The English Compound Tenses Grammar Guide That Won’t Give You a Headache
Want to travel through time?
You do not need a flux capacitor.
You just need English compound tenses.
These 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 are telling stories, making plans or just chatting about your day, you will need English compound tenses to communicate like a native speaker would.
Fortunately, understanding compound tenses is not nearly as complicated as building a time machine. And learning them will help you speak and write like an advanced English learner.
We will walk you through nine English compound tenses and show you when and how to use each one correctly.
But First: What Are Simple Tenses in English?
Events can occur either in the past, in the future or right now, in the present. A verb’s tense will help us figure out at what time the action of the verb took place or will take place.
You may already be familiar with the English simple tenses. These are often the first ones that English language learners encounter.
The simple present tense generally describes an action that is happening right now. There is no auxiliary or “helping” verb—just the “action” verb.
The simple past tense describes a completed action that happened in the past. Again, there is no auxiliary verb.
The simple future tense describes an action in—you guessed it—the future. This time, you need the auxiliary verb “will” along with your action verb in the infinitive (base) form.
I will sing.
She will sing.
Now we are ready to see what makes English compound tenses different.
What Are Compound Tenses in English?
Compound tenses are basically modifications to the simple tenses that give more specific information about when the action occurred, started or completed. Think of the simple tenses as a starter deck of a card game, and the compound tenses as the new and latest expansion pack.
As you will see below, a compound tense also always requires the auxiliary verb “to have” or “to be” in addition to the action verb.
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. The second (have gotten) is a compound tense that provides deeper information about this person’s past.
English Compound Tenses Explained the Easy Way! 9 Simple Explanations with Sample Sentences
As you get familiar with these English compound tenses, there are online exercises and worksheets where you can practice to make sure you are understanding them.
Try this tenses exercise from EnglishGrammar, where you will have to read a sentence with missing verbs and choose the correct simple or compound tense for the verbs. Or try this series of verb tense worksheets from Agenda Web.
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 will typically need to answer in the present continuous tense.
To form this tense, you need the auxiliary verb “to be,” conjugated for your subject in the simple present tense (I am, he is, you are, etc.). Then, add the suffix “-ing” to your action verb.
For instance, let us say we wanted 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 will 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 context, as you will see below.
To form this tense, you need to use the verb “to have” conjugated for your subject in the simple present tense (I have, she has, they have, etc.). Then you need the past participle form of the action verb. Cabrillo College has a helpful list of past participles for common verbs here.
Here is an example with the action verb “choose.” The past participle of “choose” is “chosen.”
You have chosen the wrong book.
You will 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.
Tridib 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 the auxiliary verb “to have,” followed by “been” and then add “-ing” to the action verb.
Here is 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.
We discovered that they have been stealing from the office.
4. Past Continuous
This tense is used to represent an action that was ongoing for a while, but has finished.
The action is not 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 are remembering them like a film that is being played in front of you.
To use this tense, you need the auxiliary verb “to be” and you add the “-ing” suffix to the action verb.
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.
Similar to the present perfect, we use the past participle of our action verb but place “had” before it.
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.” Of course, “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.
Roya 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 wanted to talk about a bad habit that you no longer have, you might use this tense.
To form this tense, we first use “had,” then “been” and finally add the “-ing” suffix to the action verb. Not that difficult, huh?
We will 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 more clear:
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.
Vin 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. 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, we usually begin with “will be” and then add the “-ing” suffix to the action verb.
Here is an example with the verb “to sing.”
I will be singing at the concert tomorrow evening.
I am talking about a continuous action that has not taken place in the present moment.
Here are some more simple 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 taken place yet 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, use “will” followed by “have” and then add the 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, if you notice, 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 again use “will have” followed by “been” and add “-ing” to the action verb.
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.
The best way to improve your English compound tenses is to speak and write on a variety of topics using all 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. Do not just stick to the simple tenses, but try to use each of the compound tenses as the circumstances seem fit.
Or if you are 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, do not be afraid of making mistakes and trust in yourself. With the help of this guide, the English compound tenses will eventually be second nature to you!