A quick guide to tenses

We get all flustered over terminology such as “past perfect continuous”, but tenses are easy – and useful – to understand. Here’s the full list of 12 with a quick explanation of each

Photo of woman waving on beach to illustrate post about tensesPhotograph by Chris Lawton

During the recent furore over the Key Stage 2 grammar, punctuation and spelling SATs, a lot of discussion revolved around the fact that many parents found the sample questions difficult to answer, and felt that recognising and naming language elements was a waste of time anyway. Now, while I agree wholeheartedly that that test was inappropriate for Year 6 pupils, I was slightly dismayed to see how terrified adults seem to be of grammatical terminology. There are so many reasons why learning how our own language works is a good idea (that’s a whole other blog post) – and it’s not as difficult as we think it is. The only reason it seems so daunting is because most of our generation (by which I mean those who have children currently at school) were never taught grammar beyond the basic definitions of nouns, verbs and adjectives. Soooo, I thought today I would do a little refresher on tenses that will hopefully show how simple they are.

Traditionally, tenses are defined as verb forms whose endings change to express the timing of an action or state of being. So strictly speaking there are only two tenses: present and past. To talk about the future, as well as other more complex temporal ideas such as habitual action, attitude, intention, or the “past within the past”, we use auxiliary verbs to modify the present and past forms: “He used to go to work on his bicycle”; “She couldn’t wear her favourite dress because she had spilt wine all over it.”

But these temporal ideas usually fall into one of 12 camps, and these comprise what we generally mean when referring to tense. So here’s the list – and it’s honestly not complicated. You’ve got the simple present, past and future with three corresponding variations of each. Let’s go!

Present
Simple present
(I wave, you wave, he waves, we wave, they wave)
What’s happening right now

Present continuous (aka present progressive)
(I am waving, you are waving, he is waving, we are waving, they are waving)
Something happening in the present that is ongoing, ie, it is taking some time

Present perfect
(I have waved, you have waved, he has waved, we have waved, they have waved)
It began in the past and has either just finished or is still happening

Present perfect continuous
(I have been waving, you have been waving, he has been waving, we have been waving, they have been waving)
Something that started some time in the past and is still happening, or has just finished but was previously an ongoing action

Past
Simple past
(I waved, you waved, he waved, we waved, they waved)
What happened previously – either once or regularly – and has now stopped.

Past continuous (aka past progressive)
(I was waving, you were waving, he was waving, we were waving, they were waving)
It happened in the past and it took a while

Past perfect (aka the pluperfect)
(I had waved, you had waved, he had waved, we had waved, they had waved)
Something that took place before a specific point in the past

Past perfect continuous
(I had been waving, you had been waving, he had been waving, we had been waving, they had been waving)
Something that happened in the past and went on for a while, up until a specific point

Future
Simple future
(I shall wave, you will wave, he will wave, we shall wave, they will wave)
Something that might or will happen later on

Future continuous (aka future progressive)
(I shall be waving, you will be waving, he will be waving, we shall be waving, they will be waving)
Something that will happen in the future and will go on for a while

Future perfect
(I shall have waved, you will have waved, he will have waved, we shall have waved, they will have waved)
It will happen in the future and will be completed at a certain point

Future perfect continuous
(I shall have been waving, you will have been waving, he will have been waving, we shall have been waving, they will have been waving)
An action that might or might not have already started, and that in the future will go on for a while

(Click here for an explanation of shall/will – or if you can’t be bothered just use will, it’s fine.)

The thing about English is that we use tenses for all sorts of reasons – they are not just deployed to express time. Sometimes we utilise them for other reasons, eg, to express formality (the difference between “The court asks if you have anything further to add” and “I’m asking if anyone could pop over to help this afternoon”); to grab attention, as with news headlines (“Minister resigns over tax scandal”); or to add nuance (compare “She is generous”, ie, she’s usually a generous person, with “She is being generous”, ie, she is being generous right now but she isn’t necessarily always generous).

So it’s understandable that we get confused, but all that that really means is that those 12 tenses can be used in a variety of ways, to make our meaning more specific. And to me that’s one of the many things that makes our language so fascinating, so varied, and so much fun to use.