The six basic verb tenses are past, present, future, past perfect, present perfect, and future perfect. Verb tenses identify the time period when an action occurs. They also show relationships between events that happen at different times. The simple tenses (past, present, and future) are the most basic forms.
Present tense describes events happening now. It’s also useful for describing a direct action that’s not exclusive to the past or future. Sentences in present tense often have the most straightforward structure because they use root verbs and to be verbs. A root verb is the basic form of a verb, such as watch or travel. To be verbs express states of being, as in “She is happy.”
Past tense describes events that have already happened and are completely finished. Most verbs can be made past tense by adding -d or -ed at the end of a present-tense verb, as in liked and watched. However, many irregular verbs have unique past tense forms. For example, go becomes went, and think becomes thought. Past tense is usually used to write about historical events, as in “Galileo observed the stars.”
Future tense describes events that haven’t happened yet. It’s useful for describing an intended action or a prediction. It’s typically formed by combining an auxiliary verb (helping verbs like will or need) with a root verb. For example: “Molly will finish her chores when she has time.” The word will is an auxiliary verb, and finish is the root verb. Together, they explain that Molly intends to do her chores at a later point in time.
The perfect tenses involve more complex time relationships. They build upon simple tenses by combining a verb with has, have, or had.
The present perfect tense describes a past event that’s still happening in the present. In “Shelly has danced since she was a toddler,” the verb tense helps convey the length of time Shelly’s been dancing.
The past perfect tense describes a past event in relation to another event that occurs closer to the present. For example: “Mark had fed the dog by the time he went to school.” The past participle (had) shows that Mark performed the first action (fed) before the section action (went to school).
The future perfect tense describes an upcoming action in relation to another event farther in the future. It typically requires an auxiliary verb, as in “By tomorrow afternoon, Olivia will have finished her report.” Will have indicates that Tina’s report is incomplete right now, but it will be finished in the future.
Verb Tense Consistency
To avoid confusion, you should use one consistent tense whenever possible. Here’s an example of what not to do: “The crowd claps and laughed at the comedian.” This example contains both a present verb (claps) and a past verb (laughed). This can be confusing. If both actions are past or present, both verbs should have the same tense. A better way to write it would be “The crowd clapped and laughed at the comedian.”
Sometimes, it can be useful to switch tenses to describe actions that occur at different times. Jane Goodall does this in My Life with the Chimpanzees: “We have talked with the chiefs of all the villages in the area, and they will help us.” The present perfect verb have talked shows that Goodall’s discussions began in the past and continued until the present. The simple future verb will help refers to an upcoming event.
These six tenses aren’t the only English verb tenses. However, they are the most common, and they’re sufficient to express a variety of time relationships.