Verb Tenses

Learning Objectives

  • Identify and use the correct verb tense in a sentence

Tenses

There are three standard tenses in English: past, present and future. All three of these tenses have simple and more complex forms. For now we’ll just focus on the simple present (things happening now), the simple past (things that happened before), and the simple future (things that will happen later).

  • Simple Present: work(s)
  • Simple Past: worked
  • Simple Future: will work

The present tense for singular third person is slightly different from the other persons. Look at the tables, below, to see the correct tenses for each person:

Person Past Present Future
I verb + ed verb will verb
We verb + ed verb will verb
You verb + ed verb will verb
He, She, It verb + ed verb + s (or es) will verb
They verb + ed verb will verb

Let’s look at the verb to walk for an example:

Person Past Present Future
I walked walk will walk
We walked walk will walk
You walked walk will walk
He, She, It walked walks will walk
They walked walk will walk

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Irregular Verbs

There are a lot of irregular verbs. Unfortunately, a fair amount of memorization is needed to keep them straight.

Watch It

The following video shows some of the irregular verbs you’ll use most often (to beto have, to do, and to say):

You can view the transcript for “Introduction to irregular verbs” here (opens in new window).

For quick reference, below are the tables for to be and to have:

To be

Person Past Present Future
I was am will be
We were are will be
You were are will be
He, She, It was is will be
They were are will be

To have

Person Past Present Future
I had have will have
We had have will have
You had have will have
He, She, It had has will have
They had have will have

Here’s a list of several irregular past tense verbs.

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Complex Verb Tenses

Verbs don’t have to be expressed only in present, past, or future tenses. There are more complex verb tenses that allow us to express actions with a little more variety and difference, which are created by changing the verb aspect. The verb aspect tells us whether a verb is stating a fact, a completed action, an ongoing action, or the end of an ongoing action. Here are a few examples of these different aspects, all in the present tense:

  • Simple Aspect (expressing a fact): I eat.
  • Perfect Aspect (expressing a completed action): I have eaten.
  • Progressive or Continuous Aspect (expressing an ongoing action): I am eating.
  • Perfect Progressive Aspect (expressing the end of an ongoing action): I have been eating.

Each of these aspects can be expressed in past, present, and future tenses. For example, the different verb tenses in the perfect aspect would be:

  • Past Perfect: I had eaten
  • Present Perfect: I have eaten
  • Future Perfect: I will have eaten

These different tenses allow for much more flexibility in our language and expression.

The different conjugations of the verb to work. The verbs are placed in a sliding scale. The furthest in the past is had worked, then had been working, then worked, then was worked. The present include has worked, has been working, work, and is working. The future is will have worked, will have been working, will work, and will be working.

Figure 1. Which words/phrases above are examples of continuous tense? Which are examples of perfect tense? Which are examples of perfect continuous tense?

Watch it

Watch the video below for some more information about verb aspect, and to see all the different types of ways you can organize and use verbs.

You can view the transcript for “Introduction to verb aspect” here (opens in new window).

Try It

Look at the following schedule for a Writer’s Workshop. Pretend that it’s Tuesday at 12:30 pm—you’re halfway through the workshop events. Write a short journal entry about the schedule, using both simple and complex verb tenses.

Monday Tuesday Wednesday
10:00 Check-In Genre Speakers Meet Editors/Agents
11:00 Group Orientation Genre Speakers
12:00 Lunch Lunch Checkout
1:00 Peer-to-Peer Critique Professional Critiques
2:00
3:00 Keynote Speaker

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