Verb Tense and Form

Verb Tense and Form

English sentences often heavily rely on the verb (action word) to carry a lot of meaning. In this section, you will learn how the verb can show tense (time) within a sentence. Verb tense is critical, as using the wrong tense can make the reader believe an event happened at a different time than you intend. This can create a lot of confusion! The English verb tense system may seem complex, but it is relatively simple, as the forms follow mostly regular patterns.

English has three major times: present, past, and future. Each time has four variations: simple, perfect, continuous (Some may refer to the continuous as progressive), and perfect continuous. To form each of the tenses, you can use a formula, indicated in parentheses. The definitions for the terms are included in the table below. Please see the section on agreement to see verb conjugations.

Vocabulary Term Definition
base form/simple A form of the verb that indicates no agreement or tense.
continuous A form that indicates an ongoing action within a sentence. This is always formed with the helping verb to be, depending on agreement with the subject and tense, and the main verb ending in -ing (the present participle form).
helping verb A verb that helps the main verb to function in some way. Typical helping verbs include forms of to be (am, is, are, was, were), to have (has, have, had), and modal verbs (would, could, should, may, might, can, will).
past participle A form of the verb used in the perfect tenses, regardless of time. It usually ends in -ed or -en, though there are many irregular forms.
perfect A form that indicates movement from one time to another (for example, from past to present) within a sentence. The perfect tenses are always formed with the helping verb to have, depending on agreement with the subject and tense.
present participle A form of the verb used in the continuous tenses, regardless of time. It always ends in -ing

Click each drop-down arrow to learn more about verb tense

Present
  • The simple (base form) form indicates an action that is happening right now, a habit, and/or a general fact. 
    • Example: The main ingredient in pizza that the Italians use frequently is leavened dough.
  • The perfect (has/have + past participle) form indicates an action that started in the past, but still affects present time. 
    • Example: Different countries have shared similar foods, ingredients and even special occasions.
  • The continuous (am/is/are + present participle) form indicates an ongoing action. 
    • Example: Even though there is a time difference between the U.S. and Japan, I can still feel like my friends and I are sitting next to each other when I am chatting with them on my phone.
  • The perfect continuous (has/have + been + present participle) form indicates an ongoing action that started in the past, but continues to affect the present. 
    • Example: There are many benefits that people have been enjoying from the Internet, and more and more unexpected results are still on the way.
Past

(Please note that many past verbs are irregular; the forms change, in both the simple and perfect forms. It may be helpful to refer to a chart to see if the verb you want is regular or not.)

  • The simple (base form + ed) form indicates a completed action in the past. 
    • Example: In the food culture of Mexico, wheat became an important ingredient when creating different types of sweet breads.
  • The perfect (had + past participle) form indicates an action that was completed before something else in the past.  (The past perfect is considered formal and is not commonly used in oral English, though it is used in academic, formal settings. Very often, the simple past is used instead.)
    • Example: It is believed that during the last supper, Jesus Christ had given his disciples bread to eat and wine to drink before his death.
  • The continuous (was/were + present participle) form indicates an ongoing action that was completed in the past. 
    • Example: Citations of students' discussions on the Facebook group show what students were talking about.
  • The perfect continuous (had + been + present participle) form indicates an ongoing action that was completed before something else in the past. 
    • Example: It is full of details about what had been happening during the process - conversations between watchers and how they felt about that.
Future
  • The simple (will + base form) form indicates an action that hasn't happened yet. 
    • Example: I will go back to China during the winter break and summer holiday. (The simple present can also be used to form the future with an adverb of time: I go to China tomorrow. Furthermore, one can also use am/is/are + going to: I am going to go to China.)
  • The perfect (will + has/have + past participle) form indicates an action that hasn't happened yet and will affect some future action. 
    • Example: Jurupa Valley will have run out of its money by 2015.
  • The continuous (will + be + present participle) form indicates an ongoing action that hasn't happened yet. 
    • Example: For instance, students majoring in Spanish may consider studying abroad in Madrid since they will be learning the real roots of their language.
  • The perfect continuous (will + has/have + be + present participle) form indicates an ongoing action that hasn't happened yet and will affect some future action. 
    • Example: I will have been working for many years when I retire early.