An important part of learning and using English is knowing the correct tense to use. After all, every verb, and most other parts of grammar, can change quite a lot, depending on which tense is needed.
But how can you tell the different tenses apart? Tenses depend on a few essential facts – how something is happening, and when it happens.
Here’s a really simple guide to help you remember which is which!
It’s happening right now
If something is taking place right in the moment, then you’ll want to use the present simple tense. It’s usually the most basic form of the verb. But you can also use this to describe something that regularly, or always happens.
Remember that with the third person (he/she/it) you need to add an “s” at the end, usually.
E.g. “She practices piano twice a week.”
It’s happening right now – and continuing
In this case, you want to use the present continuous tense. This is put together with the present form of the verb “to be” and a verb with the suffix “ing”.
E.g. “I am travelling.”
It was happening in the past – and is still happening now
We’re starting to move into different ways of talking about the past, but this one is actually called the present perfect continuous tense. This is used when an event carries on from the past to the present. It’s a little more complicated to put together, with the present perfect version of the verb “to be” – (“had” or “has”) followed by an auxiliary verb, “been”, and then finally, your main verb, followed by “ing”! A bit of a mouthful.
E.g. “I had been walking to school”.
It happened in the past. And it stopped.
The past simple tense is used when something is pretty simple. It happened in the past, it didn’t carry on into the present, or have any other complications. It just happened and then it was over.
E.g. “I broke the toaster.”
It was happening – then it got interrupted!
Like the present continuous tense, the past continuous is all about whether or not something continued over a period of time. Unlike the present continuous – which is used when something carries on from the past – this is used when something happened in the past, and then got interrupted.
To construct it, you use “was” or “were” followed by a past participle”.
E.g. “I was reading my favourite book at the time.”
It’s going to happen in the future
Now we move on to the future simple tense. This describes anything that is going to happen, and there are two different ways to describe it: “will” and “going to”.
“Will” is used to show that someone has volunteered or agreed to do (or not to do) something.
E.g. “I will send you the letter in the morning.”
By contrast, “going to” shows a plan or anticipated intention for doing something in the future.
E.g. “I am going to fly tomorrow.”
These are just some of the simplest verb tenses in English. Keep practicing and remember the differences between their meanings, to learn how to use them correctly!