How to use english tenses

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Tense changes are always meaningful, and they always signal a change in the function of the information — so don’t change tense randomly and make sure you remember to change tense when you should.

Another way to figure out what the writer is doing in a sentence is to look at the grammar and vocabulary clues. What is the tense of the main verb? What is that tense normally used for? Is it the same tense as in the previous sentence? If not, why has the writer changed the tense? What words has the writer chosen to use?


Table of tenses

Past Present

The present tenses describe the current moment, past events with a relationship to the current moment, and timeless facts. These tenses bridge the gap between the past and present, and can also be used (with future times) to show what will happen later. This makes them more flexible than the past tenses, and more complicated. They can show: Something happens generally. Something is happening now. Something has happened recently. Something has been happening before now, for some time. These tenses give you the ability to explain the present moment, timeless rules, and the past and future in relation to now.


The future in English is formed in more complicated ways than the past and present.


There are many common state verbs that use the simple tenses; they can be grouped to demonstrate states of mind (suppose, think, believe, understand, know, want, love, hate, need, like, prefer), existence or possession (be, have, exist, belong, own) and senses (feel, smell, seem, taste, appear, look). Learn these examples, and be careful to use the simple tenses for them, and it will become clear when similar verbs are appropriate.

Past Simple Present Simple

The main uses of the present simple are to show general facts or to demonstrate the frequency of events that reoccur as a fact. It can also be used for states, commentaries, storytelling and spoken actions.

Future Simple
Perfect Past Perfect Present Perfect

For example, the present perfect is usually used to discuss visited locations, because experiences in different locations continue to affect us now, and can be added to, such as “I have been to France.”

  • Existing Constructionist educational literature has focused primarily on hard sciences subjects.
Future Perfect
Continuous Past Continuous

The past continuous tells us that the action started but had not finished (it was ongoing) at a specific point in the past. The main use of the Past Continuous is to talk about temporary actions that are happening (ongoing) now. It can also be used for processes of change, habits, and, informally, to express some temporary states.

Present Continuous

The Present Continuous can be used to describe a process of change, which is common with verbs such as increase, decrease, become, develop, expand, get, and grow. The Present Continuous is often taught as something happening now, but it may be a repeated event or an interrupted process that takes place in a period of time including now. The time of the sequence may include now, even if the actual action or event is not currently occurring. He is reading a book. (He is in the process of reading it, but is not necessarily reading at this moment.)

Future Continuous
Perfect Continuous Past Perfect Continuous Present Perfect Continuous

The main use of the present perfect continuous is to show the duration of an ongoing present action or event (either by showing the timed length of the action or by showing when the action began).

Future Perfect Continuous

Though it is a complex tense to form, the future perfect continuous only has one function. It tells us the duration of an ongoing or repeated action or event that is in process at a specific point in the future. It is often used with expressions starting for or all. I will have been living in Brighton for two years next Spring.

Graph of tenses

The past simple and the past continuous should not be confused. If you need to choose between the two, remember the past simple shows a completed action but the past continuous shows the action was in progress (it had started).

Another area that can cause confusion is when using states. For verbs showing states, for existence, possession and senses (such as be, have, seem, look, sound), the Past Simple is used, even for temporary or ongoing actions. I was happy before the phone rang. (not I was being happy) He seemed angry when we saw him at 4pm.

Past Simple / Present Perfect

  • Past Simple I broke my glasses… but it doesn’t matter/I repaired them.
  • Present Perfect / I have broken my glasses… and so I can’t see properly NOW.

For example, the Present Perfect is usually used to discuss visited locations, because experiences in different locations continue to affect us now, and can be added to, such as “I have been to France.”

Past Simple / Present Simple

  • (a) We found that the pressure increased as the temperature rose, which indicated that temperature played a significant role in the process.
  • (b) We found that the pressure increases as the temperature rises, which indicates that temperature plays a significant role in the process.

Which sentence is ‘stronger’? In (a), using the Past Simple tense means that your findings are linked only to your own research, and you do not claim your deductions should be considered as accepted or established facts, or even that another researcher will necessarily get the same results. In (b), using the Present Simple tense means that you believe your findings and deductions are strong enough to be considered as facts or truths. The Present Simple communicates this reliability and your readers will respond to your work accordingly.

Present Simple / Present Continuous

To see the difference between the present simple and present continuous when we describe a change, the important question to ask is does the process have a possible ending? Howard is getting fat. (Temporarily, because he cannot get fatter forever.)

The will future form is mostly used for unplanned actions or events, or to make predictions that are not based on facts. The going to future form is mostly used for planned future actions or events, decided future actions or events or logical conclusions. The present continuous for future meaning is mostly used for future arrangements. The present simple for future meaning is mostly used for scheduled future events. However, there is some overlap between these uses

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