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  Home > TEFL Clinic > Teaching Knowledge > Understanding Grammar

Tenses


Firstly a brief explanation aimed at those who may have studied this area of the grammar of English before. EFL tends to simplify and to teach things piecemeal so you may well find yourself teaching things you know to be not quite correct. This is particularly true of the tense system. While most linguists would agree that English does not actually have a future tense and that our 'tenses' are very badly named we do not usually point either of these things out to the students, especially at lower levels. Please be tolerant.

  • The Tense Chart
  • Aspects
  • The Active and Passive Voices
  • The 'Present' Tenses

Tense Chart: The English tenses:

TenseExample
Past simple (or indefinite)She took him home.
Past continuous (or progressive)He was driving dangerously.
Past perfect simpleI had known him for many years. Then one day…
Past perfect continuousHe had been watching her for several months.
Present simpleHer husband does everything for her.
Present ContinuousHe is watching the match at the moment.
Present perfect simpleI have seen this movie before.
Present perfect continuousThey have been seeing each other for some time now.
Future simpleI will give her another chance.
Future continuousThey will be moving quite soon.
Future perfect simpleI will have completed the report by Monday.
Future perfect continuousHe will have been working here for thirty years come the end of next month.

Quiz 1: Using the examples in the table of tenses above answer the following questions:

1)  What form of the verb is used for the present simple - first, second or third?
2)  What form of the verb is used for the past simple?
3)  What two things do all of the perfect tenses have in common?
4)  What two things do all of the continuous tenses have in common?
5)  What do all of the future tenses have in common?

Check Answers

Aspects

An aspect is a grammatical category that helps us to understand the way the event described by a verb should be viewed. Amongst other things it can indicate that the event is fleeting, habitual, repeated or if it is in progress at the time of speaking. There are two aspects in English: progressive and perfect.

The progressive aspect is indicated by the presence of a form of the auxiliary verb be used in conjunction with the '-ing' form of the following verb:

1)  'I am coming with you!' 
2)  'He was strolling slowly down the lane.' 
3)  'You will be working with me.'

The perfect aspect is indicated by the presence of a form of the auxiliary verb have in conjunction with the past participle (third form) of the following verb:

4)  'She has bought a new car.'
5)  'She had once lived with a member of the government.' 
6)  'They will have eaten all the food before we get there.'

The two aspects can also be combined:

7)  'We have been visiting my grandmother, who is in hospital at the moment.'
8)  'He had been drinking heavily before the accident.' 
9)  'They will have been expecting for us for hours!'

Quiz 2: What are the tenses in 1 - 9 above?

Check Answers

The Meaning of the Progressive Aspect

In order to understand what meaning the progressive (sometimes called the continuous) aspect adds to a tense, we need to contrast it with the simple (sometimes called the indefinite). No doubt, you have already noticed that either the word 'continuous' or the word 'simple' is present in all of the tense names. We will start by studying two sentences with similar meaning.

1)  I live in Moscow.
2)  I am living in Moscow.

Which of the above sentences gives the impression of a temporary situation, and which seems to have no time limitation either in the past or the future?

The above question should present no difficulty but if you are uncertain try asking yourself to which sentence do you feel most comfortable in adding the words 'at the moment'?

The answer is, of course, the second. Why? Well, because the progressive aspect adds the idea of limited duration. Sentence 1 could be referring to the exact same speaker and circumstances as sentence 2. The choice made by the speaker will depend on the context and how the speaker feels about the situation. If the speaker has a definite idea of when he or she will move from Moscow, the 2nd sentence is more likely. If there is no particular need to stress the temporary nature of the situation, then the 1st is likely. Perhaps, for example, in response to questioning by police where their interest is clearly in the speaker's current place of residence and not in the fact that this residence is expected to last for only one year.

Police officer: Where do you live?

Responder: I live in Moscow. (Far more likely than 'I am living…')

Although the question 'Where are you living?' is possible, it presupposes some prior knowledge on the part of the questioner as to the temporary nature of the responder's residential situation. So is limited duration the only thing that the progressive aspect adds? No, but it is probably the most important.

Some verbs are rarely used in continuous tenses and some others are used in continuous tenses only when the verb in question has certain meanings. Many of these are 'state' verbs such as believe, doubt or know. Verbs used for the senses are also rare e.g. smell.

Quiz 3: Compare the following pairs of sentences and decide which are acceptable:

1a) I am believing you.
b) I believe you.
2a) He knows quite a lot about our operation.
b) He is knowing quite a lot about our operation.
3a) I've accidentally been cutting myself with the bread knife.
b) I've accidentally cut myself with the bread knife.
4a) I see what you mean.
b) I am seeing what you mean.

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The sentences in 3 above illustrate an interesting effect that the progressive aspect has on short action verbs. Grammatically sentence 3a is correct. In terms of grammar there is little difference between these two sentences:

  1. I've been cutting myself.
  2. I've been cutting wood.

Native speakers readily accept the second, but in accepting the first have to come up with a context involving some form of masochism or deliberate harm to oneself. Why? After all, the grammar is essentially the same. The answer lies in the fact that, 'cut' is a short action verb. We have already understood that the progressive causes the action to be extended over a limited period, but what if the verb can't be extended in time. 'Cut' for example takes a very short time in most contexts. In these cases the progressive still causes the action to be extended but does so by making the action repeat! So, when we are talking about an action that is repeated like 'cutting wood', the continuous seems natural. However, 'cutting myself' , is not something we would normally want to do and is therefore difficult for us to accept without some mental gymnastics to come up with a context in which repeatedly cutting oneself makes some sense.

The Meaning of the Perfect Aspect

Those of you who are from the USA will need to spend a little more time on this section than those from Britain since you use this aspect less frequently. The Perfect aspect relates an event, state or time to a later event state or time. Confused? You don't need to be. It's really quite simple. As before let's start with a couple of examples.

  1. I've seen that film already.
  2. I felt I knew him: I had heard so much about him.

Sentence (1) is an example of the present perfect tense. Do we know exactly when the speaker saw the film? What do we know about when he saw the film. The answer to the first question is - 'No, we do not'. The answer to the second is not very helpful if we really want to know when he saw it - At some point between his birth and the moment he made the above statement. The information contained in sentence (1) focuses on the fact that he did see the film and not on when he saw it. After all, when he saw it is unlikely to be of great interest to the listener.

Sentence (2) is an example of the past perfect tense. Did the event 'heard' happen before or after the event 'felt'? How do you know? The answers are: (a) Before; (b) Because the use of the past perfect means that 'heard' preceded 'felt'. When exactly did the speaker 'hear about him'? The answer is that we don't know. We only know that it was at some point (or points) in the speaker's life before she 'felt she knew him'. Once again, 'when' is not important here. In the unlikely event that the listeners, for some reason, wish to know 'When?', they will ask. Even then, it is uncertain they will get a satisfactory answer: the speaker probably 'heard about him' on many different occasions.

So, the perfect aspect is about 'beforeness': the present perfect is about before now; the past perfect before a point in the past; the future perfect before a point in the future. It has been said that the perfect tenses are the 'up to' tenses: Past perfect - up to a point in the past; Present perfect - up to now; Future perfect - up to a point in the future. The perfect aspect can also help us to understand the order in which events occurred, and allow us to talk more easily about things that happened at an unknown or indefinite time.

When used with a 'state' verb such as 'live' we understand that the 'state' exist(s)(ed) up to a point in time as the following examples demonstrate:

  1. I was sent to school in Wales even though we'd been living in France for as long as I could remember.
  2. He has been going out with Emily since last August.
  3. I will have worked for this company for ten years by next month.

Quiz 4: What are the two points in time related by the perfect verb forms in each of the above sentences?

Check Answers

The Active and Passive Voices

Firstly, it is necessary to understand what is meant by the word 'voice' when we use it as a grammar term. The linguistic term 'voice' describes how a language expresses the relationships between verbs and the nouns or noun phrases which are associated with them. Again we will contrast two sentences of similar meaning in order to help us to understand this.

  1. The police arrested David for being drunk and disorderly.
  2. David was arrested for being drunk and disorderly.

Quiz 5: a) How do the sentences differ in meaning? b) How does the second sentence differ from the first in structure? c) Which sentence would it be more usual to hear?

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Sentence (1) above is an example of the active voice while sentence (2) is in the passive voice. When we use the passive we do not usually state the agent. This is because it is obvious, unknown or unnecessary.

  1. I was arrested last night. (obvious)
  2. My car was stolen last night. (unknown)
  3. This tower was built in 1415. (unnecessary)

If we really wish to mention the agent in a passive sentence, we can do so by adding a phrase beginning with 'by'.

'This tower was built in 1415, by Sir Henry Rumboldt.'

So why might we choose to use the passive in sentences like this? The fact that Sir Henry built the tower is not obvious, unnecessary and it is certainly not unknown! Also computer grammar checkers are always highlighting them as something undesirable. Well, let's look more closely at the active and passive versions of the sentence.

  1. Sir Henry Rumboldt built this tower in 1415.
  2. This tower was built in 1415, by Sir Henry Rumboldt.

Which sentence is more likely to be found in a book about Sir Henry? Which is more likely in a book about the tower? Answers: (1) and (2) respectively. When the focus is on Sir Henry the active voice is more usual, and when it is on the tower the passive is more natural.

One more point, according to most EFL course books the passive is made with the auxiliary verb 'be' and the past participle (third form of the verb). This is not always the case. What is the difference in meaning between these sentences?

  1. I was arrested last night.
  2. I got arrested last night.

Answer: there isn't any difference. Hence the second sentence must be passive too as it has the same form as the first. This is sometimes called the 'get' passive.

The 'Present' Tenses

This has been added with the sole purpose of clearing up any lingering doubts about the relationship between time and tense. Consider the following three present simple sentences, and then decide whether or not each is about the present time and finally, if any are not about present time, when are they about?

  1. My train leaves at 6pm.
  2. Water boils at 100oC.
  3. She loves him.

No doubt, you have realised that sentence (1) is about the future. In relation to sentence (2), however, things aren't quite so clear cut. This is because the question 'When?' doesn't make much sense here. Sentence (2) certainly includes now but it is not only about now. It is about all time - past, present and future. Sentence (3) is much simpler it is talking about something that the speaker believes is true at this moment in time. So why is it called the present simple? The answer is largely historical and not relevant here. The fact of the matter is that it is called the present simple, and there is nothing we can do about it even if we wanted to. If it helps, there is an element of present time even about sentence (1). It is a present fact that the train is scheduled to leave at 6pm.

The important thing to remember about the present simple is that the use of this tense to indicate future time as in sentence (1) often confuses students. As an EFL teacher your job is to explain, and to get them to accept the use. We do this by telling them that we use the present simple in this case because it is part of a timetable. This is not the whole truth, but we need to give them something solid to hold onto.

Now let us turn to the present continuous.

Quiz 6: Consider the following sentences and then decide if they refer to present time. If not, what time do they refer to?

  1. I'm flying to Paris on Monday.
  2. I'm watching the cup final on TV.
  3. At this time on Monday mornings, I'm usually rushing to catch the train to work.

Check Answers

As you can see, like the present simple the use of the present continuous isn't only about now. Interestingly, even when it is being used to talk about what is happening now it doesn't necessarily follow that the action it describes is going on at this exact second. For example:

(Extract from a telephone conversation)

A: So, what are you doing now?

B: Oh, I'm fixing the roof. That storm we had the other day loosened some tiles. What about you?

A: Not much, I'm reading War and Peace for my English exam, but it's heavy going. Fancy going out for a quick drink at The King's Head?

In neither case is it likely that the speakers are actually actively involved in their tasks while they are on the phone. So the present continuous can also be used to talk about a limited duration activity that has begun but is not yet complete. Given her level of interest, it might take weeks for speaker B to finish War and Peace but during that time it is perfectly acceptable for her to say that she is reading it, even though much of the time, in reality, she is not.

Moving on to the Present Perfect Simple. In the following sentence, what is the time frame; past, present or future?

  • I've only been to Germany once.

Answer: The past but we don't know from this sentence exactly when. Even though this is one of the 'Present tenses', it is actually about the past.

Although the meaning of the tense is 'up to now' (see Aspects above), the link to 'now' does not have to be closed by the action itself.

Quiz 7: Look at the present perfect and past simple sentences below:

I've written seven letters this morning.
 
I wrote seven letters this morning.

1)  In the first (present perfect) sentence, what time of day is it?
2)  And what time of day is it in the second (past simple) sentence?
3)  How do we know?
4)  In the present perfect sentence, do we know whether the writer has finished for the morning?
5)  What is finished in the first sentence?
6)  In the first sentence, when did the writer finish writing the seventh letter?

Check Answers

Quiz 8: If the speaker is speaking now, what is the difference in meaning between these sentences?

Charlie Chaplin wrote an autobiography about Laurel and Hardy.

Charlie Chaplin has written an autobiography about Laurel and Hardy.

Check Answers

And finally, the Present Perfect Continuous operates in exactly the same way as the Present Perfect Simple but with the added meaning of the continuous aspect (see Aspects above).

There is no need to discuss in depth the 'future' and 'past' tenses at this stage as we have in effect dealt with them when considering aspects. Additionally, we will be looking at them again in the module on Presenting Grammar.

End of Section 2

Go to Section 2 Test

Answer to Quiz Questions

Answers to Quiz 1: Tenses

1)  The present simple uses the first form of the verb.
2)  The past simple uses the second form of the verb.
3)  All of the perfect tenses use the auxiliary verb have and the third form of the verb that follows have.
4)  All of the continuous tenses use the verb be and the -ing form of the verb following it.
5)  All of the future tenses use will in the first position of the verb phrase.

Back to Text

Answers to Quiz 2: Aspects

1)  Present continuous
2)  Past continuous
3)  Future continuous
4)  Present perfect
5)  Past perfect
6)  Future perfect
7)  Present perfect continuous
8)  Past perfect continuous
9)  Future perfect continuous

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Answers to Quiz 3: Simple Vs Continuous

1)  b
2)  a
3)  b
4)  a

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Answers to Quiz 4: The Perfect Aspect

1)  The speaker's earliest memory and the moment of being sent to school in Wales.
2)  Last August and the moment of speaking (now).
3)  When the speaker began working for the company and next month.

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Answers to Quiz 5: Active/Passive

a)  They mean the same.
 
b)  Three things have changed in the second sentence: The agents (the police) do not appear in this version of the sentence; The noun 'David' which was the object of the first sentence has moved and is now in the role of the subject of the sentence; The auxiliary verb 'be' has been inserted before the main verb.
 
c)  The second: it is not necessary to state that the police did the arresting that is understood since it is comparitively rare that someone is arrested by anyone other than a police officer.

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Answers to Quiz 6 Present Continuous

1)  The future although, a strong arrangement already exists in the present - the speaker probably has a ticket.

2)  We don't know for sure. If the speaker is on the telephone and responding to a question such as 'What are you doing?' then it is about present time. On the other hand, the speaker could be responding to a question like 'What are you doing on Saturday?' In which case, it would seem to be about the future.

3)  The word 'usually' gives us the clue. This sentence is about a habitual action so 'When?' is not a useful question. It certainly refers to the past. It certainly does not refer to the speaker's present since we understand that for some reason it is not true about this Monday. The future? Probably not. The habitual action may be in temporary abeyance if the speaker is, for example, on holiday. It could equally well be finished forever if the speaker has just retired for instance. The sentence doesn't help us with this so it's easier to think of it as about the past.

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Answers to Quiz 7: Present Perfect

1)  It's still morning.
2)  Either the afternoon or the evening of the same day.
3)  Because the use of the past simple shows that morning is 'finished' but the use of 'this' tells us that the day isn't finished.
4)  No we don't.
5)  Seven letters are finished, the writer might intend to write another this morning.
6)  We don't know. It might have been an hour ago or just now. The only thing we do know is that it was earlier this morning.

Back to Text

Answers to Quiz 8: Laurel and Hardy

They cannot be about the same Laurel and Hardy. The first is probably about the Laurel and Hardy who were famous film stars in the nineteen thirties and forties and who are now both dead, whereas the second must be about some other Laurel and Hardy who are alive and working now.

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