Mastering the Tenses in English: Tips and Tricks
Improving your grammar can put you on the road to success. Many people, from novelists to business people to students, rely on grammar to express their thoughts. But mastering English grammar can be challenging. Fortunately, there are a variety of resources available on the internet that can help you on your journey to having better grammar. Whether you are interested in learning more about tenses and syntactic structures, or just need a refresher on basic grammar terms, a simple search can give you more information and clarity and help you on your way to better grammar!
A good place to start is by exploring the tenses in English. You might be surprised to learn that in addition to past, present, and future tense, English also uses over a dozen verb tenses. Understanding these tenses helps you become a more effective writer and speaker.
Before reviewing complex tenses, let’s start with the basics.
Last Updated June 2020
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Past, Present, and Future
You might have already learned about the past, present, and future tenses. These tenses are self-explanatory.
We use the past tense to describe something that already happened. The present tense describes something that’s currently happening or an ongoing event. The future tense describes something that will happen in the future.
Consider the following examples:
Past: I walked.
Present: I walk.
Future: I will walk.
With regular verbs, you can change from present to past tense by adding the suffix “-ed.” Regular verbs are easy to conjugate. The example above is a regular verb: the past tense of “walk” is “walked.”
But this rule doesn’t hold true for all English verbs. Irregular verbs play by different rules.
Consider these examples:
Past: I sang.
Present: I sing.
Future: I will sing.
Past: I fought.
Present: I fight.
Future: I will fight.
As you can see, “sing” and “fight” are irregular verbs. If we want to change from present to past tense, we don’t add “-ed.” Instead, we alter the verb differently.
Conjugating an irregular verb can be tricky since you have to memorize the verb’s unique rules. But keep in mind that many irregular verbs follow a similar pattern. Once you identify the pattern, your job becomes much simpler.
Take a look at these examples:
Past: I rang the doorbell.
Present: I ring the doorbell.
Future: I will ring the doorbell.
We conjugate the word “ring” using the same pattern we used for “sing.” Many irregular verbs are conjugated according to the same rules. English learners and students must learn to categorize verbs. Through categorization, we determine which rules to use.
This process may sound intimidating, but it’s easier than you might think. If you asked native English speakers to categorize an irregular verb, they might struggle to answer. But they have a subconscious understanding of the language rules.
English learners can master the language in the same way. Practice helps recognize the natural flow of the English language. As you learn how to speak English fluently, you develop the skills you need to handle new verb tenses.
Ready to move on from the three basic tenses? Let’s look at something you might not have studied before: the perfect tense.
Determining when to use the perfect tense can seem challenging. But learning a few simple rules can clear up confusion and fix common grammar mistakes. When we use the perfect tenses, we always add the word “have” or “has.”
Let’s start by reviewing the three forms: perfect, present perfect, and future perfect.
Simple Past: Sally ate breakfast.
Past Perfect: By the time Mark arrived, Sally had eaten breakfast.
When we use the past perfect, we include the word “had.” We also conjugated the verb into a new form. “Ate” becomes “had eaten.”
Not sure when to use the simple past and when to use the past perfect? Think about the meaning you want to express. The perfect tenses focus on the result of the action. The simple past focuses on the action itself.
In the example above, we use the past perfect to emphasize that Sally finished her breakfast. We place our focus on Mark’s arrival and the following actions. We don’t focus on the meal itself.
Fiction writers generally use past perfect tense to describe cause and effect. They might also use the tense to discuss a sequence of events. In the example above, Sally finished breakfast before her friend’s arrival. Now readers are eager to find out what happened next.
Ready to move on? Let’s take a look at the present perfect. This tense describes an action that began sometime in the past. It can also describe an ongoing event.
When using present perfect, the meaning of the sentence can be unclear. Students are sometimes unsure whether to use past perfect and simple present tense. Here’s a tip: with present perfect, the writer implies that the event has happened before. The writer also suggests that the event is still happening.
Take a look at this example:
Simple Present: We go to high school.
Present Perfect: We have gone to high school for a while.
In the example above, we learn two important details. First, the speaker currently attends high school. Second, they have already attended high school for some time.
Let’s look at another example:
Simple Present: Annie lives here.
Present Perfect: Annie has lived here for years.
The present perfect lets us provide much more information about Annie’s situation. When using the simple present, it can be tough to add detail. The present perfect lets us offer further information to readers. We can explain how long Annie has lived in her current home.
Writers can often use the present tense to describe current events. But sometimes, you might find it helpful to add the present perfect tense into your writing. The present perfect can clarify your meaning or add depth.
Now let’s look at the future perfect tense. Like the past perfect, this tense specifies when the action will take place. Writers often use this tense to discuss a sequence of events. The past perfect helps us discuss timing and the order of actions.
The future perfect tense is easy to identify. With the future perfect, we always use “will have” before the verb.
Take a look at these examples:
Simple Future: I will finish the project.
Future Perfect: I will have finished the project.
Simple Future: Ben will travel to Canada.
Future Perfect: Ben will have traveled to Canada.
The future perfect tense doesn’t put focus on the future event. Instead, it focuses on what will happen afterward. In the example above, we aren’t focused on Ben’s trip to Canada. Instead, we focused on the events surrounding that trip. In particular, we imply that something will happen after the trip is over.
The perfect tenses can help clarify meaning. It also directs the reader’s attention to certain events. We can avoid misunderstandings and improve our written communications. Businesspeople often use the future present tense in emails and messages.
Now let’s take a look at the perfect progressive tense. This tense implies a movement through time. It also suggests that a certain action is ongoing.
Let’s take a look at a few examples. Note that this verb tense uses “have” or “will have” before the verb.
Simple Past: The girls baked cookies.
Past Perfect Progressive: Before school, the girls had been baking cookies.
Simple Past: Sandra practiced her violin.
Past Perfect Progressive: On Saturday, Sandra had been practicing her violin.
Notice a pattern? In the examples above, we clarify the sequence of events. We also use the verb tense to suggest that these actions began or ended at a specific time. Writers can use the perfect progressive tense in many ways. But in each case, the tense suggests continuity. It also implies that the action has finished.
The past perfect progressive tense lets us provide readers with extra detail. We can explain when certain events took place. This tense is helpful in academic and business writing. Writers can explain when an important event stopped or started.
Let’s move on to the progressive past tense. This tense expresses that an action occurred in the past. We use this tense to imply that the event is ongoing.
Consider these examples:
Simple Present: The man walks.
Present Perfect Progressive: The man has been walking since noon.
Simple Present: Jordan plays basketball.
Present Perfect Progressive: Jordan has been playing basketball since he was in kindergarten.
This tense tells readers that the event is likely to continue occurring: The man has been walking for hours, and he continues to walk. Jordan has played basketball since he was a young child, and he will continue to play.
The present perfect progress also adds meaning to written communications. You can use this tense to let colleagues or classmates know about ongoing events.
Let’s explore the future progressive tense. This tense discusses actions that had begun in the present or will begin in the future. The future progressive tense implies that these actions will continue.
Take a look at these examples:
Simple Future: They will study math.
Future Perfect Progressive: By the time they enter college, they will have been studying math for four years.
Simple Future: Melissa will start training for a marathon in April.
Future Perfect Progressive: By May, Melissa will have been training for a month.
Does this tense look familiar? You may notice similarities between the future perfect progressive and the future perfect tense. But there are a few key differences to keep in mind.
The future perfect progressive suggests that the action will continue. In the example above, we imply that Melissa’s training isn’t finished. She will keep training once May arrives. We also imply that her training will continue between April and May.
But the future perfect comes with a deadline. Take a look at these examples:
Future Perfect: By 7:00 p.m., I will have cooked the meal.
Future Perfect Progressive: By 7:00 p.m., I will have been cooking for an hour.
In the first example, we imply that the speaker has prepared the meal by 7:00 p.m. We don’t know how long the meal took to prepare or whether the speaker stopped to do something else. In the second example, we imply that the speaker was cooking for one hour. We don’t know when they finished cooking, but we know how long the action has taken so far.
Like the other perfect progressive tenses, this tense helps clarify your meaning. It can remove any confusion about sequences of events. Business writing often uses the perfect progressive tenses to explain when certain events will occur.
The English language also uses conditional tenses. These tenses express that something might occur under certain circumstances. At first, the conditional tenses might seem confusing or vague. But students can easily master this tense with a little practice.
Conditional tenses are important in both academic and business communications. Your colleagues and professors may use this tense to negotiate an agreement. Mastering this tense helps you bargain with clients. It also lets you divide tasks between coworkers or classmates.
Let’s start with the conditional simple tense. This tense always uses the word “would.”
Conditional Simple: I would go to the store, but I have a dentist appointment.
Conditional Simple: I would attend the training if I had transportation.
English speakers and writers often use this tense to explain why they can’t do something. They’re willing to do something, but they expect difficulties.
Now let’s move on to the conditional progressive tense. This tense explores how long a possible event might take. Conditional progressive always uses the words “would be.”
Conditional Progressive: They would be moving, but they couldn’t sell their house.
Conditional Progressive: He would be recruiting new clients, but the company is understaffed.
This tense suggests that an ongoing action might occur if other conditions are met. In the first example, we imply that the family will move if they can sell their house. In the second example, we suggest that the man will recruit more clients if he can hire new employees.
Like the conditional perfect tense, this tense appears in many business communications. Writers may use this tense to explain a problem or missed deadline.
Let’s take a look at the conditional perfect tense. This tense implies that an action may have occurred if the right conditions were met. The tense also implies that it’s now too late to take that action.
Conditional Perfect: She would have responded to the email, but her child was sick.
The conditional perfect progressive tense is very similar to the conditional perfect. But there’s one key difference: this tense uses the word “been” and an “-ing” verb.
Conditional Perfect Progressive: We would have been playing tennis if it hadn’t rained.
Are you feeling confused? Don’t worry! With practice, the correct use of tense is pretty simple to master. Keep in mind that some mistakes are natural; native English speakers sometimes get confused about grammar conventions like spelling and verb tenses, too. Udemy can help you, and anyone needing a refresher, to brush up on your English skills and become an expert in grammar.
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