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Grammar 101 for Writers: Tenses

by Jacky Dahlhaus

Tenses in language are used for time reference. There are many different constructions for time reference and not all languages use the same one. Basic tenses have a past, a present, and a future. Some languages have a past and a non-past (which is both the present and the future), while other languages have a future and non-future (which is the past and the present). Some languages don’t weave time into their verbs at all. Some languages differentiate near and remote pasts or near and remote futures.

Grammar 101 for Writers: Tenses

The English language uses the TAM system; the tense-aspect-mood system. Verbs mark the past, present, or future (the tense proper). They show if the action is being done (simple), is still ongoing (continuous), is completed (perfect), or an action that had been ongoing is now completed (perfect continuous). The four moods are:

  • indicative (assertion, denial, question of actuality, or strong probability)
  • imperative (request, direct order, permission, and strong suggestion)
  • conditional (if sentences, hypothetical results, reporting dialogue, polite speech)
  • subjunctive (desires, wishes, assumptions).

The indicative is the most used mood form in the English language.

English is a Germanic language that has a past and a present (non-past) and these tenses are formed morphologically (the tense is created with the verb only). The future tense is made with auxiliaries, i.e. it is made of the same non-past tense with a supplementary supporting word (will or shall).

The table below may help you understand

Tenses
Morphological With auxiliaries
Present Past Future
Aspects
Simple I work I worked I will work
Continuous I am working I was working I will be working
Perfect I have worked I had worked I will have worked
Perfect Continuous I have been working I had been working I will have been working

Tenses in verbs are a large subject in the English language. Therefore I will limit the forms to regular verbs and the examples to positive sentence structures (no negatives or questions). I won’t go into abbreviations either.

For the following explanation of the tenses, please note that the root of a verb is the base form of a verb (= whole verb minus –ing).

Example: working → verb root = work

Index:

Past

Present

Future

Timeline Graph

Past Tenses

Simple Past

Use when:

  • an action has happened once in the past
  • an action happened repeatedly in the past
  • an action was true for some time in the past
  • the word ‘ago’ is used in the sentence.

The action could have happened once, never, or several times, but both the beginning and the end of the action(s) lie in the past.

Form: verb root + -ed

Example: I worked all night to finish the chapter.

Example: He attended several workshops on writing.

Example: We lived there for years.

Example: It was a long time ago when she kissed him for the first time.

Signal or Keywords:

Past Continuous / Progressive

Use when:

  • an action was happening before and after another action or specific time in the past
  • an action is interrupted by another action
  • an action was happening for a while in the past
  • an action happened repeatedly
  • an action was evolving/growing
  • you want to indicate a change of mind in the past
  • two actions happened at the same time in the past
  • (you are wondering about something)

When you are wondering about something, you use the past continuous, but it is not a true time on the timeline.

Form: was/were + verb root + -ing

Example: He was lying in the grass when he had an epiphany.

Example: I was writing a paranormal novel when I was asked to write an article on grammar.

Example: She was working on that book for ages.

Example: He was reading to us every night.

Example: Their grasp of the English language was improving.

Example: We were thinking about entering a writers’ competition, but we don’t think we’re good enough.

Example: I was writing while he was making dinner.

Example: I was wondering if you could help me with my grammar.

Signal or Keywords:

Often Always Sometimes
Last (time frame; day, week, etc.) When Yesterday
(period of time) ago The other day In (year)

Past Perfect

Use when:

  • an action happened before another action or specific time in the past
  • an action happened before and up until another action in the past (example: live, work, teach, study)
  • using reported speech
  • (using if)

It is possible to use the simple past instead of the past perfect if ‘before’ or ‘after’ is used in the sentence to indicate the time the action happened.

You can’t use the past perfect if there is no specific time indication.

Form: had + past participle (= verb root + ed)

Example: She had always walked to work until she had the accident.

Example: He had lived in a student flat for years until he got his first job.

Example: I had thought her to be helpful, but she wasn’t.

Example: If he had worked harder, he would have finished his novel by now.

Signal or Keywords:

While When

Past Perfect Continuous / Progressive

Use when:

  • an action began at a certain time in the past and continued up until another specific time in the past
  • showing cause of an action (using ‘because’)
  • using reported speech
  • (using if)

Example: had been + present participle

Example: I had been buying books in the book store when I discovered online stores.

Example: She had been working all night because she didn’t work enough hours before.

Example: I had been reading my book before I looked up to see him standing there.

Example: If he had been paying attention, he would have gotten there faster.

Signal or Keywords:

When After Before
By the time Already Just
Never Not yet Until … (in the past)

Present Tenses

Simple Present

Use when:

  • an action is happening right now
  • an action happens regularly/never stops (and hence is sometimes called the present indefinite)
  • an action refers to timetables.

Form: Verb root

If that word ends in a consonant; you need to add an ‘e’). You also need to add an ‘s’ or ‘es’ in the third person (use ‘es’ when the root form ends in o, ch, sh, th, ss, gh, or z).

Example: I write novels, but she writes thrillers.

Example: He goes to work when she comes home.

Example: We always watch movies on Fridays.

Signal or Keywords:

For Since

Note that most of them indicate a frequency and the others a recurring time frame.

Present Continuous / Progressive

Use when:

  • an action is happening now
  • an action is certain to continue/stop in the near future.

Form: [be] + present participle (= verb root + -ing).

Example: I am writing tonight.

Example: He is finishing his novel this weekend.

Signal or Keywords:

Always Seldom After work
Often Never/Hardly ever First
Usually Every ... Then
Sometimes On Mondays

Present Perfect

Use when:

  • an action has happened in the past, but at an unspecified time
  • an action has an unfinished time (i.e. the action is happening all the way up to the present time)
  • an action has been recurring in the past up until now
  • an action has been completed in the very near past (usually indicated by ‘just’)

The present perfect explains why things are the way they are now; there is a connection between the past and the present. It is used to emphasise the result of a(n) (finished) action.

Form: have/has + past participle (= verb root + -ed)

Example: She has published five novels during her life.

Note that during her life doesn’t indicate exactly when; it is an unspecified time.

Example: I have finished my book and can rest now.

Example: Why is he happy? Because he has sold one hundred books.

Note that he is happy is written in the simple present, and the reason Because he has sold one hundred books is written in the present perfect as it is the reason for the current state.

Signal or Keywords:

Now For a few days Tonight
At the moment Always Later
Currently Forever This weekend
These days Constantly Little by little
Gradually Look Listen
Still At present Even now
Any longer Any more
Today This week This year
In my lifetime Just Yet
Never Already Ever
So far Up to now Recently
Since For Not yet
Lately Recently Once
It’s the first time

Present Perfect Continuous / Progressive

Use when:

  • an action has begun in the past (sometimes at an unspecified time) and has lasted up until now, but could still be going on.

In contrast to the present perfect, the action of the present perfect continuous isn’t finished. It could be seen as a time indication of the near past (lately, recently) and the result of that action is still visible, heard, or felt. It puts emphasis on the duration of the action, which is often temporary.

Form: has/have + been + present participle (=verb root + -ing)

Example: I have been writing this last hour and have cramp in my hand now.

Example: She has been teaching English for ten years, so she knows her grammar.

Signal or Keywords:

All day Since For
The whole time (…week, year, etc.) How long (used in a question)

Future Tenses

No future tense can be used in sentences beginning with time indications. In these cases and when referring to plans or arrangements, use the present continuous (please insert link).

Example: While I am focussing on my writing, my partner is going to cook dinner.

Simple Future

Use when:

  • a future action is predicted (using will or be going to)
  • a future action is planned/intended (using be going to)
  • an action is spontaneous (using will)
  • an action is offered/promised/threatened (using will), either given/made or talked about
  • an action is offered in a question (using shall…)
  • a future action is questioned (using what/where/how/why shall…)
  • the action is an order (using you will)
  • the action is an invitation

Shall is mainly used with ‘I’ and ‘we,’ use will for all other objects of the sentence.

Note that the simple future is used when the action in the future is not 100% certain to happen (it is predicted/planned/offered/promised, but not written in stone).

Form: will/shall + verb root or [be] + going to + verb root

Note that future tenses always use an auxiliary verb (will/shall or am/is/are + going to). These are verbs that help to convey the tense/aspect/mood of another verb.

Example: I will attend this workshop tonight. or I am going to attend this workshop tonight.

Example: She is going to catch the train to get there in time.

Example: I will pick her up from the station.

Example: She will come every Wednesday to help us.

Example: Shall we pick her up from the station together?

Example: What shall we give her for helping?

Example: You will give her something!

Example: Will you accept our gift?

Example: I would like to, but I can’t.

Signal or Keywords:

There are no specific signal or keywords for future tenses. The future is indicated when:

  • Using certain verbs would like, plan, want, mean, hope, expect, etc.
  • Using modals like may, might, and could if the future isn’t certain
  • Using should to indicate you want something to happen or something is likely to happen

Future Continuous/Progressive

Use when:

  • An action is going to start at an unspecified time in the future and will be happening and will still be happening at a specific time in the future (often accompanied by a future time indication)
  • An action is certain to happen
  • An action is being questioned
  • Two actions will be happening at the same time in the future

The future continuous stresses an action in the future that is/can/will/should be interrupted by another future action.

Form: will + [be] + present participle (= verb root + -ing)
or
[be] + going to be + present participle (= verb root + -ing)

Example: I will be addressing the media at noon tomorrow when I need to take my anti-stress pills.

Example: I am going to be working on the final chapter next week.

Example: Will you be helping me with my grammar?

Example: I will be writing and he will be reading.

Future Perfect Simple

Use when:

  • An action at a certain point in the future will have finished

Form: will + have + past participle (= verb root + -ed)

Example: I will have learned all tenses by the time I get to the end of this article.

Signal or Keywords:

By Before

Future Perfect Continuous/Progressive

Use when:

  • An action has already happened at a certain time in the future and is unfinished in a more distant future, often used with a time indication

Note that when using the future perfect continuous, you are stressing the duration of the action.

It is not a very often used tense in the English language.

Form: Form: will + have + been + present participle (= verb root + -ing)

Example: My novel will have been praised by many this time next year.
or
[be] + going to have been + present participle (= verb root + -ing)

Example: My novel is going to have been praised by many this time next year.

Beside the four future tenses, you can also talk about the future without a future verb tense by:

    Using the simple present when an action is in the immediate future

    Example: I throw the ball, you catch it.

    Using the simple present when an action is a scheduled event

    Example: You arrive on Thursday evening for the meeting Friday morning.

    Using the present continuous when an action is a future arrangement

    Example: She is working the night shift.

    Using the verb going to

    Example: We are going to do this!

    Using future obligations

    Example: She is to be wed to the old man.

I am aware that this explanation of tenses is far from complete/perfect, but I hope it will get the beginner writer a long way.

Here is a timeline graph that I made that I hope puts things into perspective.

Engllish tenses timeline

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