The tense of a verb indicates the time (past, present or future) of the action or state. Grammatical tenses allow
for a variety of ways of expressing time. But beware! Different languages use tense forms and terminology in
different ways. It is important to understand the form and function of English tenses in order to translate
correctly into another language.
The timeline below demonstrates a rough chronology of tenses in English. There are six tenses, each of which is
divided into simple and progressive forms.
Verb Tense Timeline
SIMPLE FORMS PROGRESSIVE FORMS
she had sung Past Perfect she had been singing
she sang Simple Past she was singing
she has sung Present Perfect she has been singing
she sings Present she is singing
she will sing Future she will be singing
she will have sung Future Perfect she will have been singing
English is one of the few languages to make a distinction between what are referred to as simple and
progressive tenses. Progressive, or continuous, tenses refer to actions which are in progress, ongoing, or which
relate to a specific moment or time rather than to a general state. For example, he swims might mean that he
can swim, swims every week, or swims professionally, depending on context; he is swimming, the progressive
equivalent, can refer to a particular moment when the action is taking place or to a future activity which has not
yet taken place, also depending on the context. The speaker is expressing quite different concepts through the
choice of either progressive or simple forms of the verb, which often gives learners of English great difficulty.
It is vital to understand the meaning of a progressive verb form in English and to know the equivalent simple
form, since it is most likely to be translated as a simple verb in your foreign language. For example, think about
how the verbs in these sentences would be translated in the foreign language you are studying: I am writing to
my friend and I write to my friend every week. You need to know the time frame of each sentence in order to
Here is an explanation, based on the tense time line, of what each simple and progressive tense means:
Past perfect tense (pluperfect)
She had swum right across the lake before he even got in the water.
This means that the action of swimming took place before the other action in the past.
She had been swimming for three hours when the accident happened.
This implies that the swimming was still going on at the moment of the other action.
She swam in the pool as usual and then went off to work.
These are two completed actions which occurred in the past.
She was swimming frantically during the thunderstorm.
The past progressive is a little more complex. In other languages it is often called the imperfect, meaning an
action that is ongoing in the past. In our sentence the swimming was ongoing (not complete) at the time of the
Present perfect tense
She has swum in the ocean many times this summer.
This is a challenging tense to explain, but it is easiest to summarize as a combination of past and present as its
name suggests: it is used to refer to actions which began in the past and have a connection in some way with the
present. Our sentence indicates that an action took place in a period of time which began in the past and which
is not yet over -- the sentence tells us it is still summer, so there is a chance that more swimming could take
place. If summer were over, the simple past would be used: she swam in the ocean many times this past
She has been swimming now for five straight days.
The swimming began five days ago and is still going on. Notice the subtle difference between a sentence like
this and the following: she has been swimming now for five years. As you can see, the continuous action can
either be non-stop, as in swimming Lake Ontario, or habitual, as in being part of a swim team for five years.
Note: this tense is often translated into a foreign language as a present tense.
She swims every day and she swims very well.
The simple form refers to general actions or states. It is true that this action goes on over a period of time, but it
is not necessarily happening right now. It is used to make a statement of fact, to talk about a permanent state of
- That dog bites children.
- My friend has curly hair.
She is swimming in the ocean right now.
The progressive form specifically locates an action or occupation in the present, for example,
What's he doing these days?
Another way to ask this question is
What job does he have? or Does he have a job now?
The speaker is asking about a general state of affairs, not about what action is taking place at this specific time.
He's working in construction, but next week he's going back to school.
This last sentence demonstrates that the present tense (simple or progressive) can also be used with a future
meaning. The first clause is clearly in the present, but the context of the second clause tells us we are dealing
with the future. The same phenomenon occurs in this sentence:
She is swimming in the Olympics in 2008.
She will swim in the competition next week.
This is an action that is clearly in the future.
She will be swimming when I arrive.
Two future actions which will coincide at some point: the swimming will still be happening at the time of the
Note: in this sentence the verb arrive would also be in the future in many languages, even though English uses
the simple present tense.
Future perfect tense
By the time she's 20 she will have swum all the Great Lakes.
At a certain point in the future, this action will be completed. When she is 20, she can look back and say, I
have swum -- a present perfect tense.
By the time you get there she will have been swimming for an hour.
Again, this is like a present perfect idea in the future. When you get there, you can say, She has been swimming
-- a present perfect progressive.
In much of our discussion on verb forms and tenses we have talked about the importance of context. It is vital
to look at the total sentence in English in order to understand the meaning of the constituent parts. As we saw in
the last sentence above, one or two words can make a present tense express an entirely new time frame
without altering the verb at all.
The timeline shows a clear pattern: the same forms (participles) show up in numerous tenses. Let's examine the
perfect tenses first.
Perfect tenses are formed using the auxiliary ("helper") verb to have plus the perfect or past participle. So, for
example, the future perfect is formed using the future tense of the auxiliary (will have) plus the past participle.
The auxiliary carries the change in tense, while the participle remains the same, what we call the "wooden leg"
that is dragged around by the other words.
Present Perfect Tense
Present Tense of Auxiliary + Past Participle
Past Perfect Tense
Past Tense of Auxiliary + Past Participle
Future Perfect Tense
Future Tense of Auxiliary + Past Participle
will have eaten
The remaining simple tenses are much easier to form:
the simple present is conjugated with no auxiliaries (eats);
the simple future uses the future marker will (will eat).
The simple past tense provides us with the final principal part of the verb. These principal parts are the infinitive
(the unmarked form of the verb, usually preceded in English by to), the simple past tense, and the past and
present participles. These parts provide you with all the verb forms necessary to construct the simple and
The Principal Parts of the verb to swim:
SIMPLE PAST swam
PAST PARTICIPLE swum
PRESENT PARTICIPLE swimming
The sign of the progressive is the "-ing" form of the verb, known as the present participle. To form a
progressive tense add the simple form of the verb to be (the auxiliary in this case) to the present participle. This
adds one more word to each tense form than is in the simple equivalent.
Present Progressive Present auxiliary + Present participle
Present Perfect Progressive Present Perfect Auxiliary + Present participle
have been eating
Note: the participial forms -- present and past -- crop up again and again. Watch for them as we continue our
journey through English grammar.
Transitive and Intransitive Verbs
Verbs fall into the categories of transitive and intransitive depending on what action or state is being discussed.
In the following, notice how the same verb can perform a different function in each sentence:
She runs fast. She runs a store.
Robert drives slowly. Robert drives his car.
Run and drive are examples of verbs which can either stand on their own (intransitive), or have an impact on
something or someone else in the form of an object (transitive).
However, some verbs do not have this dual nature, and can only be intransitive or transitive.
I lie peacefully in a hammock. Hens lay brown eggs.
I sit anxiously in the dentist's chair. I set the table.
In the intransitive sentences, lie and sit show a state of body after an action has taken place, without any
reference to an object. These states or actions may have consequences, such as being peaceful or anxious, but
they do not have a direct object. We can ask ourselves the question
"How do I lie?" or "How do I sit?", but not "What do I lie or sit?"
The focus here is on the fact that we are doing something in a particular way, using the adverbs peacefully and
anxiously to describe the verb. It is important to note that these adverbs enhance the meaning of the verb itself,
showing the manner in which the action or state of being was carried out. The transitive sentences clearly show
that there is an action with a consequence: the production of an egg or a table ready for dinner. The eggs are
the direct object of the verb lay; the table is the direct object of the verb set. In these instance it is not important
how the action took place, but rather, what the result of it is.
Notice the principal parts of these verbs:
Intransitive verb Transitive verb
to lie to lay
to sit to set
Note: beware of the different functions of identical forms of the verbs lay and lie!