Complex Verb Tenses

Now that you’ve mastered the basic verb tenses, you’re ready to move on to the more advanced tenses. These so-called “complex verb tenses” were mentioned briefly in Verb Types, and they came up again in Non-Finite Verbs.

Consider an example: “We had been going to the same restaurant for five years.” What’s the difference between the verb in that sentence and the one in “We went to the same restaurant for five years?” While both sentences have roughly the same meaning, the first sentence creates a sense of continuity: visiting the restaurant happened repeatedly. There’s an even bigger difference when you look at future tenses:

  • She will eat five hundred gummy bears.
  • She will have eaten five hundred gummy bears.

In the first sentence, the entire action (eating all those gummy bears) takes place in the future. In the second sentence, we understand that the action will be completed sometime in the future.

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.

These forms are created with different forms of to be and to have. When you combine a form of to be with a present participle, you form a continuous tense; these tenses indicate a sense of continuity or ongoing action. The subject of the sentence was (or is, or will be) doing that thing for a while.

  • Present: It is working.
  • Past: It was working.
  • Future: It will be working. (You can also say “It is going to be working.”)

When you combine a form of to have with the past participle of a verb, you form a perfect tense; these tenses indicate completed (as opposed to ongoing) action.

  • Present: It has worked.
  • Past: It had worked.
  • Future: It will have worked.

You can also combine the continuous and perfect tenses. To have must always appear first, followed by the past participle been. The present participle of any verb can then follow. Such perfect continuous tenses indicate that the verb started in the past and is still continuing:

  • Present: It has been working.
  • Past: It had been working.
  • Future: It will have been working.



Follow the instructions in each item:

  1. Convert this sentence from a simple tense to a continuous tense: Ivone wrote a collection of short stories entitled Vidas Vividas.
  2. Convert this sentence from a simple tense to a perfect tense: As a pilot, Sara will fly a lot of cross-country flights.
  3. Convert this sentence from a simple tense to a perfect continuous tense: Zachi reads all of the latest articles on archeology.

Sometimes these verb tenses are split by adverbs: “Zachi has been studiously reading all of the latest articles on archeology.”

Now that we’ve learned how to create each of these tenses, let’s practice using them. In the following exercise, you will be asked to create some original writing in order to explore different verb tenses.


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
3:00 Keynote Speaker