Perfecting Past, Present, and Future: Verb Tenses Made Easy (Part II)

If ever there was a subject deserving of a two-parter, it's verb tense. Last time, we gave an overview of the three primary tenses and the four grammatical aspects at play in each of them. What we didn't do, however, was break down each of the specific combinations of tenses and aspects and their use cases.

So ... that's what we're going to do!

Whether you still found yourself unsure after the last post, want to drive it all home, or are just a glutton for punishment, this one goes out to you.

Swirls on a dark road - Perfecting Past, Present, and Future: Verb Tenses Made Easy (Part II)
"Shortly after this photo was taken, the light painter was tragically struck by a vehicle."

This post brought to you by guest blogger Tyrone Couch.

Past Tenses

Simple Past

In the vast majority of cases, simple past can be achieved by adding the suffix –ed to a regular verb (or –d where the verb already ends with e).

Of course, 'regular' implies the existence of 'irregular' verbs, and those are the ones you need to be wary of. An example of an irregular verb is begin: rather than begined, it becomes began. Your best bet to avoid getting caught out here here is to brush up on your irregular verbs. While the list isn't enormous, it does include many high frequency verbs, so it's worth getting them under wraps.

She slapped the glass from my hand, and it shattered on the floor.

Past Perfect

[had] + [past participle]

Ah, good ol' pluperfect. In short, this is the one you want to deploy when you're dealing with more than one past action and need to establish which one happened first.

It wasn't until I looked at my leg that I had realised I was bleeding.

Past Continuous

[was/were] + [present participle]

Past continuous is used when showing an ongoing action in the past. More often than not, it crops up when depicting an action that was interrupted, or when referring to an old behaviour that didn't carry on into the present.

He was always shoving his nose into places it didn't belong.

was enjoying myself until the police arrived.

Past Perfect Continuous

[had] + [been] + [present participle]

Much like past perfect, the past perfect continuous deals with two past actions, but with the distinction that the primary action was ongoing (as opposed to a once-off occurrence).

had been putting up with my neighbour's dog for too long before I made a complaint.

Present Tenses

Simple Present

It doesn't get any simpler (or present...er) than no frills, no-strings-attached actions in the present. The only real consideration here is the change in suffix when the subject is third person and singular: if the verb ends in ch, gh, o, sh, ss, th, or z, add –es; or if it ends in a consonant and a y, drop the y and add –ies.

She sits down on the grass, arches her back to stretch, and tries to relax.

Present Perfect

[have/has] + [past participle]

Ever-present as it may be, the large range of use cases for the present perfect tense can make it tricky to work with. This tense describes repetitive past actions, incomplete actions that are ongoing, actions completed recently, and actions that are almost finished, making it difficult to pin down exactly where it lands on the spectrum. The formula above, however, should make using and identifying it fairly straightforward.

He has shown remarkable improvement in both his studies and his attitude.

Present Continuous

[am/is/are] + [present participle]

When you're looking to show an action happening right now or in the immediate future, present continuous is your go-to.

"I am working at the moment, so I'll have to call you back later."

I'm not really working; my friends and I are heading to a bar.

Present Perfect Continuous

[have/has] + [been] + [present participle]

This one expresses an ongoing action that started in the past and is carrying on into the present. Most often, its purpose is to draw attention to how long the action is taking.

have been standing in line for over two hours now.

The siren has been sounding for what feels like forever.

Future Tenses

Simple Future

Simple future deals with actions that have yet to occur, but will (either definitely or hypothetically) happen in the more distant future. Using it is as simple as placing the modal verb 'will' before the root form of the main verb.

will see you again someday.

Future Perfect

[will] + [have] + [past participle]

Like simple future, future perfect is used for actions that will take place in the non-immediate future, but the distinction is that they will take place at a specific time. The time may be defined literally, or in relation to another action or event.

In three days, I will have been president for four years.

By the time you read this, it will have been too late to stop me.

Future Continuous

[will] + [be] + [present participle]

When future actions will be occurring over a period of time, particularly when that time is defined, future continuous is your friend.

You can guarantee that I will be napping from 1pm through to at least 3pm.

Future Perfect Continuous

[will] + [have] + [been] + [present participle]

These ongoing future actions will continue up to a certain point (which is usually specified).

My father will have been travelling overseas for four years next February.

Terminus Est

Between this post and the previous one, it is my sincere hope that we've managed to penetrate the dark corners of verb tense, its rules, and inevitable exceptions. It's something that trips up even the most native of native English speakers, so if it takes some time to sink in, don't lose heart! You can always return here for reference.

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