Beyond Past, Present, and Future: Understanding Verb Tenses

Wednesday, June 83 min read

Verbs are action words. They describe what the subject of a sentence is doing, and verb tenses tell when the action was performed.  Verbs generally come in three tenses — past, present, and future — but the rules of grammar are a bit more complex than this.

Simple Verb Tenses

The first verb tenses we learn in grade school are the past, present, and future. The past tense describes something that already happened, the present tense describes things happening now, and the future tense describes things that will happen.

Past: I walked the dog this morning.

Present: I walk my dog every day.

Future: I will walk the dog in the park tonight.

These are often called “simple” verb tenses because they are the most basic and easiest to understand.

Perfect Verb Tenses

If simple verb tenses tell when an action was performed, perfect verb tenses tell when an action is completed. (Think of “perfect” as being complete with no need for change.)

Past Perfect: I had sent a letter to my grandmother in New York.

Present Perfect: I have sent many letters over the summer.

Future Perfect: I will have sent another letter by the end of the week.

In each of these cases, it’s clear from the context that the action (sending the letter) has been finished and completed. Using the perfect tense here makes the action more definite. There’s a subtle difference between “I have sent many letters over the summer” and “I send many letters over the summer.”

Creating a perfect verb tense is simple. Just add the words “have,” “has,” or “had” to the past participle form of the verb.

Progressive Verb Tenses

Progressive verb tenses do just what the name suggests — they describe an action in progress. These are also known as “continuous tenses” because the actions they describe are ongoing. Unlike the perfect tense, they were not or haven’t yet been completed.

Past Progressive: I was watching my brother’s movie.

Present Progressive: I am watching my brother’s movie.

Future Progressive:I will be watching my brother’s movie.

Again, this verb tense conveys a subtle difference in action. “I will be watching my brother’s movie” has a different connotation than “I will watch my brother’s movie.” The first example is much more definite about the subject's action in the future.

To create the progressive verb tense, combine a form of the verb “to be” and the present participle of a verb. That means a verb with an “-ing” ending. For the past progressive use “was” or “were,” for present use “am,” “is,” or “are,” and for future use “will be.”

Perfect Progressive Tenses

If the perfect tense describes actions that have been completed, and the progressive tense describes ongoing (or uncompleted) actions, then the perfect progressive tense somehow conveys an action both completed and uncompleted.

For perfect progressive tenses, the action keeps going but is completed at a later time. These verbs often help us understand how long an action or event goes on.

Past Perfect Progressive: I had been driving all night when I saw the hotel.

Present Perfect Progressive: I have been driving since I was 16.

Future Perfect Progressive: By the time I arrive, I will have been driving for 10 hours.

In these examples, driving is an ongoing action, but it has an end point. Create the perfect progressive tense by combining “had been,” “has been,” or “will have been” with the present participle of a verb.

For English speakers, it’s usually not necessary to worry about which advanced verb tense is required, but in academic writing situations, it might be helpful to employ the future perfect tense to explain that you will have submitted your final draft by the extended deadline.

Featured image credit: ArtistGNDphotography/ iStock

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