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English Verb Tenses and Aspects

Iain MTEFL Contributor
ESL Lesson Handouts - English Verb Tenses and Aspects
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A verb is a word that expresses an act, action, or activity or establishes a state of being. Every sentence needs at least one verb, typically the grammatical center of a predicate (the part of a sentence or clause containing a verb and stating something about the subject). All verbs can be inflected for agreement with the subject, tense, aspect, mood, and voice.

Most EFL/EFL teachers have heard about the twelve tenses in English; however, you might be surprised to learn that there are actually only two tenses in English.

The two verb tenses

Firstly, it is necessary to understand that ‘tense’ is presented as a change to a verb to indicate time; the verb tense tells us when something happens. English only has two situations in which the base form of a verb is changed to indicate time: the present tense and the past tense. Consider ‘play’ — in the present it is ‘play(s)’ and in the past, ‘played’.

What about the future

We can express future time in English, but we do not express it with a specific future tense. To express future time, we must use a verb phrase of some sort. There is no change to the base form of a verb used to indicate the future. To express future plans, predictions, appointments, or schedules, we can use:

Present continuous
I’m getting my hair cut on Thursday.

Modals verbs
I will see you soon. I might get my hair cut tomorrow.

Other forms
I am going to get a haircut tomorrow.

Despite not technically a tense in English, the will/shall future form is frequently called the simple future or future simple.

The ESL Lesson Handout Library has a selection of Verb Tense and Aspect charts for your English learners to reference in class.
English Verb Tense and Aspect Chart 1
English Verb Tense and Aspect Chart 2
English Verb Tense and Aspect Chart 3

Aspects in English

Whereas the verb tense tells us when something happens, the aspect refers to the flow of time. Does the action take place in a single block of time? Does the action occur continuously? Is the action a repetitive occurrence?

All verbs have both tense and aspect and because there are three verb tenses (including the future forms), and four verb aspects, there are twelve possible combinations of tense and aspect.

The four aspects in English that you are no doubt already familiar with are:

Simple aspects
Expresses single actions, habits, and routines.

Continuous (or progressive) aspects
Expresses incomplete or temporary actions in progress at the time of speaking, or beforehand, or later.

Perfect aspects
Expresses the results of actions or events occurring in the past that are linked to a later time, usually the present.

Perfect continuous aspects
Expresses that an action or event took place over time, happened repeatedly, has only recently finished, or has not yet finished. There is tangible evidence that an action or event has finished.

Simple aspects

The simple aspects are usually, but not necessarily, accompanied by adverbs of time or frequency that indicate when an action happens, happened, or will happen.

Simple past

The simple past is used when talking about an action that was completed in the past. It doesn’t require an auxiliary verb. There are some patterns to observe when transforming specific verbs into their past forms. Most verbs in the past tense end with “-d” or “-ed” after its base form, while some change in spelling, and some are irregular.

  • I played rugby last summer.
  • I ate sushi yesterday.
  • I enjoyed reading.

Simple present

The simple present is typically used to show repetitive or habitual actions, routines, and general truths. As with the simple past, it doesn’t require an auxiliary verb in its construction. It may or may not be associated with adverbs of time and frequency to emphasize that a situation currently or repeatedly happens.

  • I eat sushi every day.
  • I play rugby.
  • I enjoy reading now.

Continuous aspects

The continuous (or progressive) aspects are used to talk about continuing or ongoing actions. They are easy to identify as they use the present participle form of a verb ending in ‘-ing’. The auxiliary verb ‘be’ is used in its conjunctions ‘am, are, and is’.

Past continuous

The past continuous expresses that an ongoing past action was happening at a specific moment of interruption, or that two ongoing actions were happening at the same time in the past.

  • I was watching TV when the power went out.

Present continuous

The present continuous expresses that actions are happening now, are in progress, temporary, or unfinished.

  • I am watching a movie right now.
  • He is still sleeping.

Future continuous

The future continuous expresses that an action will be happening sometime in the future. It typically uses ‘will be’ before the main verb in its construction.

  • I will be sleeping at 11 p.m. tonight.
  • I will be watching a movie later.

Perfect aspects

Perfect aspects are used to express that an action is complete and finished, or “perfected” at a point of reference. Perfect forms are constructed with the auxiliary verb have in its conjugations ‘has, have, and had’ and are used before a verb in its past participle form.

Past perfect

The past perfect is used to express that an action had already been completed before another action in the past.  To construct the past perfect, use ‘had + the past participle form of a verb’.

  • I had traveled to many countries before I got married.

Present perfect

The present perfect is used to express that an action has already been completed, was completed at an unspecified time in the past, or started in the past and continues to the present.  The present perfect is constructed using ‘has/have and the past participle of the main verb’.

  • I have seen this movie before.
  • She has played the flute since she was eight.

Future perfect

This form is not commonly used; however, it can be used to predict that an action is going to be completed before another action. Because of this, it should be accompanied with a specific time reference in the future.  If not, the simple future form could be used. The future perfect is constructed with ‘will have and the main verb in past participle form’.

  • The TV show will have ended by the time you finish dinner.

Perfect continuous aspects

In general, perfect continuous (also called the perfect progressive) express the duration an action or activity had been/has been/will have been done and usually includes the adverbs for and since.

It is used to say that an action or activity is, was, or will be continually occurring (continuing) but that it is, was, or will be completed at a later time.

Past perfect continuous

The past perfect continuous expresses that an action or activity started in the past and continued up until another time in the past. It is constructed using ‘had been and present participle form of the verb’.

  • I had been living in New Zealand before I moved to Japan.

Present perfect continuous

The present perfect continuous expresses that an action or activity started in the past and stopped recently, usually presenting with a result, or that an action or activity started in the past and is continuing now. This is often used with for or since. It follows the same construction as the past perfect continuous with have/has instead of had.

  • It has been raining and the ground is wet.
  • I have been living in New Zealand for 30 years.

Future perfect continuous

The future perfect continuous express that an action or activity will continue until it is completed at a point in the future. The action or activity may have started in the past or in the present and it is expected to continue into the future. The future perfect continuous is constructed with ‘will have been and the present participle of the verb’.

  • By this time next year, I will have been living in New Zealand for 31 years.
Iain MTEFL Contributor
Iain has over ten years of experience as an ESL/EFL instructor, teaching students of all ages. He has operated and managed an English language school and is now dedicated to creating teaching material.

Disclaimer  We aim to provide useful ESL and EFL teaching resources and educational ideas. Our articles are written by educators with extension TEFL experience. They contain only general information about teaching English as a foreign language and are meant purely for informational purposes.

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