Types of tense in English

Hello lovely students! English, like many other languages across the globe, has its fair share of tenses to learn. Each tense is crucial to know when having a conversation in English. This may sound scary, but fear not, this ultimate guide into all 12 English tenses will get you comfortable with them in no time!

After all, there’s no time like the present to start learning, right?

An overview of tenses

Present tenses in English

Past tenses in English

Future tenses in English

Future, present, past signpost.

An overview of tenses

Before reading all the tenses, look at the table below to get an overview of all the tenses we have plus examples.

English verb tensesPresentPastFuture
SimpleI make cakes.I made cakes.I will make a cake.
ContinuousI’m making a cake.I was making a cake.I will be making a cake.
Perfect simpleI have made a cake.I had made a cake.I will have made a cake.
Perfect continuousI have been making a cake.I had been making a cake.I will have been making a cake.

In total, we have four for each of the present, future and past tenses.

Are you ready to look at these three in a bit more detail?

Present tenses in English

As shown above, the present tenses are divided into four sections: simple, continuous, perfect simple and perfect continuous.

No, we aren’t looking at that type of present today

Present simple

This is perhaps the most well-known tense, especially if you are just starting to learn English. The present simple tense simply uses the subject + base form of the verb in its structure. This, however, changes when using the third person singular (he/she/it). When we use these three subjects, we add the letter ‘s’ onto the end of the base verb.

I clean my house every weekend.

He cleans his house every weekend.

See the difference?

Spelling and the third person singular rule

There are also exceptions to the adding an s to the third person singular rule.

You must add –es instead of just s if the base form ends in -s, -z, -x, -sh, -ch, or the vowel o.

  • miss + es = misses         Rufus misses Polly so much.
  • do + es =  does         She does everything I suggest.

If the base form ends in consonant + ‘y’, remove the ‘-y’ and add ‘–ies’:

  • marry –> marries                He marries his childhood sweetheart tomorrow.
  • worry –> worries           My grandmother worries about me.

Irregular verbs

Two very common irregular verbs that you already know do not follow the rules above (although their third person singular present forms do actually end in –s):

  • be –> is
  • have –> has

This sounds a lot more complicated than it actually is, but believe me, once you understand these rules, the present simple is easy to use.

The uses of the present simple

1) Facts and things that are always true

The sun always shines.

Rain is wet.

2) Things that are true in the present

I live in Chicago.

He plays the piano.

3) Habits in the present

I get up at 6am every day.

Lisa does yoga on Saturdays.

Side note: when we have a fixed, long-term schedule for one day of the week, we pluralise it. For example, instead of saying Lisa does yoga on Saturday we add ans’ so the listener understands it’s every Saturday.

4) Scheduled events in the future

The film starts at 20.00. 

The bus leaves at 12.00. 

5) For instructions and directions

Put the cake in the oven for 20 minutes.

Turn left to get to the park.

Forming the present simple tense

Look at the table below for how we form the present simple tense.

I swim.I don’t swim/ I do not swim.Do I swim?
You swim.You don’t swim/ You do not swim.Do you swim?
He swims.He doesn’t swim/He does not swim.Does he swim?
She swims.She doesn’t swim/She does not swim.Does she swim?
It swims.It doesn’t swim/It does not swim.Does it swim?
We swim.We don’t swim/ We do not swim.Do we swim?
They swim.They don’t swim/ They do not swim.Do they swim?

You may have noticed that when we make a question, we swap the auxiliary verb with the subject. This is true of all tenses in English. See if you can spot it in the following tenses.

Present continuous

The present continuous tense is made up of subject + verb be + -ing verb. A gerund is a verb with ing at the end of it. Like in the present simple tense, the present continuous changes depending on the subject.

 For the subject I,  we use am, for the subjects you/we/they, we use are, and for the subjects he/she/it, we use is. This is also known as the present progressive.

Uses of the present continuous tense

1) When you are doing something at the time of talking

I am eating my dinner now.

Wendy is talking to the clients that have arrived.

2) When you are doing something in the general present time that is not yet a completed action

Ian is learning Spanish because he is moving to Spain.

My friends are building a hotel. Hopefully, by the end of next week, it will be finished.

3) For progress

Scott is feeling a lot better now after he took his medicine.

Mia’s English is getting better day by day.

4) For changes happening now

Summers are lasting longer and longer.

The world’s population is rising.

5) For fixed plans in the future

Dan is going to France in July.

Sharon is meeting Tracy at 4pm.

Forming the present continuous tense

Look at the table below to see how we form the present continuous

I am swimming.I’m not swimming/ I am not swimming.Am I swimming?
You are swimming.You aren’t swimming/You are not swimming.Are you swimming?
He is swimming.He’s not swimming/He is not swimming.Is he swimming?
She is swimming.She’s not swimming/She is not swimming.Is she swimming?
It is swimming.It’s not swimming/It is not swimming.Is it swimming?
We are swimming.We’re not swimming/ We are not swimming.Are we swimming?
They are swimming.They’re not swimming/ They are swimming.Are they swimming?

Side note: we cannot use some verbs, such as believe, doubt or understand, in any continuous tense. These are called stative verbs. Find out more about them here.

The present perfect simple

The present perfect simple tense is a fun one as it is usually used to focus on life experiences. The base structure of this tense is subject + the verb have + the past participle form.

Before reading the use and form of the present perfect simple tense, you must know that the verb go has two past participles: been and gone. 

Gone is used for one-way situations, meaning when you have travelled and not yet returned. Been is used for when you have travelled somewhere and returned. Keep this in mind for all perfect tenses where the past participle is used.

The use of the present perfect simple

1) For life experiences

I have been to China twice.

Sally has dived.

Side note: We often use the past simple to add extra information. For example, Sally has dived, turns into, Sally has dived. She went when she was 18 with her then-boyfriend.

2) For past actions that have a result in the present

I have lost my purse (I lost it in the past and don’t have it now).

Duncan has forgotten Camilla’s present (he forgot it is the past and doesn’t have it now).

3) With today/this morning/this afternoon/this evening when they are not yet finished

I have drunk five glasses of water this morning.

Mike has eaten 10 biscuits this afternoon.

4) Actions that started in the past and are not finished

Pete has worked in IT for 40 years.

They’ve celebrated their birthdays in Venice since they were 12.

Side note: for this use we use for and since a lot. For is used with the amount of time i.e for one year, for two days. Since is used to say when something started i.e. since school, since 1989.

Forming the present perfect simple tense

Look at the table below for how we form the Present Perfect Simple.

I have swum.I haven’t swum/ I have not swum.Have I swum?
You have swum.You haven’t swum/ You have not swum.Have you swum?
He has swum.He hasn’t swum/ He has not swum.Has he swum?
She has swum.She hasn’t swum/ She has not swum.Has she swum?
It has swum.It hasn’t swum/ I has not swum.Has it swum?
We have swum.We haven’t swum/ We have not swum.Have we swum?
They have swum.They haven’t swum/They have not swum.Have they swum?

Present perfect continuous

The present perfect continuous tense is used mainly for an action that starts in the past and continues in the present. The base form of its structure is subject + the verb have + been + -ing verb.

The uses of the present perfect continuous tense

1) For an activity that has just stopped or recently stopped

Pamela is tired. She has been running in the park.

My clothes are dirty because I have just been cleaning the bathroom.

2) An unfinished action that started in the past and continues to the present

I have been writing this book all morning. 

Andrew has been living in Scotland for three years.

Side note:  the verbs live and work can be used in both the present perfect continuous and present perfect simple with the words for or since and have little difference in meaning.

For example, I have lived in Brooklyn for 9 years and I have been living in Brooklyn for 9 years have the same meaning.

3) Temporary actions or habits that started in the past

Sue has been drinking less lately. 

Mohammed has been going to the gym more frequently.

 We can use the words frequently, lately or recently to add more meaning to this use.

Forming the present perfect continuous

I have been swimming.I haven’t been swimming / I have not been swimming.Have I been swimming?
You have been swimming.You haven’t been swimming/You have not been swimming.Have you been swimming?
He has been swimming.He hasn’t been swimming/he has not been swimming.Has he been swimming?
She has been swimming.She hasn’t been swimming/She has not been swimming.Has she been swimming?
It has been swimming.It hasn’t been swimming/It has not been swimming.Has it been swimming?

Past tenses in English

The past tense in English, much like the present tense is divided into four sections: simple, continuous, perfect simple, perfect continuous.

Past simple

The past simple only has one use in English: to describe actions that finished before the present time. The structure is subject + past tense verb.

The past tense is used a lot for history

The use of the past simple

1) Finished actions before now

I went to school today.

Clive had three sausages for breakfast.

Forming the past simple tense

I swam.I didn’t swim/ I did not swim.Did I swim?
You swam.You didn’t swim/ You did not swim.Did you swim?
He swam.He didn’t swim/  He did not swim.Did he swim?
She swam.She didn’t swim/ She did not swim.Did she swim?
It swam.It didn’t swim/ I did not swim.Did it swim?
We swam.We didn’t swim/ we did not swim.Did we swim?
They swam.They didn’t swim/ They did not swim.Did they swim?

Side note: when we use the negative in the past simple tense, we use didn’t/ did not + base verb. This is the same for all subjects.

Past continuous

The past continuous is used for actions that are ongoing in the past. The base structure is subject + past verb be + -ing verb.

The uses of the past continuous

1) Opening a story

I was studying in Rome when I saw….

Many years ago, Karen was looking out of her window.

2) Action in progress at a certain point in the past

She was eating last night.

Sinead was driving to her mum’s house yesterday morning.

3) Actions that continue in the past over a long period of time

The cat was hanging out with the neighbour’s cat for the entire night last night.

Robyn was rehearsing for her show all day yesterday

4) Continuous actions in the past interrupted by another action

I was walking in the park when a dog bit my leg.

A dog bit my leg while I was walking in the park.

For this use, it is common to use the words when and while and a combination of the past continuous and the past simple. The past simple is usually used for the shorter action.

Normally when making a phrase like this, the past simple comes after when or before while and the past continuous comes before when or after while, like in the examples above.

Forming the past continuous tense

Look at the table below to see the form of this tense.

I was swimming.I wasn’t swimming/ I was not swimming.Was I swimming?
You were swimming.You weren’t swimming/ You were not swimming.Were you swimming?
He was swimming.He wasn’t swimming/ He was not swimming.Was he swimming?
She was swimming.She wasn’t swimming/ She was not swimming.Was she swimming?
It was swimming.It wasn’t swimming/ It was not swimming.Was it swimming?
We were swimming.We weren’t swimming/ We were not swimming.Were we swimming?
They were swimming.They weren’t swimming/ They were not swimming.Were they swimming?

The past perfect simple

The past perfect simple tense is used in English to demonstrate an action that happened before another action in the past. Think of it as the past past. Its base structure is subject + had + past participle form.

The uses of the past perfect simple tense

1) Describing an action before the recent past if there are two actions

I had finished the work by the time my boss had entered.

When Cassandra died, her and Bert had been married for nearly 50 years.

He had drunk a coffee before he got ill.

The earlier action is in the Past Perfect Simple.

Forming the past perfect simple tense

I had swum.I hadn’t swum/ I had not swum.Had I swum?
You had swum.You hadn’t swum/ You had not swum.Had you swum?
He had swum.He hadn’t swum/ He had not swum.Had he swum?
She had swum.She hadn’t swum/ She had not swum.Had she swum?
It had swum.It hadn’t swum/ It had not swum.Had it swum?
We had swum.We hadn’t swum/ We had not swum.Had we swum?
They had swum.They hadn’t swum/ They had not swum.Had they swum?

The past perfect continuous

The past perfect continuous tense shows that an action in the past continues up until another time in the past. The base structure for this is subject + had + been + -ing verb.

The uses of the past perfect continuous tense

1) An action that continues up until a point in the past

They had been playing tennis before it started to rain.

It had been raining, so the clothes were wet.

Forming the past perfect continuous tense

I had been swimming.I hadn’t been swimming/ I had not been swimming.Had I been swimming?
You had been swimming.You hadn’t been swimming/ You had not been swimming.Had you been swimming?
He had been swimming.He hadn’t been swimming/ He had not been swimming. Had he been swimming?
She had been swimming.She hadn’t been swimming/ She had not been swimming.Had she been swimming?
It had been swimming.It hadn’t been swimming/ It had not been swimming.Had it been swimming?
We had been swimming.We hadn’t been swimming/ We had not been swimming.Had we been swimming?
They had been swimming.They hadn’t been swimming/ They had not been swimming. Had they been swimming?

Future tenses in English

The very last section of the 12 tenses is the futures section. As per the table at the start of the article and the other tenses, it is divided into simple, continuous, perfect simple and perfect continuous.

The future simple

The future simple tense or simple future tense is primarily used for actions at a time later than now. The base structure is subject + will + base verb.

Please be aware that you do not add an s to the base verb if using the third person singular. For example, he will sings is incorrect but he will sing is correct.

Singapore is a very futuristic city

The uses of the Future Simple tense

1) For a spontaneous decision

He will close the window if you are cold.

I am hungry. I will make a sandwich.

Side note: please be aware that we do not use the Future Simple tense when talking about plans. We use the Present Continuous for this.

2) For predictions without evidence

I think it will rain tomorrow, even though I have not checked the weather forecast.

Pete got his palm read, and the person doing it said he will be a millionaire.

3) To express a decision made at the moment of speaking

I’ll wash the dishes!

Sandra will call Mike.

4) For promises

Harry promises he will be on his best behaviour.

Kulwinder’s cooking will not disappoint you.

5) When you give orders

You will do your homework!

Alan, you will listen to this!

Forming the future simple tense

I will swim.I won’t swim/ I will not swim.Will I swim?
You will swim.You won’t swim/ You will not swim.Will you swim?
He will swim.He won’t swim/ He will not swim.Will he swim?
She will swim.She won’t swim/ She will not swim.Will she swim?
It will swim.It won’t swim/ It will not swim.Will it swim?
We will swim.We won’t swim/ We will not swim.Will we swim?
They will swim.They won’t swim/ They will not swim.Will they swim?

The future continuous

The future continuous tense (also known as the future progressive tense) is probably the least used of the tenses in English. Why? Because it is fairly surreal.

It is used to project yourself into the future by saying a future action or future event will be in progress at a later time. Of course, no one really knows what the future has in store and this is why it leads to some confusion with even native speakers.

However, we still use it from time to time. The base structure of the tense is subject + will + be + -ing verb.

The uses of the future continuous tense

1) To express actions happening now that will continue in the future

I will still be teaching in thirty years.

In three hours, he will still be working.

Please note, we use this with the word still.

2) To project ourselves to a certain time in the future

In two hours, I’ll be a millionaire.

Rita will be snorkelling in Thailand in two weeks.

3) To politely ask something

Will Rob be joining us for dinner?

Will Maria be attending the wedding?

Forming the future continuous tense

I will be swimming.I won’t be swimming/ I will not be swimming.Will I be swimming?
You will be swimming.You won’t be swimming/ You will not be swimming.Will you be swimming?
He will be swimming.He won’t be swimming/ He will not be swimming.Will he be swimming?
She will be swimming.She won’t be swimming/ She will not be swimming.Will she be swimming?
It will be swimming.It won’t be swimming/ It will not be swimming.Will it be swimming?
We will be swimming.We won’t be swimming/ we will not be swimming.Will we be swimming?

The future perfect simple

This tense, like the future continuous tense, is used for projecting, but you have to imagine you are looking back at yourself. It is commonly used for goals. The base structure is subject + will + have + past participle form.

Uses of the future perfect simple tense

1) Projection into the future

I will have been here for a year on the 4th of June.

Will he have eaten when he arrives?

2) Future goals and ambitions

Kerry thinks she will have been promoted by this time next month.

In five years, I will have climbed the ranks of this company and become CEO.

Forming the future perfect simple tense

I will have swum.I won’t have swum/ I will not have swum.Will I have swum?
You will have swum.You won’t have swum/ You will not have swum.Will you have swum?
He will have swum.He won’t have swum/ He will not have swum.Will he have swum?
She will have swum.She won’t have swum/ She will not have swum.Will she have swum?
It will have swum.It won’t have swum/ It will not have swum.Will it have swum?
We will have swum.We won’t have swum/ We will not have swum.Will we have swum?
They will have swum.They won’t have swum/ They will not have swum.Will they have swum?

The future perfect continuous

This tense too projects us into the future and makes us look back at ourselves. However, the key difference is that it refers to actions that will not yet be completed at a certain time in the future.

The base structure is: subject + will have been + ing form.

The uses of the future perfect continuous tense

1) For things we will still be doing in the future

Next year I will have been working here for five years.

In two weeks’ time, I will have recovered fully from my fall.

Forming the future perfect continuous tense

I will have been swimming.I won’t have been swimming/ I will not have been swimming.Will I have been swimming?
You will have been swimming.You won’t have been swimming/ You will not have been swimming.Will you have been swimming?
He will have been swimming.He won’t have been swimming/ He will not have been swimming.Will he have been swimming?
She will have been swimming.She won’t have been swimming/ She will not have been swimming.Will she have been swimming?
It will have been swimming.It won’t have been swimming/ It will not have been swimming.Will it have been swimming?
We will have been swimming.We won’t have been swimming/ We will not have been swimming.Will we have been swimming?
They will have been swimming.They won’t have been swimming/ They will not have been swimming.Will they have been swimming?

Is that everything?

Absolutely not! Watch the video below on my YouTube channel, English with Lucy.