Mastering Tenses

Mastering Tenses

Many of you have told me you have trouble with tenses. Indeed, it can be confusing, especially if we don’t really express the past, present and future in a few of our native languages. But in English, we do have to represent time in one way or another using tenses.

Let’s start with the simplest one, the present tense! The present tense describes an action happening now or with consistent frequency. It uses the base form of a verb. In other words, if the present tense of a verb uses the dictionary definition version of the verb. Of course, the exact spelling of the verb is still subjected to subject-verb agreement, i.e. whether the subject (noun) that the verb is describing is plural or singular.

Here’s an example of the verb go used as a present tense.

I go to the park every day.

Let’s move on to the past tense. It is used, obviously, to describe an action happening at one moment in the past. The past tense usually ends with -ed, although this is not always the case. Refer to a dictionary if you need to find out how a verb is spelled as a past tense.

Here’s an example of the verb go used as a past tense. The past tense of go is went.

I went to the park yesterday.

Next, let’s look at the future tense. It is used to describe an action that’s happening at one moment in the future. The future tense always contains the pairing of the words ‘will’ and the base form of a verb.

Here’s an example (again!) of the verb go used as a future tense. Notice the pairing of ‘will’ and ‘go’.

I will go to the park tomorrow.

Now you learnt about present, past, and future tenses, let’s move on to discover perfect tenses, which are the ones many of us are confused by. But now, let’s understand it once and for all. Perfect tenses are actually very simple. It’s just that their usages can be confusing and open to interpretation.

So what are perfect tenses actually? A perfect tense is used to refer to a time period starting from a moment and ending at another moment. While a simple (present, past, future) tense refers to one moment in time, a perfect tense, however, refers to a range of moments.

Let’s start with a present perfect tense. A present perfect tense refers to an action that has happened between a past moment up till the present moment.

Here’s an example of the present perfect tense using the verb go (again).

John has gone to the park already.

A present perfect tense is made up of the word ‘has/have’ and the participle form of a verb.

(Note: a verb has a simple/base form, a ‘past’ form, and a participle form that is used for perfect tenses.)

Looking at the sentence above, you will realize that the sentence tells us that John started going to the park in a past moment, but at present he is either still travelling there, or is in the park.

What about the past perfect tense? Well, it refers to an action happening between a moment from a further past to another moment from the past.

Let’s look at the example again using the verb go.

John had gone to park at 5 PM yesterday.

From this sentence above, John had already started travelling to the park before 5 PM. He had been travelling from a further past (before 5 PM) and was either still travelling there, or reached there by 5 PM.

Finally, let’s look at how a future perfect tense is used. A future perfect tense refers to an action happening between a moment in the future and another moment in the later future. Again, note that the perfect tense always refers to a range of time periods.

Let’s look at the same example using the verb go.

John will have gone to the park for the entire evening.

From this sentence, you know that John will be going to the park from a moment in the evening until a later moment in the event.

You may wonder, “Why not just use ‘will go’ instead of ‘will have gone’?”

Well, you may use ‘will go’ if you intend to say that John will be going to the park in one moment. However, if you want to be more precise and say that John will be travelling to the park throughout a period a time, ‘will have gone’ will be more appropriate.

Of course, the difference in meaning may not be that important, especially when the time period is not the most important point you’re trying to convey.

But you may simply remember the key difference between simple and perfect tenses. Simple tenses refer to one moment in time, while perfect tenses refer to a range of time, starting one moment and ending in another.

Now that you have learnt about simple and perfect tenses, let’s discover the last type of tense: the continuous tense!

I would like to think that a continuous tense is rather simple to visualize, because it refers to an action that is happening instantly at a particular moment.

If that’s the case, how is it different from a simple present tense? A simple present tense tells you that an action is happening at one present moment, whereas a continuous tense tells you that an action is happening at the very instant. In other words, a continuous tense is the most instantaneous of all tenses.

This is the difference. And as you can see, the difference can be very subtle, and it all depends on how you interpret and express the way an action happens in relation to time.

Let’s look at an example of how a present continuous tense is used with the verb go.

John is going to the park.

This sentence tells us that John is travelling to the park at this particular instant. Notice how the meaning changes if we use the present tense ‘goes’ instead.

John goes to the park.

In this case, we merely understand that John travels to the park at a present moment, but we do not know if it is right now, or some other present moment. (Notice that ‘present moment’ is subjected to interpretation! It can be right now, or it can be some other ‘present moment’ in the future!)

Let’s look at another example of how a past continuous tense is used with the same verb go.

John was going to the park at 2 PM yesterday.

What this sentence above tells us is that, at a past moment (2 PM), John was travelling to the park at that particular instant.

Again, you may ask, “Why not use a simple past tense instead?”

John went to the park at 2 PM yesterday.

This is perfectly fine too. But they do have different meanings. The continuous tense shows a more instantaneous action. Ultimately, it’s your choice to express an action as being more instantaneous, or not.

Finally, let’s look at an example of how a future continuous tense is used.

John will be going to the park at 2 PM tomorrow.

As you may well guessed, the sentence tells us that John will be doing the action of going to the park at a future moment.

Let’s summarize everything now.

There are past, present, and future tenses. And there are 3 categories of tenses, the simple, perfect, and continuous tenses. A simple tense tells us an action that is happening at one moment. A perfect tense tells us an action happening at multiple moments, from one moment to the next. And a continuous tense tells us in a more instantaneous, or intimate, fashion that an action is happening at a particular moment.

Here you go! These are the key grammar rules for tenses!

If you have any comments or responses about this blog article, email me at lee@smoothwriter.com.

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