Grammar 101 for Writers: Tenses
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.
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
|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
- 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:
|Last (time frame; day, week, etc.)||When||Yesterday|
|(period of time) ago||The other day||In (year)|
|By the time||Already||Just|
|Never||Not yet||Until … (in the past)|
|Now||For a few days||Tonight|
|At the moment||Always||Later|
|These days||Constantly||Little by little|
|Still||At present||Even now|
|Any longer||Any more|
|Today||This week||This year|
|In my lifetime||Just||Yet|
|So far||Up to now||Recently|
|It’s the first time|
Present Perfect Continuous / Progressive
- 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:
|The whole time (…week, year, etc.)||How long (used in a question)|
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.
- 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
- 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)
[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
- 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:
Future Perfect Continuous/Progressive
- 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.
[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.