Verb tenses identify the time period when an action occurs. The verb walks communicates not only how many people completed the action (it’s singular), but also when it occurred. In this case, the tense is present. The person walks right now.
Interestingly, not all languages treat verb tenses the same way. In English, the ending on a verb communicates what tense it’s in. (Walk becomes walks and walked.) In some cases, an auxiliary verb is required as well. In Chinese, for example, a verb doesn’t change its spelling depending on the tense. A separate word (a particle) is combined with the verb to explain when it occurred.
The simple tenses (past, present, and future) are the most basic forms, but there are 12 major verb tenses in English in all.
We’ll review some of the basic tenses here.
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.
Here is one example:
- 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, like so:
- 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.
- 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.
Let’s look at this sentence:
- Shelly has danced since she was a toddler.
In this example, 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.
- 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 second 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 Olivia’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.
Wrong: The crowd claps and laughed at the comedian.
Right: The crowd clapped and laughed at the comedian.
The incorrect example contains both a present tense verb (claps) and a past tense verb (laughed). This can be confusing. If both actions are past or present, both verbs should have the same tense.
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. (The other six are called progressive tense and apply to actions that are continuing.) However, these six are the most common, and they’re sufficient to express a variety of time relationships.