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Tenses show when something happens.
- Present tense – I eat.
- Past tense – I ate.
- Future tense – I will eat.
Verbs are one of the most important classes of words. They tell us what is happening in terms of actions or the states of affairs in a particular situation.
- The children talk (verb) very loudly.
- My daughter is (verb) a talented artist.
Unless it is a fragment, all sentences require a verb. The tenses are parts of verbs that tell you the time when the action referred to in the sentence took place.
The base form is the basic verb form. It is so called as it has no inflections (no endings such as -s,-ing or -ed).
This form of the verb is what is listed in the dictionary as the entry word. The base form of any verb can be changed into a singular or plural, present or past tense.
- smile (base form)
- smiles (third person present tense)
- smiled (past tense)
The current understanding of tenses in the English Language is that there are only two tenses: the present and past. As the names imply, the present tense refers to actions and states in the present while the past tense talks about actions and states in the past. It is possible to talk about the future in many different ways, some of which are the present tense and modal verbs.
- We leave for London tonight. (using the present tense)
- We will attend the dinner on Friday. (using the modal verb will)
The present tense is the most basic tense in the English language. Generally we use it to refer to present activities or to talk about routines or habits. We also use the present tense to refer to facts and beliefs. It is also used to make a general statement about something or somebody.
- She leaves for work at 7.30 every morning. (routine)
- The sun rises in the east. (fact)
- Harry usually drinks a glass of wine with his meal. (generalisation) Regular verbs are made past tense by adding’-ed’.
- The audience laughed (past tense) loudly at his joke. [laugh (base form) + ed ]
The exceptions are some irregular verbs. They differ from the base form as they have a different spelling to indicate the past tense.
- swim (base form) – swam (past tense).
Unlike the present tense, the form of a verb in the past tense is the same whether the subject is singular or plural.
- The girl (singular subject) drank the water. The girls (plural subject) drank the water.
Other parts of the verb are the present participle and past participle. (See table: Different forms of the Verb) The present participle and the auxiliary verb be form the continuous tenses. The present continuous indicates ongoing or future activity.
- The workers are repairing the burst pipe.
- I am taking my dog for a walk in an hour’s time.
The past continuous is used for an activity that was ongoing at a certain point in the past.
- She was working very hard last month.
It is also used to indicate an ongoing situation that was interrupted by a single past action.
- The audience was enjoying the concert when the police t arrived.
The perfect tense is used when an action or situation in the present is linked to a moment in the past. It is often used to show actions that have happened up to the present but aren’t completed yet.
The present perfect tense is formed by have I has + past participle; the past perfect is formed by had + past participle. A list of some past participles can be found in this booklet.
Examples of the use of the present perfect tense.
- We can go out now – my car has been repaired.
- I have worked in the city for the past five years.
Often speakers of English make mistakes with the use of the present perfect and simple past.
- I have watched that movie on Friday.
- The use of the simple past tense would be correct in this instance:
- I watched that movie on Friday.
Usually the present perfect should not be linked to a specific time (in this case, Friday) but to a duration of time such as recently, often.
Most people have a problem with the past perfect tense. A rule to remember is: when a sentence refers to two past actions, you use the past perfect to indicate the action that took place first.
- By the time I arrived (simple past), the train had left (past perfect).
- To my horror, I realised (simple past) at the airport that I had forgotten (past perfect) to bring my passport!