Note: descriptions of verb forms and tenses vary. Here we present a simple overview of the tenses and forms of English which is useful for the classroom.
In grammar a tense (from the Latin tempus) is a form of a verb used to indicate roughly the time when the action described by the verb takes place.
In English there are 3 basic tenses: Past, Present and Future. (However, often people refer to tenses meaning the various forms of the Past, Present and Future.)
When a verb is in the past, it generally refers to an action which took place before now. Likewise, a future verb refers to an action which will happen after now and a present verb refers to something happening right now.
Talking about the Present
To talk about regular, everyday activities we use the present simple:
I live in America.
She works in an office.
To talk about what someone is doing as we speak, we use the present continuous (also known as the present progressive):
She is baking a cake at the moment.
He is cleaning the car right now.
To talk about something which happened just before the present and which is still very important now, we use the present perfect simple:
They have arrived!
I have discovered this great new recipe; here, let me show you.
And again there is a continuous form of this, present perfect continuous:
I’m out of breath because I have been running for the last 20 minutes!
She has been talking on that phone for the last 20 minutes!
See the main article, Present Tense.
Talking about the Past
When dealing with the past, the most commonly used tense is the past simple. This is for talking about basic events in the past:
She walked to the shops earlier this morning.
I talked with my sister on the phone last night.
And when it is a longer even interrupted by the past simple, we use the past continuous:
They were walking in the woods when they spotted a strange light in the sky.
I was watching television when my mother called.
Like the present, there are also perfect tenses here. This is the past perfect simple which is often used to explain or set the scene:
I was tired because I had walked nearly 10 miles home in the middle of the night.
After years of searching, finally he had discovered the tomb of the lost Pharaoh!
And again, there is a continuous or progressive version, past perfect continuous:
She had been writing for almost an hour before she realised she was doing the wrong exam paper!
They had been filming for twenty minutes before they were stopped by the police.
See the main article, Past Tense.
Talking about the Future
There are a number of different ways to talk about the future. The most common is the future simple:
I will go to Spain next week.
With her luck I bet she will win the lottery!
The future continuous talks about longer actions in relation to events:
He will be arriving at ten o’clock so please be there to meet him.
This time next week I will be sunbathing on the beach in Greece.
There are perfect forms, Future Perfect Simple:
This time next month I will have worked here twenty years.
and the Future Perfect Continuous:
On January 2nd I will have been living here for exactly two years.
See the main article, Future Tense.