English Verb Tenses: Everything You Need to Know to Master the Topic
Did you see the new movie everyone is talking about?
You know the one. Have you seen it?
Had you seen it before it was available on Netflix?
But you are going to see it, right?
People who ask too many questions can be annoying, can’t they?
English verb tenses can be annoying, too.
There are so many different ways to say that you did something, are doing something or are going to do something.
And they all have slightly different meanings.
But luckily, unlike some other parts of the English language, tenses are actually organized in a way that makes sense.
In this post, we’re going to look at all the English tenses, so you can see how they work together.
Super Helpful Tools for Learning the English Verb Tenses
The hardest part of learning English tenses might be memorizing the different forms of every verb, especially when it comes to irregular verbs.
Here are a couple of resources that can help you practice and remember all those forms.
- The WordReference English Conjugator. This tool will show you what pretty much any English verb looks like in any tense. Just type the verb you’re looking for into the box at the top of the page.
- englisch-hilfen.de Grammar Exercises. If you scroll down on this page, you’ll find all kinds of exercises to help you practice different English tenses. If you like, you can do the exercises in order, but you don’t have to. You may just want to look for exercises that cover tenses you find difficult.
The resources above will help you learn both the conjugations (the different changes verbs go through) and usage for English verbs. Below, we’ll look at how and when to use each tense.
Fearlessly Conquer English Verb Tenses with This Comprehensive Guide
The Present Tenses
You use the present tenses to describe what things are like right now.
Simple Present: “I speak English”
The simple present is usually formed with the unchanged verb as it is (“I speak,” “You speak,” etc.), but with an -s or -es added to the end for the third person singular (“She speaks”).
The simple present is used to express something that you generally believe to be true or to describe an action that is ongoing.
It can be used to talk about habits, jobs, hobbies or abilities.
If I say, “I speak English,” I’m not saying that I’m speaking English right now (even if I am). What I’m saying is that I have the ability to speak English, or that speaking English is something that I do at least some of the time.
In the same way, if I say, “I write for FluentU,” I don’t mean that I’m writing a post for FluentU right now (even if I’m also doing that).
I mean that writing for FluentU is something that I do regularly, or from time to time.
I might say, “I write for FluentU” at a time when I’m not writing at all.
Let’s look at some other examples:
“I drink coffee.” (Meaning: Drinking coffee is something that I do sometimes. I’m not necessarily doing it right now, but I will probably do it again soon.)
“You run.” (Meaning: You run regularly, probably for exercise and maybe every day.)
“I smoke.” (Meaning: I smoke often enough to say that smoking is something I generally do.)
“He loves you.” (Meaning: He feels love for you all the time, or at least whenever he thinks about it, and he doesn’t expect this to change anytime soon.)
Sometimes, the simple present is used to say that something happens at a particular time, or in a particular situation:
“I drink beer when I go out with my friends.”
“She runs in the summer.”
“You shower in the morning.”
“I love the way the sky looks after it rains.”
In a trailer for the Netflix romantic comedy “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” Lara Jean, the main character, says, “I write a letter when I have a crush so intense that I don’t know what else to do.”
People who use the simple present to say they do certain things may not always do them. But, they do them often enough to feel like these are things they generally do.
Present Continuous: “I am speaking English”
The present continuous is a compound verb that takes the simple present tense of the verb “to be” and follows it with the main verb with “-ing” added to the end.
The present continuous tells you about ongoing actions happening right now.
“I am drinking beer.” (Meaning: I’m drinking beer at this moment or over a period of time. Maybe this is the first time that I have ever drunk beer, or maybe I drink beer every night. The important thing is that I’m drinking it right now or drinking it over a present period of time, like tonight.)
People who are hosting a party or serving at a restaurant may ask, “What are you drinking?” so that they can refill someone’s drink or offer them another one. If someone asks me, “What are you drinking?” and I say, “I am drinking soda,” they’ll probably think I mean that I have soda in my glass right now and that I’m happy to continue drinking soda for a while.
The present continuous is also sometimes used to talk about something that will happen soon, in the near future.
For example, if someone says, “We are eating pizza tonight,” but they say this when it’s still daytime and there’s no pizza around, they probably mean that they’re planning on having pizza that evening.
The present continuous and simple present can be used together to show an action that happens in a certain situation:
“I drink (simple present) soda when I am eating (present continuous) pizza.”
In this sentence, “eating pizza” is an ongoing event, and me drinking soda is an action that happens at a specific time (or specific times) during this event.
Present Perfect: “I have spoken English”
The present perfect is formed with the simple present of the verb “to have” followed by the past participle of the main verb.
The present perfect is used to talk about past actions that might still be ongoing or might be over.
It might seem confusing that a present tense is used to talk about something that has already happened or been happening. But, it makes more sense if you think about how past experiences make the present the way it is.
For example, if you’re starting a new job and your boss asks you if you have used Google Docs before, what they probably really want to know is if you can use Google Docs now.
In the movie “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” Lara Jean has written secret letters to boys that she had feelings for in the past. In the title, the phrase “I’ve loved,” which is short for “I have loved,” is in the present perfect.
To continue with one of our examples from before:
“I have drunk beer.” (Meaning: I have drunk beer before, at some point in the past. Maybe I have drunk beer one time, or maybe I have drunk it many times, but drinking beer is definitely something that I have done before.)
You can also use the present perfect to describe past actions that have continued up to the present. For example:
“I have lived here for five years.” (Meaning: I’ve lived in this place for five years, and I still live here.)
Present Perfect Continuous: “I have been speaking English”
The present perfect continuous is formed with the simple present of “to have,” followed by “been,” followed by the main verb with “-ing” added.
The present perfect continuous is used to describe an ongoing action that started in the past.
“I have been eating pizza.” (Meaning: Maybe I was eating pizza before you called me and I put down my pizza to pick up the phone. Or, maybe I’ve been eating pizza from time to time in recent weeks. Maybe you thought I was on a low-carb diet and asked, “Hey, have you been eating pizza?” I might have responded, “Yes, I have been eating pizza, and why shouldn’t I? I finished that low-carb diet a long time ago.”)
Parents might use the present perfect continuous to question their children’s behavior.
For example, if a kid has cake smeared all over their face, their parents might say, “Hey, have you been eating the cake we were saving for your birthday?!”
The Past Tenses
The last two tenses in the present tense section that we talked about already had to do with the past a little bit. But, the past tenses have more to do with actions that are only in the past and that don’t necessarily have any connection to the present.
Simple Past: “I spoke English”
The simple past is most commonly formed by adding “-ed” to the verb. As you can see though, our example, “spoke,” isn’t formed this way. The verb “to speak,” like many other common English verbs, follows some irregular patterns.
The simple past is used to talk about something that happened at a specific point in the past.
Here are some examples:
“I spoke English when I was traveling in the U.K.”
“My kid ate a whole birthday cake last night.”
“I showered at around 7 p.m. Then, I brushed my teeth.”
Past Continuous: “I was speaking English”
The past continuous is formed with the simple past of the verb “to be” followed by the main verb with “-ing” added.
The past continuous is used to talk about something that was happening over a period of time in the past.
In the trailer for “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” Lara Jean tells us what things were like for her for a while.
She says, “I was (simple past) used to being invisible. No one was paying attention (past continuous) to what I was doing (past continuous).”
The past continuous is often used with the past simple to describe one ongoing action and one action that happened at a more specific time. For example:
“I was speaking (past continuous) English to my tutor when, suddenly, our Skype connection froze (simple past).”
You’ll see this type of sentence a lot in narration (storytelling), such as in English-language novels.
Past Perfect: “I had spoken English”
The past perfect is formed with the simple past of the verb “to have” followed by the past participle of the main verb.
The past perfect describes something that had already happened at some point in the past:
“My boss asked me if I had used Google Docs before. Luckily, I had.”
In the above sentence, “My boss asked me” is in the simple past. The simple past can help us see at what time a past perfect action took place.
Here is another example:
“I had eaten (past perfect) the whole cake by the time my parents (simple past) came home.”
Past Perfect Continuous: “I had been speaking English”
The past perfect continuous is formed with the simple past of the verb “to have,” followed by “been,” followed by the main verb with “-ing” added.
The past perfect continuous describes something you were doing in the past over a certain period of time.
Like with the past perfect, it’s often used to describe an ongoing action in relation to another event:
“I had been using (past perfect continuous) Google Docs for a long time before I applied (simple past) for that job.”
The Future Tenses
The future tenses are used to talk about something that (you think) will happen or something that will be true at some point in the future.
Simple Future: “I will speak English”
The simple future is formed with “will” followed by the main verb.
Now, the above sentence could mean that I will be able to speak English at some future time:
“By the time I visit Ireland next year, I will speak English.”
Or, it might mean that I plan on speaking English in a specific situation:
“My mother-in-law doesn’t speak Spanish very well, so when she comes to visit, I will speak English to her.”
You can also use the phrase “going to” in a similar way.
“My mother-in-law doesn’t speak Spanish very well, so when she comes to visit, I am going to speak English to her.”
There isn’t any real difference between this sentence and the example above it. However, “going to” usually expresses intent (what you plan to do) more than ability or habit, like in our Ireland example.
If you said, “When I visit Ireland next year, I am going to speak English,” this wouldn’t sound like you were saying that you would be able to speak English. It would seem more like you had decided to speak English.
With all of the above examples, note that the simple future is being used with the simple present. In the phrase “When I visit Ireland next year,” we’re actually using the present to talk about the future. In this type of sentence, you wouldn’t use the future tense twice, as in, “When I
will visit Ireland next year, I will speak English.” By using the word “when” and the present tense, you’re automatically understood to be talking about the future.
Future Continuous: “I will be speaking English”
The future continuous is formed with “will be” followed by the main verb with “-ing” added.
The future continuous is used to talk about something that will be happening over a future period. It is often used to let people know about an event:
“We will be having pizza in the park from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. Feel free to join us.”
“On the night that you come back from Ireland, we will be going out to celebrate.”
“By the time you get back from Ireland, you will be speaking English naturally, without even thinking about it.”
Here again, note that we’re using the present (“you come back,” “you get back”) to talk about the future.
Future Perfect: “I will have spoken English”
The future perfect is formed with “will have” followed by the past participle.
The future perfect is used to describe some action that will have happened at a certain point in the future:
“By the time I come back from Ireland, I will have spoken English with native speakers.”
“Think about it. By this time next year, you will have advanced so far in your studies with FluentU!”
“By this time next month, you will have finished school and graduated.”
Future Perfect Continuous: “I will have been speaking English”
The future perfect continuous is formed with “will have been” followed by the main verb with “-ing.”
The future perfect continuous is used to describe something that you will have been doing over a period of time at some point in the future:
“By this time next year, we will have been dating for eighteen months.”
But, maybe that seems like kind of a random, weird thing to say to someone in a relationship. It might be more romantic to say:
“In twenty years, we will have been living together for longer than we have been living apart.”
The Emphatic Tenses
The emphatic tenses use the verb “to do” to emphasize (stress) a statement or make a correction.
They can also be used in questions.
Present Emphatic: “I do speak English”
The present emphatic tense is formed with the simple present of the verb “to do” followed by the main verb in the simple present. This form is already normally used in the negative (e.g., “I don’t speak English”).
If someone assumed that you didn’t speak English and you wanted to correct them, you might say, “I do speak English.”
On the other hand, if someone mistakenly thought that you spoke Russian, you might respond, “No, I don’t speak Russian.”
The present emphatic can be used to ask a question. When a question is asked, the subject (the person or thing acting) and the verb “to do” are often inverted (switched). You can use the emphatic to ask a question in the negative.
“Don’t you speak English?”
“Yes, I do speak English.”
“Do you speak Russian?”
“No, I don’t speak Russian.”
Note that in English we often use negative questions in a specific way. “Don’t you speak English?” seems to ask, “I thought you spoke English. Is that true?” “Do you speak Russian?” is a more open question, where the person asking probably has no idea whether or not you speak Russian.
Past Emphatic: “I did speak English”
To form the past emphatic, you take the simple past of the verb “to do” and put it in front of the simple present:
“Didn’t you speak (past emphatic) English when you were in Ireland?”
“Yes, I did speak (past emphatic) English. I spoke (simple past) it the whole time I was there.”
Feeling a little better about English tenses?
If this still doesn’t make sense, don’t worry.
The important part is practice. At some point, you won’t even think about English tenses anymore. You will just be using them (future continuous) naturally.