Learning the Tenses in English: Tips and Tricks

tenses in englishLearning the tenses will help you to be able to communicate more effectively, whether you are looking to write a novel or you are simply looking to improve your correspondence in the workplace, a skill that you can further explore through this Udemy course, which can teach you American English language skills for business success. Think you already know the tenses? Well, believe it or not, there’s more than just past, present, and future.

Understanding the tenses and how they are used in English can be crucial to being a more effective writer and speaker. Before getting to the more complex tenses, it is important to start with the basics. Check out this great Udemy course for the five most useful English tenses, or read on for a brief overview.

Past, Present, and Future

The three tenses that are most easily identified, and that anybody with basic English grammar skills likely already knows, are past, present, and future. These tenses are fairly self-explanatory.

Past tense denotes something that occurred in the past. Present tense denotes something that is currently happening, or that is ongoing. Future tense denotes something that will occur in the future. These examples should give you a pretty clear idea of the differences between the three.

Past: I walked.

Present: I walk.

Future: I will walk.

Perfect Tense

The next level of complexity when it comes to grammar is the perfect tense. The exact usage of perfect tense can be confusing to many people. Determining when it should be used instead of the simple tenses can be ambiguous. However, there are a few rules of thumb to keep in mind to help you determine if the perfect tense is needed.

The perfect tenses are formed through the addition of the qualifier “have” or “has”. Each of the three – past perfect, present perfect, and future perfect – has its own specific usage. Understanding them can be a little bit complex, but it helps to understand that for the most part, the perfect tenses focus on the result of the action rather than on the action itself.

Past perfect tense is generally used to describe an action that took place before another action. Past perfect tense is especially useful for writers, especially those who write fiction and must utilize past perfect tense to describe events that occurred before the present narrative.


Simple Past: She ate breakfast.

Past Perfect: By the time he arrived, she had eaten breakfast.

Present perfect tense describes an action that began at some indefinite time in the past, or to describe an action that began in the past and is ongoing. This is perhaps the most difficult of the three perfect tenses to utilize correctly, as they can be more ambiguous in nature than the other tenses. In fact, many will lump the present perfect tense in with the past perfect tense. In many ways they are the same – it is only the fact that the present perfect implies an ongoing action that makes it different.

Simple Present: We go to high school.

Present Perfect: We have gone to high school for a while.

Future perfect tense, like past perfect tense, helps to specify exactly when an action will take place. In this case, it shows that an action that will take place in the future will occur before another action. Future perfect tense is the easiest to understand of the three perfect tenses. It is easily identified through the “will have” construction used prior to the verb.

Simple Future:  I will finish the project.

Future Perfect: I will have finished the project.

Perfect Progressive Tense

The perfect progressive tense implies a movement through time and an ongoing action. There are many different ways that the perfect progressive tense can be used, but in every instance it implies some sort of continuity. The perfect progressive tense is marked by the addition of “have” or “will have” construction before the verb.

The past perfect progressive tense is used to indicate an ongoing action that was completed before some other event occurred. It always indicates an action that has finished by the time the speaker or writer is making their statement.

Simple Past: The girls baked cookies.

Past Perfect Progressive: Before school, the girls had been baking cookies.

Progressive present tense indicates that an action occurred in the past, is still ongoing, and is likely to continue occurring in the future. It differs from the present perfect tense because of the implication that it is likely to continue to happen.

Simple Present: The man walks.

Present Perfect Progressive: The man has been walking since noon.

Future progressive tense indicates that at some point in the future, an event that began either in the present or an event that will occur in the future shall continue to occur. It is very similar to the future perfect tense in this regard.

Simple Future: They will study math.

Future Perfect Progressive: By the time they enter college, they will have been studying math for years.

Conditional Tenses

In addition to the main tenses, the English language also uses a conditional tense, which indicates that something might occur under circumstances. The conditional tenses indicate a strong ambiguity, and though they may be difficult to master they are important for use in business as well as in the academic world.

The basic form of the conditional tense is conditional simple, which uses a “would” construction.

Conditional Simple: I would go to the store, but…

The conditional progressive tense is used to emphasize the length of time associated with an event that might happen. Using the construction “would be”, conditional progressive tense indicates an ongoing action that may occur if other conditions are met.

Conditional Progressive: They would be moving, but…

The conditional perfect tense indicates that an action may have occurred had certain conditions been met, but that it is too late for that to happen at present.

Conditional Perfect: She would have watched the movie, but…

Likewise, the conditional perfect progressive tense indicates that an ongoing action might have occurred were certain conditions met, but that it is too late for that to happen.

Conditional Perfect Progressive: We would have been at school, but…

If it seems complicated, don’t worry – tense is actually pretty simple to master. All it takes is a basic understanding of the way that time affects language and the words that we choose to describe certain events.

For a basic overview of English grammar, check out this introductory English grammar course on Udemy. Or, if you are a little more advanced when it comes to your English language skills, check out this great intermediate English language course and start mastering the English language in no time.