Like all languages, English verb tenses (times) are the future, the present and the past. Each of these times can be specified in terms of simple, continuous (progressive), perfect and perfect continuous (progressive). Let us identify each of theses time references.
Present simple means that the action happens regularly. We use time words that will show that. Some of these words are: always, often, seldom, sometimes, never, usually, and frequently. Example: I seldom go to the movies.
Past simple means that the action happened once in the past. Time words that will show such meaning may include: yesterday, last night, last week, last year and any other word that indicate past. Example: I watched a movie on television last night.
Future simple means that the action will happen once in the future. Time words that will indicate such tense may include, tomorrow, next week, next year, later and any other word that will show future. Example: I will go to the movies tomorrow.
Verb forms change to indicate the time in which the verb occurs. In the present, verbs do not change unless the subject is a singular third party: he, she and it.
To illustrate this, let us look at verb to work. In the present time we will say:
I work every day.
You work everyday.
We work everyday.
They work everyday.
Notice that verb 'work' has not changed. It remains in the same form. But look at the following:
She works everyday.
He works everyday.
It works everyday.
Notice that the verb ends in (s) to reflect that singular third party he, she and it.
In the past, the verb form changes to reflect the past. Most verbs in English end in (-ed) when used in the past.
Let us consider the same verb 'work' in the past:
I worked yesterday.
You worked yesterday.
We worked yesterday.
They worked yesterday.
She worked yesterday.
He worked yesterday.
It worked yesterday.
Notice that the verb ends in (-ed) every time regardless of the subject.
In English, however, we have many verbs that take different forms. We call these verbs 'irregular verbs' because their forms are irregular. A good example of these verbs is 'to eat' which in the past changes to 'ate'.
I ate breakfast this morning.
Later in the course we shall examine some of the most confusing irregular verbs. Meantime, it is a good idea to try to watch for such verbs as you are studying.
The future is the easiest. All we do is add 'will' before the verb.
For example: I will work tomorrow.
Three major verbs in English:
When I was learning English as a third language, I found that there are three very unusual, yet very important verbs. These verbs are unusual in their usage as well as in their meaning. Similar to some languages, and unlike many others, English verbs to be, to do and to have are very peculiar. They are used on one hand as main verbs with their own meaning,
I am a student.
I do my homework every day.
I have a car.
On the other hand, they function as helping verbs without a meaning of their own but they add to the meaning of the verb they are helping, for example:
I am studying.
What did you say?
I have done my homework.
Let me try to clarify the meaning and usage of these verbs.
Verb 'to be'
Similarly to most languages on this planet, verb 'to be' is the backbone of the linguistic structure of English. It does not indicate an action. It describes a state of being; it is a verb of existence. It is what I am, what you are or what one is not what one does, but what one is. However, this verb may be used to assist other verbs in creating a special tense (time) or a special structure. In order for one to be able to manipulate this verb, one must learn to conjugate it with the various nouns and/or pronouns.
Here are the possible forms that verb to be may appear in:
Present Simple Tense:
I am a student.
You are a student.
We are students.
They are students.
He is a student.
She is a student.
It is a car.
Past Simple Tense:
I was a student.
You were a student.
We were students.
They were students.
He was a student.
She was a student.
It was sunny yesterday.
Future Simple Tense:
I will be at school tomorrow.
You will be at school tomorrow.
We will be at school tomorrow.
They will be at school tomorrow.
He will be at school tomorrow.
She will be at school tomorrow.
It will be sunny tomorrow.
Present Progressive Tense:
I am being
You are being
They are being
He is being
She is being
p.s. pay attention to this form; it is most confusing to learners of English.
Past Progressive Tense:
I was being
You were being
We were being
They were being
He was being
She was being
It was being
Future Progressive Tense:
It is awkward to use, thus never used- however, just to know the rule, you add will for the future.
Present Perfect Tense:
I have been a student for one year.
You have been a student for one year.
We have been students for one year.
They have been students for one year.
He has been a student for one year.
She has been a student for one year.
It has been sunny all week.
Past Perfect tense:
I had been - you had been we had been they had been he had been she had been it had been
Future Perfect tense:
I will have been - you will have been we will have been they will have been he will have been she will have been it will have been
Verb 'to have'
To a learner of English as a foreign language (EFL and ESL), verb to have could cause difficulties. It is, without a doubt, an unusual verb in the sense that it functions in various ways, which can be confusing. However, if the learner can identify the three different ways this verb is used, he or she will find that the formula is rather simple.
(1) To Have as a main verb:
Verb to have functions as any other action verb and it implies the meaning of possession.
For example, when one says: I have a car, I have a house, or I have a book, one means that s/he possesses a car, a house, or a book.
The forms of verb to have are as simple as any other verb:
** I have- you have she has he has (notice that the third party singular takes S-has) we have- they have- it has
** I had you had- she had- he had- we had- hey had- it had
(Notice that all nouns and pronouns take had in the past tense.)
** I am having- you are having she is having he is having - we are having - they are having- it is having
(Notice the use of the verb to be + have + -ing; this is the present progressive tense.
To make the past progressive tense, you just change the verb to be to the past.)
** I have had you have had - she has had he has had - we have had- they have had- it has had
(Notice the use of the verb to have twice. Although this may confuse you, you should realize that the first time to have is used as an auxiliary, and the second time is the actual verb meaning to own. Notice that has is used with she/he/it; this is particularly confusing to ESL/EFL students. It will be explained when we discuss the perfect tense.)
(2) To Have as an auxiliary:
Verb to have is also used as an auxiliary to help other verbs create the perfect tense, for example, I have studied English for five years; or I have visited Vietnam.
This does not pose a problem except when the main verb is the verb to have meaning to own or possess.
For example, I have had my car for ten years. Have here is the auxiliary and had is the main verb in the en form.
Therefore, you ought to remember that verb 'to have' functions both as a main verb meaning to own and as an auxiliary verb to help other verbs create the perfect tense.
(3) The use of Have to:
In addition to the two forms you learned above, there is another use for have in the expression have to; meaning must. This, of course, must be followed by another verb.
For example, I have to visit my brother tonight. She has to see the doctor. And in the past tense, We had to write a paragraph.
Verb 'to do'
To do is also an unusual verb and can be confusing to non-native English speakers. Because of the lack of exact translation of the verb to do in other languages, non native speakers confuse it with the verb to make. In fact, most French and Spanish dictionaries list the verb to do as the verb to make. This, however, is not necessarily true. While verb to do and to make may overlap in other languages, in English they are two separate verbs, distinguished and with different meanings.
While in Spanish one may say, Yo hago cafe todos los dias, one may not say in English, I do coffee every day. And the equivalent verb in French is faire, which means make, do, create, form, perform, effect, and many other meanings. Hence, to fully understand this verb, one must look at it with only an English eye; this means that one must not try to translate this action verb literally.
Verb to do functions as a main verb with its own meaning that is very different from make. For example," I do my homework every day I do my laundry every Saturday, but, I make coffee every morning I make dinner every night.
More functions for verb to do
While verb to do works as a main verb, it also functions in two separate ways: as an emphasis verb and as an auxiliary verb in the question form.
(1) For emphasis:
To do may be used to emphasize another verb, to put stress on it, or to make it stand out.
Example, when one says: Do come in, Do sit down, Do call at any time, one is emphasizing the verb come, sit, and call. Verb to do" here is merely used to make the action verbs out and to show sincerity on the part of the speaking person. This form is not commonly used in the United States; however, it is used often in England and Canada. People refer to this kind of speech as Queen's English or what one might call White House English.
(2) For questions and negative statements:
Verb to do is also used as an auxiliary verb that helps create questions. For example, one must ask, did you go to school yesterday? And not, You went to school yesterday? All questions about actions must include verb to do unless the question is a perfect tense in a progressive form.
To do is used to make action verbs negative, as in, I don't get up early, or Bill didn't come to class, unless the negative statement is in a perfect or progressive tense.
Tenses and forms of verbs
The following may help you avoid errors in verb tenses or verb forms:
Just like most languages, English verbs have several forms, and each verb tense uses a particular form. These are the possible forms followed by two examples, a regular verb and an irregular verb:
Infinitive: To work- to eat
simple: work (s)- eat (s)
progressive: working - eating
past: worked - ate
past participle: worked eaten
** Note that some books refer to the progressive form as the present participle and to the past participle as the en form. Note also that the term continuous is sometimes used instead of progressive.
Verb tenses are divided into three major times:
Future * Present * Past
Each time is divided into four different tenses:
Simple * Progressive * Perfect * Perfect Progressive
Final Thought and Summary:
While in England, I learned that acquiring English was neither easy nor impossible. I learned that there was always some way to the top of the mountain. It was just a matter of finding and choosing the best path to follow; if the chosen path was too complex to make progress, it was necessary to go back and choose another route. I hope that my students will do the same, recognizing that their English is certain to improve, given time and dedication. (I remember this analogy from a book I read many years ago while at Oxford University)
Learning some rules can be helpful
The following are some general rules that you may find useful:
1- Usually, use a gerund after a preposition.
2- Remember that i comes always before e except after c
3- Learn the prefixes and the suffixes they will help you figure out the meaning of unknown vocabulary.
4- Remember that you cannot have a verb in an in form without using the verb to be as an auxiliary verb; unless the verb is used as a noun or an adjective.
I am working- she was playing-
We have been studying- he had been sleeping
5- Verb to be is used as an auxiliary verb only in two ways:
A- to make the progressive tense- we are working.
B- to make the passive voice- the bank was robbed.
6- Modals are very special words, each of which has its own meaning; and the past form of a modal does not necessarily mean the past tense.
7- If you use the verb to have as an auxiliary verb, the main verb must be in the en form, the past participle.
I have eaten.
8- In reported speech, when the main verb is past, you must remember to move back all the verbs in the quotes by one degree. This means that in reported speech, all the present tense will be moved to the past tense; all the past tense will be moved to the past perfect tense; and all past perfect tense will stay the same because no tense goes back farther than past perfect.
i.e. She said to her boyfriend: Why did you come late?
Notice that verb come is in the past (did
come) then it will have to be moved to past perfect (had come) thus:
She asked her boyfriend why he had come late.
8- Remember that the use of prepositions is strictly cultural and there is no explanation as to why in English we use different proposition than in French, Spanish, Italian or other languages.
10- Learning the nine rules above will make writing a lot easier and a lot more fun.
Frequently Asked Questions:
Q. What is the -en form?
A. Some textbooks refer to the past participle as the -en form. There are five possible forms to a verb:
the infinitive form (to go, to work, to eat),
the -S form which is used with the singular third person in the simple present (goes, works, eats),
the -ing form which is used in the progressive tense with verb to be before it, and is also the gerund as we will see later in the course (going, working, eating),
the -ed form which is the past tense (went, worked, ate), and the -en form which is the past participle (gone, worked, eaten).
Notice that the -ed or -en forms do not necessarily mean that the verb ends in -ed or -en. Consider the following verbs in the past:
worked, went, ate
worked, gone, eaten
Q. How do we know what form the verb is in if it is written the same, for example verb work is worked in the -ed and worked in -en?
A. We know what form the verb is in because of the auxiliary before it. For example if the verb is preceded with verb to have, then most certainly the form is in the -en, like in
I have eaten, she has gone, or we had worked.
Q. What is the difference between I am a teacher and I am teaching?
A. In the first sentence verb to be has a meaning on its own; it is a verb of existence, a verb of a state of being. In the sentence I am a teacher, we are referring to a state of being; it is what the speaker is. In the second sentence, verb to be does not have a meaning on its own; it merely helps the main verb (to teach) to create the progressive form. To elaborate further, we can say that in the first sentence the main verb is 'be' and in the second sentence the main verb is 'teach'.
Q. What is the significance of verb to do?
A. Verb to do is a very important verb in English. It has many uses. First, we need to use verb to do to create action questions, such as 'Do you speak English?' 'Does she go to school?' 'Did you watch the movie? Without verb to do these sentences will not be questions.
http://www.lang.uiuc.edu/r-li5/esl/ The simple present tense
http://www.lang.uiuc.edu/r-li5/esl/ The simple past tense
http://www.lang.uiuc.edu/r-li5/esl/ The past continuous
http://www.lang.uiuc.edu/r-li5/esl/ The present perfect
http://www.pacificnet.net/~sperling/quiz/iverb1.html Irregular verbs
http://www.pacificnet.net/~sperling/quiz/vtr.html Verb tense review
http://www.pacificnet.net/~sperling/quiz/wordf1.html Word forms