ENGLISH TENSES – OVERVIEW
While discussing English tenses, as well as those in any other language, it is extremely important to explain the relations between TIME and TENSE, as well as to emphasize the crucial difference between the two concepts: the one of time (extra linguistic), and the strictly linguistic one – the concept of tense.
Time, being an extra linguistic concept, and existing independently in the universe, encompasses three, more or less distinct, segments or categories: past, present and future. On the other hand, the tenses are considered to be a strictly linguistic concept, i.e. verb forms used to express actions, events, or states occurring in time.
This becomes particularly important in view of the fact that in English, as indeed is the case with some other languages, there is no strict or unambiguous correspondence between time and tense: a present tense may be used to express actions happening in the future and past time.
The Simple Present Tense
The Simple Present Tense, as its name clearly implies, is formed of only one element, i.e. of the base form of the verb, with the addition of the ending –s or inflectional suffix (following a vowel) or –es (following a consonant) in the third person singular.
In order to express the negative form, a special auxiliary verb do is used: does not / doesn’t for third person singular and do not / don’t for the remaining persons, either singular or plural.
As far as the interrogative form is concerned, the same verb forms of do are used (i.e. the auxiliary verb do functioning as the operator), following the word order of to do + subject + main verb (inversion of the verb).
The most common use of the tense is to express the present state of affairs or a general fact.
present state: He likes sailing.
general fact: The water boils at 100 degrees Celsius.
Zagreb lies on the River Sava.
Another typical usage of the Present Simple concerns routines and habits, things that occur repeatedly. Time expressions used relating to this particular usage are often, seldom, always, usually, frequently, sometimes, every day/week/month/year; ever (never), etc., sometimes also referred to as adverbs of frequency:
He always drives to work.
The Present Progressive / Continuous Tense
The Present Continuous (or Progressive) relates to the imperfective aspect and is complex in its essence, i.e. formed of two elements: the present tense of the verb to be + -ing form (the present participle of the main verb).
The main uses relate to the present action that is in progress in the immediate present, the so-called instantaneous present. Typical time expressions are thus: now, at the moment, still, just, etc:
The train is leaving the Victoria Station now.
The action does not need to be in progress at the exact moment of speaking: it can be occurring “around now”, i.e. it could have begun but is not completed yet:
I am reading an interesting story at the moment. (i.e. I was reading it yesterday, I have not finished yet, and I will continue reading it later).
Permanent vs. temporary
The main contrast between the two tenses discussed above concerns the difference between permanent routines (Present Simple) and temporary routines (Present Continuous):
He travels to work by car (permanent), but his car has broken down, so he is travelling to work by train this week. (temporary)
The Present Progressive can be used in order to express annoyance or irritation on the part of the speaker concerning someone’s behaviour. The time expression always is typically added:
He is always arriving late.
Both Present Simple and Progressive can refer to the future time. The Present Simple verb form can thus express an action that has been arranged and is due to happen because of the fixed schedule or timetable:
The train leaves for London at 11 o’clock this evening.
Meanwhile, the Present Progressive expresses an action that will occur because of the arrangements among people, i.e. expresses personal plans:
Ann is eating at the restaurant with her husband this evening. (They have previously arranged to do so.)
Although past actions are usually narrated using the past verb forms, present tenses (both simple and progressive) are sometimes used in order to make the action or the story plot more immediate and more vivid to the listener or reader:
Macbeth murders the King of Scotland, who is staying at his castle.
Present Simple Tense typically occurs in the sports commentaries in order to express action as it actually happens:
Hacker passes the ball to Short, but Burley wins it back for United.
The Past Simple Tense
The tense is formed by either adding the –d or –ed to the base form if the verb is regular, or using the special forms if it is irregular (e.g. write-wrote, see-saw, take-took, hurt-hurt). It may be noted that, with the Simple Present Tense, it is the only simple tense in English, all the other tenses representing complex verb phrases formed, apart from the main verb, by means of primary and/or modal auxiliaries.
Negative is formed by means of the irregular past form of the auxiliary verb to do (did not or didn’t), regardless of the person or number, while the past form changes into the base form of the main verb:
I saw her at the party but I didn’t speak to her.
Interrogative is formed by using the past tense of the auxiliary verb to do as the operator (always preceding the subject), and the word order is as follows:
did + subject + the base verb form, i.e. without the past ending.
Did you speak to her at the party last night?
The basic use of the Past Simple involves the action started and completed in the past, i.e. definite past actions.
The typical time expressions yesterday; last week/ month/year or in the particular year indeed specify the time and indicate the completeness of the action expressed:
I bought this interesting CD yesterday.
The earthquake happened in the 1905.
The Past Simple may be used to refer to states existing in the past, in which case stative verb forms are used:
The Romans had a huge Empire.
She was a beautiful girl indeed.
The tense is typically used in retelling stories, i.e. in narrating past events:
Once upon a time a Princess went into a wood and sat down by a stream.
It is important to emphasize that, unlike Croatian that uses imperfective verb forms for past habits, English uses Past Simple verb forms instead:
He often went to rock concerts..
Često je odlazio na rock koncerte.
Sequence of tenses / Reported speech
Another important use of the Past Simple and Progressive verb forms occurs in the dependent clause of reported speech, providing that the so-called introductory or reporting verb is in a past tense (Past Simple, Continuous, or Past Perfect). In the described situation it expresses simultaneousness in the past:
Peter told me what the matter was.
He told me he was leaving.
2nd type conditional clause
The Past Simple verb forms regularly appear in the dependent or so-called if- clause of the 2nd type conditional sentences, where it actually represents an unreal condition in the present, functioning as the present subjunctive:
If I were you, I would ask him what the matter is.
If I had lots of money, I would travel round the world.
I would tell you the answer if I knew what it was.
Unreal wish for the present
Past Simple verb forms occur in the sentences beginning with If only, I wish, etc., representing present wishes not likely to be fulfilled. The forms are also called subjunctive verb forms:
If only I saw her now!
I wish you weren’t so rude.
Other conjunctions that require such a subjunctive form are as if, as though, suppose…, etc.:
She looks as if she were excited.
In all of the above examples, the past verb forms somehow signify distance from the speaker’s reality.
The Present Perfect Simple Tense
The tense is formed using two elements: the present form of the auxiliary to have (have or has for the third person singular) and the past participle form of the main verb. The verb can be either regular, thus having its past participle and past tense forms identical, or irregular, its past participle form being unique.
The interrogative form is obtained by the inversion of the two elements, inserting the subject in the middle. The important thing to notice is that the verb remains in its participle form, unlike the Past Simple Tense where the base form of the verb is used.
In order to form the negative, the negative form of the auxiliary is to be used: either have not / haven’t or has not or hasn’t (third person singular).
The Present Perfect is the tense connecting present and past. It may express a past action or state, occurring, however, at an indefinite or unspecified time:
I have seen this man.
She has been to the States.
The Present Perfect frequently refers to actions or events which occurred in the past, but whose results or consequences are felt in present:
The visitors have arrived. (The visitors are here now).
Someone has broken the vase. (Its pieces are scattered on the floor).
The actions expressed can refer to the whole history of someone’s life up to the moment of speaking:
A: Have you ever ridden a horse? B: Yes, but not since I was about twelve.
The Present Perfect can also refer to the repeated actions in the past viewed from the present viewpoint:
I’ve ridden horses lots of times.
The tense can express a state lasting up to the present moment:
The restaurant has been open for about ten minutes. (It was opened ten minutes ago and still is.)
Time expressions typically associated with the Present Perfect are as follows: just, recently, already, lately, so far, ever / never, today, this morning/evening, for weeks/years, since 1990, this morning / today / this week / month etc.
The Present Perfect can be used even if the action itself is completed, but the period of time in which it happened is still in progress:
It has been windy this morning. (The morning is not over yet.).
I have seen an interesting film this week. (The week is not yet over.)
Past Simple vs. Present Perfect
The choice of tense depends on the position of the speaker: whether the speaker perceives the action as finished or linked, i.e. having consequences at the moment of speaking:
The car broke down yesterday. (It is probably repaired now.)
The car has broken down. (It is out of function now.)
Regarding states, it is important whether the state is over, because some other past action changed that state (Past Simple), or the state still exists at the moment of speaking (Present Perfect):
I had those skis for years. (Then I sold them.)
I’ve had these skis for years. (I still have them.)
I was there from three o’clock. (Then I left.)
I’ve been here since three o’clock. (I am still waiting.)
When the Past Simple is used in this context, it means that the period of time, and thus the series of actions are over, such as a person’s life or career, unlike Present Perfect use, which indicates that the action can happen again:
Robert Taylor acted in more than fifty films. (His career (and life!) is over).
Andy Garcia has acted in more than fifty films up to now. (His career is still in progress and may continue in the future.)
When reporting news or in conversation, especially in order to attract the interlocutor’s attention, the discourse is introduced with Present Perfect, and then Past Simple is used to provide more details:
There has been a serious accident on the M6. It happened at ten o’clock this morning when a lorry went out of control and collided with a car.
The new furniture has arrived. It came yesterday.
The Past Continuous / Progressive Tense
The Past Progressive is formed from the past form of the verb to be (was for singular / were for plural) and the –ing form (present participle) of the main verb.
The negative is formed using the negative form of the verb to be (was not / wasn’t or were not / weren’t) and the –ing form (present participle) of the main verb.
The interrogative is the inversion of the subject and the auxiliary was / were, thus resulting in the following word order: was / were+subject+main verb (-ing)
The basic use relates to the past action that was in progress over a certain period of time. At the indicated point of time the speaker was in the middle of something. It is actually used to emphasize duration:
At three o’clock in the morning I was lying there wide awake.
On the contrary, for the complete action, where there is no necessity of emphasizing the duration, the Simple Past is used:
I travelled round the world last year. It was a marvellous experience.
(The emphasis of the speaker is on the action itself, not on its duration.)
The Past Continuous is sometimes used in order to stress that the action was going on over an entire period of time. For such purpose, the following time expressions showing the length of the period are typical: from 2000-2004; all day/ night/year, etc.:
I was travelling from February to December.
The rescue services were working all night.
For the latter, the Simple Past is also possible:
The rescue services worked all night.
In the first two of the above example, the speaker intends to emphasize the duration, but in the third no such emphasis is expressed).
Simple Past vs. Past Progressive
Past Progressive can denote an action that was in progress around an indicated point in time:
It was raining at ten o’clock.
It can also happen simultaneously with a short action, normally expressed by the Simple Past:
It was raining when I left.
The shorter action is thus said to have interrupted the longer one, i.e. the one that lasted or was extended:
John was washing up when the doorbell rang.
When/While/As we were waiting in the traffic line, a man broke our car window.
The Past Simple can be used for the main action or event, while the Progressive is used for describing the background action(s):
We walked along the beach. People were lying in the sun. The children were playing.
Past Continuous is also used to express two extended actions occurring simultaneously in the past:
While Jane was washing her hair, her husband was cooking.
In order to emphasize the completion of both actions, the Simple Past may be used twice.
While Jane washed her hair, her husband cooked the dinner.
When two short past actions happen in a short sequence one after another, the Simple Past is used twice:
When the doorbell rang, her husband went to open the door.
For permanent past states, i.e. with stative verbs, only the Simple Past is to be used:
My mother loved this house.
The woman had long dark hair.
Regarding temporary states, both simple and progressive past can be used:
The thieves were wearing / wore masks.
Permanent vs. temporary
Regarding these concepts, the rules applying to the present tenses (both simple and continuous) are valid for the two past tenses as well:
I’m using her office while she is away.
I was using her office while she was away.
For future arrangements from the past viewpoint, the Past Progressive is used:
I was on my way to the restaurant. I was meeting someone there.
When I was younger, I was always getting into trouble.
The Present Perfect Continuous / Progressive Tense
The Present Perfect Progressive Tense is formed using the present forms of the verb to have (have / has), the past participle form of the verb to be (been) and the main verb in its –ing form (present participle).
The negative is formed by the negative form of the verb to have (have not / haven’t or has not / hasn’t), all the rest of the structure remaining unchanged.
The interrogative form uses the inversion of the subject and the present tense of the verb to have:
The Present Perfect Progressive is generally used to emphasize the duration of the action referring to a certain period of time leading up to the present:
I have been waiting here for half an hour.
The carpet is wet. The roof has been leaking.
The action may have ended recently, but the consequence is still evident:
I am hot because I have been running. (I stopped running a short time ago.)
The Present Perfect Continuous can also be used to express a series of repeated actions leading up to the present:
I have been attending French classes.
Present Perfect vs. Present Perfect Continuous
The Present Perfect usually focuses on the result, while the Present Perfect Continuous focuses on the duration of the action:
I have washed the car, so it looks rather cleaner now.
I have been washing the car, so I am tired now.
When the quality or the quantity of the result itself is indicated, the Present Perfect Simple is used, but when there is intention to stress the length of the action, the progressive form is used:
Tina has written twelve pages of her report. (She is over.)
Tina has been writing her report since two o’clock. (She is probably not over yet.)
If we emphasize how many times an action has been repeated (mentioning a specified number), the simple form is used. On the contrary, when merely the length is stressed, the continuous form is preferred:
I have tried to phone her at least twenty times.
I have been trying to phone her all day.
Where the states are concerned, only the simple form is allowed:
I have always hated hospitals.
With verbs such as live or work, both forms are acceptable, but the continuous is more usual:
Jane has been living / has lived there since May.
I have been working / have worked there for a month.
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The Past Perfect Tense
The Past Perfect Simple Tense is formed with the past simple form of the verb to have (had) and the past participle form of the main verb (either regular –ed or special irregular form).
The negative is formed by had not / hadn’t and the past participle form.
The interrogative is formed by the inversion of the auxiliary to have and the subject, the main verb remaining unchanged.
The most general use of the tense involves a past action that occurred before another past action:
Jane lay on her bed. She was depressed because her boyfriend had left her.
The writer “looks back” from the described situation to a time preceding it.
As well as the Present Perfect denotes an action having consequences up to a certain present point in time, Past Perfect similarly refers to consequences up to a past point in time, influencing another, more recent, past action:
The floor is clean. I have just washed it.
The floor was clean. I had just washed it.
However, when there is a sequence of past actions where it is clear that one happened immediately after another, there is no necessity for the Past Perfect and the Simple Past Tense is preferred:
When the shot rang out, everyone threw themselves to the floor.
In order to emphasize which action occurred first, the temporal conjunctions are to be used, such as: when (Past Perfect) or after (Past Simple / Past Perfect):
When Jane had written the letter, she posted it to her sister.
After Jane wrote/had written the letter, she posted it to her sister.
There are, however, situations in which the choice of the tense determines the meaning:
When she arrived, the performance began. (She was on time).
When she arrived, the performance had begun. (The performance started before she arrived, so she was late).
Past Perfect can be used after temporal conjunctions such as before or until, but it is optional there:
The printer went wrong before it printed / had printed a single sheet.
We didn’t want to stop until we finished / had finished the job.
Sequence of tenses / Reported speech
The Past Perfect, either simple or continuous, occurs in the dependent clause of such sentences in order to express that the action of the dependent clause happened previously, before the action of the main clause, provided that the introductory verb is in one of the past tenses:
She told me she had arrived. (“I have arrived.”) (She arrived, and then she told me that).
He said he had been studying all day.
3rd type conditional clause
The Past Perfect Simple functions as past subjunctive in the dependent or if clause of the 3rd type conditional sentences, thereby expressing unreal, unfulfilled condition in the past:
If you had studied more, you would have passed the exam.
(The action of the dependent clause actually wasn’t fulfilled).
Unreal wish for the past
The Past Perfect, again functioning as past subjunctive, occurs after the introductory phrases I wish and If only in order to express the unfulfilled wish or regret in the past:
I wish / If only I hadn’t spoken to him like that!
(When the verb form is negative, the action of the dependent clause actually happened).
Past Perfect functions as past subjunctive in dependent clauses when it follows conjunctions such as as if, as though, expressing something unreal, distant from the speaker’s reality:
He looks as if / as though he had just seen a ghost!
The Past Perfect Continuous / Progressive Tense
It is formed by had, the verb to be in its past participle form (been) and the main verb in its ing form (present participle).
The interrogative is formed by the inversion of had and the subject, thus resulting in the word order: had+subject+been+main verb (-ing).
The negative is formed by adding the particle not (had not / hadn’t) to the rest of the structure that remains unchanged.
As opposed to the Past Perfect Simple, it is used to emphasize duration or length of the action, using time expressions such as for weeks / months / years; all day; since 1990, etc.:
The driver who died in the accident had been drinking.
I was tired then because I had been walking for hours.
Although it expresses the idea of futurity in English, it is not considered a tense in the strict sense of the word because, while denoting future time, it frequently has modal connotations.
It is formed from the modal auxiliary will and the base form of the main verb.
The negative is obtained by adding the particle not (will not / won’t), the base form remaining unchanged.
The interrogative form is made by inverting will and the subject. The respective word order is thus will+subject+main verb.
The structure is used only for some concepts of futurity in English, the other concepts being expressed in different ways, usually by means of other tenses.
Future seen as fact
The form is used in viewing future as either merely a certain fact, something that cannot be controlled, or a prediction based on personal opinion:
Southern England will stay dry and sunny over the weekend.
I will be twenty next autumn. (fact)
I think Manchester will win. (prediction based on personal opinion)
Will future is used to express an unpremeditated decision, the one made at the moment of speaking:
It’s raining. I’ll take an umbrella.
Used in its affirmative form, it expresses someone’s willingness to do something:
My friend speaks Italian. She will translate it for you.
On the contrary, if in negative form, it expresses emphatic refusal from the part of the speaker:
I won’t put up with such laziness!
“Going to” Future
The structure is formed by be going to form (am/is/are going to) and the base form of the main verb.
Although it is in a way similar to the usage of Will future, i.e. concerning fact or personal prediction, it is used in other contexts, too:
Prediction based on present fact or evidence
If we make a prediction observing something we can perceive at the moment of speaking, the Going to future structure is used:
Mary is going to have a baby. (We can see she is pregnant).
Beware; this cup is going to fall! (It is on the edge of the table).
It’s going to rain. (It’s dark and cloudy).
The structure is used for a plan or an intention, for something the speaker has decided to do, especially when it is not a last minute decision:
I’m going to start my own business.
They are going to build some new flats here.
The Future Continuous / Progressive
The Future Continuous is formed from the modal auxiliary will, the base form of the auxiliary verb to be, and the –ing form of the main verb (present participle).
The interrogative is obtained by the inversion of will and the subject, observing the following word order: will+subject+main verb (-ing).
The negative is formed by adding the particle not (will not / won’t), the rest of the verb phrase (base form of to be and the main verb in its ing form) remaining unchanged.
The basic use involves an action that will be in progress over a definite future period of time, or around a specified point in future:
This time next week I will be flying to Greece.
I’ll be working all day tomorrow.
If the Future Continuous is used with the Present Simple (in temporal clauses), it expresses an action that will start happening before the action expressed by Present Simple and it will continue to be in progress:
The crowd will cheer when the Queen arrives.
(The Queen will arrive and then the crowd will start cheering.)
The crowd will be cheering when the Queen arrives.
(It will start cheering before she arrives and will continue to do so after her arrival).
The Future Perfect Simple Tense
The tense is formed by the modal auxiliary will, the base form of the auxiliary to have , and the past participle of the main verb.
The interrogative is formed by the inversion of will and the subject, resulting in the following word order: will+subject+have+main verb (past participle).
The negative is formed as usual, by adding the particle not to will, followed by have+past participle (both remaining unchanged).
It is used for a future action that will be completed before a certain point of time. The action or state in question is now perceived as future, whereas from a future viewpoint it will be seen as past:
I will have finished my studies by 2012.
I will have read my book by Tuesday.
The Future Perfect Continuous /Progressive Tense
It is formed by the modal auxiliary will followed by the perfect infinitive of the verb to be, i.e. have been and, finally, as is the case with all continuous (progressive) tenses, the main verb in its – ing form (present participle).
The interrogative is formed by inverting will and the subject, resulting in the following word order: will+subject+have been (perf. inf.) +main verb (-ing).
The negative is formed by adding the particle not (will not / won’t), the rest of the structure remaining unchanged.
It is used to express a future action that will be in progress up to a certain point in future time from which the speaker is imagined to be looking at the present. It also emphasizes the duration and the continuation of the action (expressions for weeks/months; all day etc.) as opposed to the Future Perfect Simple, in a similar way as the Present Perfect Continuous emphasizes duration when opposed to the Present Perfect Simple:
By October, I will have been teaching there for five years.
By the time he retires he will have been working for forty years.
The Future Perfect Continuous may therefore be regarded as the future equivalent of the Present Perfect Continuous.
MAURICE A NYAMOTI