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An Overview of English Tenses

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Does this title make you feel a bit…tense? (Yeah, me too.)

Jokes aside, tenses are an important part of English grammar. They allow speakers to clarify the timing of an action so that there’s no confusion. 

In this article, I’ll briefly explain each English tense and show you how it affects verb conjugation. 

Let’s get started.

Log in to Download Your Free Cheat Sheet - Beginner Vocabulary in English Table of Contents
  1. What are Tenses?
  2. Present Tense
  3. Past Tense
  4. Future Tense
  5. Irregular Verbs
  6. Time to Practice!
  7. Final Thoughts
  8. Answers

1. What are Tenses?

A tense indicates the timing of an action. There are three basic tenses in English: present, past, and future.

Verb tense is formed based on a sentence’s main verb and the auxiliary words around that verb. 

Now, there are four aspects of each tense:

SimpleExpresses a simple fact.

Tony runs quickly.

He runs, in general, declarative terms. 
ProgressiveExpresses something that takes place during a limited period of time. 

Tony is running quickly.

He is running right now, in this moment. 
Perfect Expresses something that occurred in the past, but is linked to another point in the future. 

Tony has run quickly.

Tony ran in the past and up until the present moment. 
Perfect ProgressiveExpresses something that began in the past, but continues into the future. 

Tony has been running quickly.

Tony started running in the past, up until the present moment. This emphasizes the duration of the past action. 

These aspects affect how the verb is conjugated, as well as which auxiliary words are used in the sentence (if any). 

Don’t worry if this seems too complicated. Many native English speakers struggle with this, too. The good news is that some verb tenses are more common than others. We’ll start with those. As you continue learning English, you can delve into more complex English verb tense forms to express more specific ideas.

In this article, I’ll be covering only the simple aspect for each tense. If you want to get a more in-depth look at all of the English tenses and aspects, though, see my article on English Verb Conjugation. (And while you’re at it, you can learn The 50 Most Common Verbs in English!)

2. Present Tense

A Woman Taking a Whole Chicken Out of the Oven

I cook.

The present tense is used to refer to something that is happening now, in the present. It can also be used to describe something that occurs on a regular basis (or is generally true, like facts and information). 

To form the simple present, you simply take the infinitive form of the verb and remove the word “to” to create the base infinitive. Most conjugated verb forms will look identical to the base infinitive form.  

The only exception is in the third person (he / she / it). In this case, you must add an -s to the end. 

See this table of English tenses to understand how the infinitive verb “to cook” is conjugated for each person in the simple present tense:

PersonPresent Tense Verb (“To Cook”)
ICook
You [singular]Cook
He / She / ItCooks
WeCook
You [plural]Cook
TheyCook

Easy, right? The only thing you have to remember is that the third person requires the -s at the end. In this audio lesson from EnglishClass101.com, you can learn more about how the simple present tense works in a real-life situation. 

Of course, you can make these sentences longer and more specific by adding time words/phrases. These are words that indicate exactly when the action is taking place. 

Common Time Words & Phrases for Simple Present Tense

TodayShe cooks today.
Every dayI cook every day.
OftenThey cook often.
SometimesSometimes, you cook.
At ___We cook at night.

Do you need more words and phrases? Check out EnglishClass101’s free vocabulary list for Essential Adverbs of Frequency and Time!

3. Past Tense

A Man Putting a Hand to His Ear

He listened.

The past tense is used to refer to something that happened previously, in the past. 

To form the simple past, you take the infinitive form of the verb (in this case, “to listen”), take away the word “to,” and add -ed to the end of the root verb:

PersonPast Tense Verb (“To Listen”)
IListened
You [singular]Listened
He / She / ItListened
WeListened
You [plural]Listened
TheyListened

This is even easier than present tense, right? 😉 As you will notice, all subjects take on the same verb form, even the third person singular. Their conjugation is identical. 

If you want a more detailed explanation or some examples, check out this video lesson where Alisha teaches you how to form the simple past. 

Common Time Words & Phrases for Simple Past Tense

YesterdayWe listened yesterday.
EarlierI listened earlier.
A few hours agoThey listened a few hours ago.
Last weekYou listened last week.
Last yearHe listened last year.

4. Future Tense

A Businesswoman at Her Computer, Shrugging

You will work.

The future tense is used to refer to future actions or, in some cases, probable future actions. 

To form the simple future, take the infinitive form of the verb (in this case, “to work”), remove the word “to,” and add the word “will” in front of the root verb. In this case, “will” indicates a future event. 

As you will notice, “will” does not take on a special conjugation. The same form is used for all verbs. 

PersonFuture Tense Verb (“To Work”)
IWill work
You [singular]Will work
He / She / ItWill work
WeWill work
You [plural]Will work
TheyWill work

Watch this video lesson to hear a detailed explanation of how the simple future tense works.

Common Time Words & Phrases for Simple Future Tense

TomorrowI will work tomorrow.
SoonThey will work soon.
Next weekYou will work next week.
In a few daysWe will work in a few days.
Next yearShe will work next year.

5. Irregular Verbs

Everything we’ve covered so far has been pretty easy, right? All you have to do is memorize the conjugations—and there’s not even that much to memorize! 

But we haven’t talked about irregular verbs yet. These are verbs that don’t conjugate the same way as regular verbs (like the ones we saw above), which means you’ll have to remember separate conjugation rules for them. 

In this section, I’ll show you the conjugations for the most common irregular verbs: “to be,” “to do,” and “to have.” The good news is that once you get past the present tense, the irregular conjugations for past and future are still pretty consistent and easy to remember.

Let’s go! 

A- Present

A Man Yawning while Eating Breakfast

He is tired.

PersonPresent Tense Verb (“To Be”)Example Sentence
IAmI am tired.
You [singular]AreYou are tired.
He / She / ItIsHe is tired.
WeAreWe are tired.
You [plural]AreYou are tired.
TheyAreThey are tired.

PersonPresent Tense Verb (“To Do”)Example Sentence
IDoI do a lot of cooking.
You [singular]DoYou do a lot of cooking.
He / She / ItDoesShe does a lot of cooking.
We DoWe do a lot of cooking.
You [plural]DoYou do a lot of cooking.
TheyDoThey do a lot of cooking.

PersonPresent Tense Verb (“To Have”)Example Sentence
IHaveI have a cat.
You [singular]HaveYou have a cat.
He / She / ItHasHe has a cat.
WeHaveWe have a cat.
You [plural]HaveYou have a cat.
TheyHaveThey have a cat.

B- Past

A Couple Sitting, Facing Opposite Directions

They were angry.

PersonPast Tense Verb (“To Be”)Example Sentence
IWasI was angry.
You [singular]WereYou were angry.
He / She / ItWasShe was angry.
WeWereWe were angry.
You [plural]WereYou were angry.
TheyWereThey were angry.

PersonPast Tense Verb (“To Do”)Example Sentence
IDidI did karate.
You [singular]DidYou did karate.
He / She / ItDidHe did karate.
WeDidWe did karate.
You [plural]DidYou did karate.
TheyDidThey did karate.

PersonPast Tense Verb (“To Have”)Example Sentence
IHadI had some coffee.
You [singular]HadYou had some coffee.
He / She / ItHadShe had some coffee.
WeHadWe had some coffee.
You [plural]HadYou had some coffee.
TheyHadThey had some coffee.

C- Future

A Woman Sleeping

I will be asleep.

PersonFuture Tense Verb (“To Be”)Example Sentence
IWill beI will be asleep.
You [singular]Will beYou will be asleep.
He / She / ItWill beThe cat will be asleep.
WeWill beWe will be asleep.
You [plural]Will beYou will be asleep.
TheyWill beThey will be asleep.

PersonFuture Tense Verb (“To Do”)Example Sentence
IWill doI will do my job.
You [singular]Will doYou will do your job.
He / She / ItWill doShe will do her job.
WeWill doWe will do our job.
You [plural]Will doYou will do your job.
TheyWill doThey will do their job.

PersonFuture Tense Verb (“To Have”)Example Sentence
IWill haveI will have more money.
You [singular]Will haveYou will have more money.
He / She / ItWill haveHe will have more money.
WeWill haveWe will have more money.
You [plural]Will haveYou will have more money.
TheyWill haveThey will have more money.

6. Time to Practice! 

Do you have it now? Then let’s practice. 

I’ll give you three regular verbs to conjugate according to the tense. See if you can do it, and I’ll show you the answers at the end of this article.

A- Present

“To Walk” (Present Tense)
You [singular]
He / She / It
We
You [plural]
They

A Couple Taking a Stroll Together

They ___. [present tense]

B- Past

“To Play” (Past Tense)
You [singular]
He / She / It
We
You [plural] 
They

A Little Kid Jumping on the Bed

He ___. [past tense]

C- Future

“To Bake” (Future Tense)
You [singular]
He / She / It
We
You [plural]
They

A Woman in a Yellow Dress Reaching into the Oven

She ___. [future tense]

7. Final Thoughts

A University Student Arriving on Campus

Are you ready to keep learning?

See? The simple English tenses are pretty easy to master after all!

Of course, things get a little more complicated when you look at the other aspects (not to mention those pesky irregular verbs), but even then, the conjugations tend to be consistent. With enough study time, dedication, and practice, you’ll be able to master all the English conjugations.

I hope this English tenses lesson has been helpful for you! How do you feel about English tenses at this point? Do you need more time to review what we covered in this article, or are you ready to move forward? Let us know in the comments, and we’ll do our best to answer any questions you have. 

At EnglishClass101.com, it’s our goal to help you learn English in the most fun and effective way possible. Sign up for your free lifetime account today, and gain access to tons of audio and video lessons, word lists, and your very own set of flashcards. We hope to see you around! 

8. Answers

“To Walk” (Present Tense)
walk
You [singular]walk
He / She / Itwalks
Wewalk
You [plural]walk
Theywalk

“To Play” (Past Tense)
played
You [singular]played
He / She / Itplayed
Weplayed
You [plural]played
Theyplayed

“To Bake” (Future Tense)
will bake
You [singular]will bake
He / She / Itwill bake
Wewill bake
You [plural]will bake
Theywill bake

How did you do?

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