Tenses for Beginners: The Easy Guide to Learning English Grammar Tenses
Saying “I eat fish” isn’t the same as saying “I am eating fish.”
But what’s the difference?
To understand why the two statements are different, you need to understand English tenses.
Start by breaking the information down into easier-to-understand chunks.
Let’s begin with the basic English tenses.
- What Are the English Tenses?
- The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Learning English Grammar Tenses
- Practice Makes Perfect! 6 Resources to Review English Tenses
What Are the English Tenses?
There are only three basic tenses in the English language: the past, the present and the future.
- The past tense is used for anything that happened before this moment in time.
- The present tense is used for anything that happens right now or for general statements.
- The future tense is used for anything that will happen at some point later than right now.
(There is also a perfect tense, but this article will stick to the three basic tenses described above.)
These tenses have a few variations that make them more specific and talk about the exact time during which actions happen.
All three tenses have two main types of variations: simple and continuous.
- The continuous tenses in English are used for actions that happen repeatedly over a period of time.
- The simple tenses are used for… everything else!
With this easy guide below, you’ll be able to identify exactly when to use these tenses in English.
The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Learning English Grammar Tenses
Look back at the very first example used in this blog: “I eat fish.” This sentence uses the simple present tense.
The simple present tense is mostly used for three things:
1. To describe things that are permanent or unchanging.
2. To describe how often something happens.
3. To talk about scheduled events.
To use the tense, add an -s to the end of the verb when “he” or “she” is doing the action (he speaks, she eats).
Use the unchanged verb when anyone else is doing it (we speak, I eat).
You would use this tense if you wanted to tell someone about yourself or your hobbies, share something you believe to be true, or ask about when you can catch the next bus at the stop.
Here are some examples:
If your hobby is the violin, you can say “I play the violin.” Since it’s just a hobby though, you can add: “I am not a professional violinist.”
You might be worried about your friend if you notice he’s biting his nails because “he bites his nails when he’s nervous.”
You’ll need to get ready quickly if you want to make it to your friend’s party, because she just told you that “the party starts in an hour.”
Maybe you should remind your friend to bring a gift since “he never remembers birthdays.”
The simple past is used in a very similar way to the simple present.
Simple past regular verbs use -ed (I walked, he smiled). There are many irregular verbs that don’t use the -ed form, which you will need to learn (I spoke, he ate).
This tense talks about something that has already happened or is no longer true.
Use the simple past if you want to describe an action that already happened.
This description of a trip uses the simple past tense: “Last year I visited New York. I lived in a hotel for a month. I rode the train, took many pictures and walked all around Central Park.”
You can also use this tense for many of the same reasons as the simple present. It can be used to describe a hobby or habit you had in the past, or something you used to believe was true.
In fact, the words “used to” are often used for this tense. You can say it either way: “I used to play the violin when I was young” has the same meaning as “I played the violin when I was young.”
The word continuous means something that’s ongoing, happening right now.
The continuous tense uses the -ing ending of a verb (eating, speaking) in both the present and the past.
But wait, if the continuous tense is happening “right now,” how can you have a past continuous tense? Read on to find out!
You can use the present continuous to talk about something ongoing that’s happening now or soon.
Right now, you are reading this article. Maybe you’re drinking some coffee or taking a break from work. Later today you might be meeting some friends for dinner.
By adding the words “always” or “constantly” you can express the frequency of the action. For example: “My mother-in-law is always complaining,” or “that child is constantly crying.” These are not good things, but they do use the right tense!
The past continuous tense is used to describe a continuous action that got interrupted. If you got a phone call late at night, you could say “I was sleeping last night when I got the call.”
You can also use this tense to say what you were doing at a specific time in the past. For example: “I was already writing at 6 in the morning,” or “yesterday in the evening I was eating dinner.”
Looking to the Future
The future is anything that hasn’t happened yet. It can be a few seconds from now or a few years from now.
Speaking about the future is pretty simple: just add the words “will” or “is going to” before an unchanged verb.
How do you know when to use “will” and when to use “is going to”?
Don’t worry about it too much—you can usually use either one! You can say “I will call you later,” or “I am going to call you later.” They are both correct.
The slight difference is in the meaning: “going to” is used more often for things that are planned. So in the above example, the first sentence is more offhand (without giving it too much thought), but the second sentence sounds like you will make sure to call later.
The difference is subtle (not too big) and you can get away with using either one. Just remember that “will” is used more often for promises and things you do by choice, and “going to” is used for making plans.
Both can be used for predictions too, or things you think will happen. You can say “the world will end in ten years,” and you can also say “the world is going to end in ten years.” Either way is correct—but hopefully the prediction is wrong!
This last way to talk about the future has the same uses as the past continuous.
You use the future continuous to talk about things that might be interrupted in the future, or to say what will be happening at a specific time in the future.
Just add the -ing form of a verb after the words “will be” or “am going to be.”
If you know your friend is coming to visit you tomorrow, for example, you could tell her to come before 7 because “we will be eating dinner at 7.” You can also tell her: “I will be waiting for you at the train station.”
A Quick Summary of English Tenses
Here is everything this post has covered, summarized in a quick list:
- Simple present
- Something that is unchanging, general, scheduled or happening at certain intervals.
- Uses: “verb” / “verb-s.”
- Present continuous
- Something that is happening now or in the near future.
- Uses: “Is + verb-ing.”
- Simple past
- Something that happened before now.
- Uses: “Verb-ed.”
- Past continuous
- Something that got interrupted by an event or a time.
- Uses: “Was + verb-ing.”
- Simple future
- Something that will happen later than now.
- Uses: “Will + verb,” “Is going to + verb.”
- Future continuous
- Something that will be interrupted by an event or a time.
- Uses: “Will be + verb-ing ,” “Is going to be + verb-ing.”
Practice Makes Perfect! 6 Resources to Review English Tenses
Now that you know the different tenses in the English language, it’s time to practice them so you can start using them in your conversations!
The resources below are great options. No matter your level of English or preferred style of learning, there’s a tool for you.
The British Council English learning website is full of free resources to help you refresh your understanding of grammar and English tenses, along with short exercises for each section.
Most of us have that one particular English tense that’s a bit slippery. In the Grammar section, you can find easy-to-understand explanations of grammar rules according to your level. Browse the righthand sidebar for a handy glossary of grammar topics you can access. Try “Predicting the Future,” for example.
To feel more comfortable using them in your own conversations, take some time to listen to how these tenses are used by native English speakers.
A great way to learn the tenses is to immerse yourself in the language and see how they are used by native speakers.
FluentU is a language learning program that teaches using authentic English videos made by and for native speakers. Each video features interactive subtitles, so as you watch, you can hover over a word to see its definition, grammar details, pronunciation and example sentences. This feature enables you to see and understand how the English tenses are used in context by native speakers.
You can also use the flashcards and quizzes to review the vocabulary and concepts you learn. The quizzes also include “speaking questions” so that you can practice your pronunciation.
FluentU is also available on iOS and Android, so you can learn wherever you are!
Verb Tenses and Passives Course from UC Irvine
This course from the well-known University of California-Irvine will give you a more structured learning experience and the opportunity to interact and discuss with people from other parts of the world.
It covers 12 English verb tenses and how to mix them together the way native speakers often do.
If you feel that a routine or schedule helps you to focus, online Coursera classes like this one are a great option. They push you to follow through and do a bit of homework, all from the comfort of your sofa!
Everyone learns in a slightly different way. I find doodling and writing things down help me remember better. If you’re like me, EnglishForEveryone is just the thing.
There are downloadable verb worksheets available in PDF form, organized according to tense type. Each worksheet starts with some example sentences.
They’re one-page exercises, which means you can do them quickly whenever you get a spare moment. It’s handy to have them saved in the computer or phone or print them out. That way, you have them on hand when you’re waiting for the doctor or that colleague of yours that’s always late to meetings!
As the name indicates, this is where you can go for all things grammar. Some of their exercises are a real workout. For example, there are several where you have to compare English tenses and structures that are often confused, like “Present Perfect vs. Past Perfect” or “Will vs. Going To.”
GrammarBank also has some great mixed verb tense exercises, so you can practice the different tenses.
They’re online exercises, but you could easily print them out as well.
This easy-to-navigate library of free practice lessons, quizzes and worksheets will help you with difficult English tenses. For example, you can practice using the different tenses in sentences with the advanced English grammar test.
If you are interested in learning how to use the English tenses in business-related contexts, there are also a number of resources available, like “Useful Business Verbs and Their Collocations” or “Signposts for Presentations.”
Now you know the tenses in English, you’re ready to start using them.
Practice them and you’ll soon start incorporating them naturally into your own English conversations and writing!