12 Types Of Verb Tenses And How To Use Them

If you’re familiar with basic English grammar, we bet you can describe a verb and perhaps name a tense or two. In the sentences the boy walks and the girl ran, the words walks and ran are the verbs.

Did you also recognize that walks is in the present tense? Whether you did or didn’t, we’re here to review verb tenses with you and also astound you with the fact that there are 12—count them, 12—verb tenses in all!

What is a verb tense?

Verb tenses identify the time period when an action occurs. The verb walks communicates not only how many people completed the action (it’s singular), but also when it occurred. In this case, the tense is present. The person walks right now.

Interestingly, not all languages treat verb tenses the same way. In English, the ending on a verb communicates what tense it’s in. (Walk becomes walks and walked.) In some cases, an auxiliary verb (a helping verb like will or need) is required as well. In Chinese, for example, a verb doesn’t change its spelling depending on the tense. A separate word (or particle) is combined with the verb to explain when it occurred.

12 types of verb tenses

The simple tenses (past, present, and future) are the most basic forms, but there are 12 major verb tenses in English in all.

We’ll review the tenses here.

Past tense

Simple past

The simple past tense describes events that have already happened and are completely finished. Most verbs can be made past tense by adding -d or -ed at the end of a present tense verb, as in liked and watched.

However, many irregular verbs have unique past tense forms. For example, go becomes went, and think becomes thought.

Simple past is usually used to write about historical events, like so:

 

  • Galileo observed the stars.

Past continuous

The past continuous tense describes an ongoing activity that occurred in the past. It is formed by combining the verb to be and a verb that ends in -ing:

  • The planet was moving along an elliptical orbit.

Past perfect

The perfect tenses involve more complex time relationships. They build upon simple tenses by combining a verb with has, have, or had.

The past perfect tense describes a past event in relation to another event that occurs closer to the present. It is formed by combining had and adding the -ed ending to a base verb.

 

  • The girl bought the telescope her teacher had recommended to her.

The girl bought (simple past) what the teacher had recommended (past perfect tense). One action occurred (had recommended) before the other (bought).

Past perfect continuous

The past perfect continuous tense describes an ongoing action that—like the past perfect—was performed in relation to another event that occurs closer to the present.

 

  • He had been studying for his astronomy final when the doorbell rang.

Present tense

Simple present

The simple present tense describes events happening now. It’s also useful for describing a direct action that’s not exclusive to the past or future.

Sentences in present tense often have the most straightforward structure because they use root verbs and to be verbs. A root verb is the basic form of a verb, such as watch or travel. To be verbs express states of being.

Here is one example:

 

  • She is happy.

Present continuous

The present continuous tense describes an ongoing activity that is happening now, in the present. It is formed by combining the verb to be and a verb that ends in -ing:

 

  • The baby is laughing at Shelly’s monkey puppet.

Present perfect

The present perfect tense describes a past event that’s still happening in the present.

Let’s look at this sentence:

 

  • The baby has played this game before.

In this example, the verb tense helps convey the length of time the baby has played the same game.

Present perfect continuous

The present perfect continuous tense describes an ongoing action that was performed in relation to another event that is still occurring in the present.

 

  • Shelly has been babysitting for years.

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Future tense

Simple future

The simple future tense describes events that haven’t happened yet. It’s useful for describing an intended action or a prediction. It’s typically formed by combining an auxiliary verb with a root verb.

For example:

 

  • Molly will finish her chores when she has time.

The word will is an auxiliary verb, and finish is the root verb. Together, they explain that Molly intends to do her chores at a later point in time.

Future perfect tense

The future perfect tense describes an upcoming action in relation to another event farther in the future.

It typically requires an auxiliary verb, as in:

 

  • By tomorrow afternoon, Olivia will have finished her report.

Will have indicates that Olivia’s report is incomplete right now, but it will be finished in the future.

Future continuous tense

The future continuous tense describes an activity that will extend over a period of time and will happen in the future. It is formed by combining the verb will be and a verb that ends in -ing:

 

  • I will be working all afternoon, so I can’t help Olivia with her report.

Future perfect continuous

The future perfect continuous tense describes an action that will extend over a period of time and will be performed in relation to another future event.

 

  • When this show ends, Molly will have been watching TV for three hours.

Verb tense consistency

To avoid confusion, you should use one consistent tense whenever possible.

Wrong: The crowd claps and laughed at the comedian.
Right: The crowd clapped and laughed at the comedian.

The incorrect example contains both a present tense verb (claps) and a past tense verb (laughed). This can be confusing. If both actions are past or present, both verbs should have the same tense.

Sometimes, it can be useful to switch tenses to describe actions that occur at different times. Jane Goodall does this in My Life with the Chimpanzees: “We have talked with the chiefs of all the villages in the area, and they will help us.” The present perfect verb have talked shows that Goodall’s discussions began in the past and continued until the present. The simple future verb will help refers to an upcoming event.

 

We have another tricky subject for you to master: when to use has vs. have.