that every English verb form has its own specific uses and meanings.
That’s all from us. Thanks for watching this Oxford Online English lesson!