What are the Tenses?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In reference to verbs in the English language, the word tense means "time." The tenses of verbs indicate the time and the state in which a verb is.There are the present, past, and future tenses.

As opposed to other languages such as the Romance languages with twelve to fourteen different tenses, which, along with Latin and Anglo-Saxon are part of the ancestry of the language, English has only six tenses: Present, Past, Future, Present Perfect, Past Perfect, and Future Perfect. But, each tense has three forms: Basic, Progressive, and Emphatic. Here is an example of the tenses for one verb, using the subject "He" and the regular verb "hear":

Basic Form

Present -            He hears
Past      -            He heard
Future   -            He will hear
Present Perfect - He has heard
Past Perfect     -  He had heard
Future Perfect  -  He will have heard.

Re: The Perfect tenses: The word "Perfect" is derived from the Latin, meaning completed. So, the Present Perfect is an action completed in the present; the Past Perfect, an action completed in the past, and the Future Perfect, an action completed in the future.

Progressive Form 

Present Progressive - He is hearing
Past Progressive     - He was hearing
Future Progressive  - He will be hearing
Present Perfect Progressive - He has been hearing
Past Perfect Progressive - He had been hearing
Future Perfect Progressive - He will have been hearing

Emphatic Form

Present Emphatic - He does hear
Past Emphatic - He did hear

  • Use of Verbs in Present Time

--The Basic Form of the Simple Present indicates Present action or condition
e.g. There Jane goes.
or constant action or condition.
e.g. Jane rides the bus to school.
--The Progressive Form of the Simple Present indicates continuing action 
e.g. I am working on my term paper
or a continuing condition
e.g. I am having trouble with my right knee

  • Use of Verbs in Past Time

--The Basic Form of the Simple Past indicates Past action or condition
e.g. When I was younger, I had a blue and silver bicycle.
e.g. Tuesday Mary suffered from a headache.
--The Progressive Form of the Simple Past indicates action that was continuing in the past
e.g. I was talking while the movie was shown.
e.g. James was suffering from a headache when I phoned him.
--The Basic Form of the Present Perfect indicates an action begun in the past and completed in the present.
e.g. Mary has finished her short story.
--The Progressive Form of the Present Perfect indicates an action or condition begun in the past that continues into the present
e.g. I have been cleaning house for hours today.
--The Basic Form of the Past Perfect indicates an action or condition completed in the past prior to another past action
e.g. Louis had just unlocked the door when the electricity went out.
--The Progressive Form of the Past Perfect indicates an action or condition completed before another
e.g. Bill had been watching the program for thirty minutes when lightning struck.
e.g. Linda had been working as a waitress, but now she is an actress.

  • Uses of Verbs in Future Time

--The Basic Form of the Future indicates an action or condition to come later
e.g. Theresa will graduate in June.
e.g Marion will have her baby in December.
--The Progressive Form of the Future indicates an action or condition that will be going on in the future
e.g. Next week in class, we will be practicing our parts for the new skit.
e.g. Tomorrow Mary will be having surgery for four hours.
--The Basic Form of the Future Perfect indicates an action or condition that will be completed in the future. 
e.g. George will have completed the requirements for his doctorate in June.
e.g. By May, Sheila will have worn braces for two years.
--The Progressive Form of the Future Perfect indicates an action of a condition that has been in action and will be going on in the future.
e.g. By this time next year, Julien will have been working here for two years.

  • Exceptions in English

--At times, the Basic Form of the Present Tense is used to express the future by adding a word that indicates this future.
e.g. Brent is going to Purdue University next fall.
--Sometimes the Present Progressive form is used instead of the Future Progressive. Words indicate that the time is in the future.
e.g. Bradley is going to a new school next September.

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There are grammarians who make the argument that there are really only 2 tenses: Present and Past because these two tenses are formed with only the verb.

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