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The English Compound Tenses Grammar Guide

English compound tenses allow you to discuss very specific moments in time, from the past through the future. They allow you to discuss events that were finished ages ago, or events that will be continuing for years and years.

Whether you’re telling stories, making plans or just chatting about your day, you’ll need English compound tenses to communicate like a native speaker would.

Fortunately, understanding compound tenses isn’t too complicated.

In this post, we’ll walk you through what English compound tenses are, the nine English compound tenses and how to practice them.

Contents

What Are the Compound Tenses in English?

You may already be familiar with the English simple tenses: simple past, simple present and simple future. In the simple past and simple present, you only need to conjugate the action verb. In the simple future, you just need to add “will” before the action verb without changing that verb.

Compound tenses, on the other hand, often involve the addition of an auxiliary verb (“to be” or “to have”) in front of the conjugated action verb. These tenses give more specific information about when the action occurred, started or completed.

You could think of the simple tenses as the starter deck of a card game, and the compound tenses as the new and latest expansion pack.

For example, listen to the third sentence in this video, where a man explains what it is like to fall out of love.

It was the saddest text I have ever gotten in my life.

The first verb ( was ) is in the simple past tense and should look quite familiar to you. It implies that the receipt of the sad text happened at a certain point in the past.

The second verb ( have gotten ) is a compound tense that provides deeper information about this person’s past. Together with “It was the saddest text…,” it’s saying that, at that point in time, it was the saddest text they have ever received, and they have yet to get something sadder than the text.

1. Present Continuous

The present continuous tense is used to denote an event that is currently taking place. If you wish to talk about things as they are happening, you should use this tense.

For example, if someone asks “what are you doing?,” you typically need to answer in the present continuous tense.

To form this tense, here’s the formula:

simple present tense of “to be” conjugated for your subject (I am, he is, you are, etc.) + your action verb with the suffix “-ing”

For instance, let us say we want to describe a singer’s performance as it is happening. Our action verb is “sing,” and our subject is “she.” We could say:

She is singing beautifully.

The verb “to be” is conjugated in the simple present tense for “she,” and we added “-ing” to the verb “sing.” As you’ll see throughout this post, the “-ing” suffix is a good indicator that you are in a continuous tense—meaning the action is  continuous (ongoing, still happening).

In the following examples, keep your eye out for the auxiliary verb and the “-ing” suffix that modifies the original verb:

I am writing a letter to Marta.

Rohan is watering the plants.

They are sleeping in the guest room.

You are not paying attention in class.

We are playing a video game.

2. Present Perfect

This tense is used to describe ongoing actions. The action might be finished or might still be continuing depending on the context.

To form the present perfect, use the following formula:

simple present tense of “to have” conjugated for your subject (I have, she has, they have, etc.) + the past participle form of the action verb

Here’s an example with the action verb “choose.” The past participle of “choose” is “chosen.”

You have chosen the wrong book.

You’ll often hear this tense used with words like “just” to explain precisely when a recent event happened.

I have just eaten my lunch.

You can also use this tense with “since” + [specific point in time] or “for” + [length of time] to explain how long something has been true.

She has felt sick for three days.

They have been friends since 2010.

Here are more examples. Keep an eye out for the auxiliary verbs and past participles.

I have just finished my research paper.

They have lived in this apartment since before I was born.

Trina has visited already.

3. Present Perfect Continuous

This compound tense is used to denote an ongoing (or continuous) action that started a while ago. For example, if you were having a lazy Sunday watching TV all day long, you might use this tense to describe your day.

For this tense, you need to use this formula:

present form of “to have” + “been” + action verb with “-ing”

Here’s how it would work with the verb “to crave” (to want something very badly, particularly food).

I have been craving ice cream all week.

Here are some more examples:

I have been binge watching “Doctor Who” all day.

You have been missing work lately.

We have been working tirelessly on this project.

Laura has been writing the company newsletter for a while.

They have been stealing from the office all this time.

4. Past Continuous

This tense is used to represent an action that was ongoing for a while, but has finished.

The action isn’t happening right now, but it was happening in the past. Think of this as the way you recall a vivid memory. The events have already taken place, but you’re remembering them like a film being played in front of you.

To use this tense, here’s the formula:

simple past tense of “to be” conjugated for your subject (I was, you were, etc.) + your action verb with the suffix “-ing”

For instance, I can say:

I was singing at the concert last night.

This means that although I have finished singing now, there was an extended period last night when I was singing.

Here are some more examples:

Sheila was playing the flute all morning.

They were laughing at his jokes nonstop.

You were eating a pizza when I saw you.

The water was boiling, so I knew it was time to put the pasta in.

5. Past Perfect

The past perfect is used to describe actions that were finished before another event took place.

It is formed as follows:

“had” + past participle of the action verb

If you were telling a story, and you wanted to “set the scene” to explain what happened before the main action of the story, you could say something like:

I had gone to bed when I heard a strange noise at my door.

“Gone” is the past participle of the verb “to go,” while “I heard” is in the simple past tense. You will often see these two tenses—the past perfect and simple past—paired together in this way.

Here are some more examples:

I had tried the violin but quickly stopped practicing.

Rhea had dozed off when the bell woke her up.

They had eaten their dinner before the stranger arrived.

We had completed the picture in the morning so we went to the park in the evening to relax.

6. Past Perfect Continuous

This tense is similar to the past perfect, but the word “continuous” should give you a clue as to how it is different.

Use this tense to describe ongoing actions that have already been completed at some point in the past. For example, if you want to talk about a bad habit that you no longer have, you might use this tense.

Here’s how we put together this tense:

“had” + “been” + the action verb with the “-ing” suffix

Let’s use the bad habit example. Our action verb is “to smoke.”

I had been smoking so many cigarettes my doctor told me I had no choice but to quit.

The next few examples should make this even clearer:

You had been skipping class for over a week before the school called your parents.

They had been drinking on the sly until Max caught them.

Vina had been making a toy cart when her brother returned home.

We had been working overtime for over a month until the manager promised us a pay rise.

7. Future Continuous

This tense is used to denote an ongoing action that will only be completed much later. In other words, the action has not even happened yet, but we are expecting it to happen.

If you wish to talk about your life plans or projects you have coming up, you would likely use the future continuous tense.

To write in this tense, just follow this formula:

“will be” + the action verb with the “-ing” suffix

Here is an example with the verb “to sing.”

I will be singing at the concert tomorrow evening.

In the above, I am talking about a continuous action that I expect to take place in the future.

Here are some more examples to understand how the future continuous looks:

He will be studying math when he starts college.

They will be headlining a major music festival next month.

We should leave now. The roads will be getting icy soon.

8. Future Perfect

We use this tense to talk about an action that has not yet taken place as though it had already been completed. In other words, we are looking forward to when a particular action or event will be finished.

For example, you might use this tense when making a promise to someone or when setting a deadline on a project.

To form this tense:

 “will” + “have” + past participle form of the action verb

Here is an example that you might remember from your school days:

Mom, I will have finished my homework before I go to the movies!

Again, there are two events happening in the sentence (finishing homework and going to the movies), and the future perfect is the one that will be completed first.

Here are some more examples:

Let’s meet at noon. I will have submitted my report by then.

He will have eaten his pizza before the rest of the group shows up.

We will have built this house by the time our children are in school.

9. Future Perfect Continuous

Finally, we use this tense to talk about a continuous event that has already started and is expected to last until a certain point in the future. In other words, the action will be continuing until or before another event takes place.

For this tense, we use this formula:

“will have” + “been” + the action verb with the suffix “-ing”

For instance, I could say:

By 9:00, I will have been waiting here for two hours.

This means that the action of “waiting” is taking place both in the present and in the future, until 9:00.

These examples will give you an idea about the context in which the future perfect continuous is usually used:

By next spring, you will have been living in this town for five years.

We will have been working here for nine months in December.

By the end of this year, they will have been playing as a rock band for over a decade.

How to Practice the English Compound Tenses

As you get familiar with the above named English compound tenses, there are online exercises and worksheets where you can practice to make sure you understand them.

Try this tenses exercise from EnglishGrammar, where you have to read a sentence with missing verbs and choose the correct simple or compound tense for the verbs. You could also try this series of verb tense worksheets from Agenda Web.

The best way to improve your English compound tenses is to speak and write on a variety of topics using all of the different tenses. Try keeping a diary where you can talk about yourself, the things you do or the events of the day. You can also record yourself discussing what happened this week and what your plans are for the future. Don’t just stick to the simple tenses; instead, try to use each of the compound tenses as much as possible.

If you’re reading a book or an article, try to spot the compound tenses being used for different contexts. Create a study plan, make a list of participles and auxiliary verbs and mix them up.

 

Above all, don’t be afraid of making mistakes and trust in yourself. With the help of this guide, the English compound tenses will eventually become second nature to you!

And One More Thing...

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