How are there 12 tenses in a language? You would think there is only past, future, and present, but you’d be mistaken! English can be a funny language. With this blog, we’ll make things a little clearer for you. There is actually some reasoning to it, and it’s not only about learning it but understanding it.
Tenses let your audience or listener know when you are talking about something, if the action is completed or started, and if it is happening right now. There’s actually a lot that you can say by using the right tense! Using this language an help you with your communication in the future, especially if you want to be a little vague on timing. By using the right tense, you actually don’t need to use time phrases at all and the tense does the work for you.
We’ll start first with the list and we’ll give you a quick introduction to all of them, keeping in mind the English language has a lot of irregular verbs and this is the general outline.
Phew! That’s all of them! Can you see a trend? Not yet? Have a look at the image below where we’ve used the verb “to learn” as an example. You’ll see that there are just four forms you need to know, each having a past, present, and future version:
Our Example: I learned English (yesterday)
This simply means that you learned in the past. It could be yesterday or last year, but you learned English at some point in the past.
Our Example: I learn English (at my class time)
This means that you learn English currently or presently. This means right now or at this moment.
Our Example: I will learn English (tomorrow)
This means that you will learn English at some point in the future, perhaps tomorrow, next week, in a year’s time, or during your next lesson.
Our Example: I was learning English (while in Ireland)
This implies that you were learning English for a period of time before now. The action was still going on while perhaps a shorter action was taking place.
Our Example: I am learning English (while in Ireland)
This tense is used when action is happening presently but is an ongoing action.
Our Example: I will be learning English (while in Ireland)
This means that you will be learning English in the future and the action is after now, but it will be continuing over a period of time.
*Continuous: As you can see, all continuous tenses use “ing” which helps the listener know that it is for a long period of time, like our example “while in Ireland”. There are many shorted actions that can occur during this learning activity, and this is what makes it continuous. The auxiliary verb in front will let us have an idea of when the action is happening.
Our Example: I had learned English (when I was in school)
The past perfect tells us that the action has already been completed. In the sentence above, it lets the listener know that the subject is already fluent in English and no further action is needed.
Our Example: I have learned English (since college)
The present perfect is a little different from the past perfect and implies that the action is more current and could still be ongoing. In our example, the action of learning English in college is completed or perfected, but the addition of “have” means that the action is still being completed in the present.
Our Example: I will have learned English (for 3 months)
In this example, we are putting ourselves in the future and estimating completion or perfection at that time. In our example, we can say “After I sign up for an English course today, by September, I will have learned English for 3 months”. We are placing ourselves in the future and talking about the anticipated completed action.
*Perfect: Perfect tense talks about those actions that are already done/completed in the time while we are speaking about them.
Our Example: I had been learning English (for 4 years)
So, past means it’s happened in the past. Perfect means it’s completed. And continuous means for a long period of time – simply speaking. Here, we are saying that the action had been going on for quite a while but is now completed. This is normally used for subjects like marriages that end in divorce, studies and PhDs that are now over, or raising children that are now grown.
Our Example: I have been learning English (for 4 years)
Like the present perfect, the difference between this and our last one is that the action is more current and still ongoing. Using our examples above, you would use this tense if you are still married, still studying, or your children are not yet grown up. You are still doing it and it is in the present. There is always a connection to NOW.
Our Example: I will have been learning English (for 4 years)
Last but not least! It’s a mouthful, and honestly rarely used. This is when you are placing yourself in the future (like the future perfect), but the action is for a long period of time and may have already started, hence the continuous element. For example, we can say “When I come home from traveling in May, I have been learning English for 2 years”.
*Perfect Continuous: A little blend of the two, it can be confusing! The action is completed for where you place yourself in time but is going on for a long period or is still ongoing. It’s hard to wrap your head around but just takes practice. Start learning the other tenses first and leave this one to last.
As we mentioned, there are a lot of irregular verbs in the English language, and we suggest just taking each one as it comes. The good news is that when you start adding the verbs “to be” and “to have” into the sentences, the verb will go back to its original form. To leave you with a funny sentence that does actually make sense:
James, while John had had “had,” had had “had had”; “had had” had had a better effect on the teacher.
Funny right? But, don’t sweat about not understanding this! Most English speakers can’t either 🙂