Tense uses the verb to indicate the relationship between the time an action, situation, or condition occurs and the time of speaking.

I'll take the bus to work tomorrow. (The time of speaking is present. The action will take the bus is future in relation to the time of speaking in the present.)
The telephone rang and rang. (The time of speaking is present. The action telephone rang occurred before the time of speaking.)

The English language has several structures that convey the relationship of events to the time of speaking.

There are 12 verb tenses in English. The verb action can take place in the past the present or the future. There are usually word clues that give a guide as to when the verb action occurs. Within each of these times there are four different situations that occur. Simple tenses occur at a point in time, or on a repeated or habitual basis. A progressive or continuous tense indicates that the action takes place over time and these tenses always use part of the verb be as the first part of the verb phrase and end with the main verb + ing. A perfect tense always uses part of have as the first part of the verb phrase and ends with the past form of the main verb. A perfect progressive tense starts with the relevant part of the verb have followed by been and ends with the main verb + ing. If youremember these basic rules, you can always identify the verb tense being used, or use the verb tense you need without having to continually refer to a text book or table. Meanwhile, a chart like the one given here, can provide a quick and easy reference until you feel comfortable using the various verb tenses. Also pay attention to the time clues in the following chart; while some of them can be used with more than one verb tense, they do restrict the number of possibilities and help you to understand which verb tense is being used, or which verb tense you should use.

Chart—Active Verb Tenses

There are many words that are time clues; some can be used to indicate a number of tenses, for instance that something happened in the past or that it will happen in the future. If you learn to recognize these time clues, you will find them very helpful. Note that some time clues can be used with more than one verb tense and also that this table is not a complete listing of all the time clues that can be used with all of the tenses

Chart—Time Clues and Verb Tense

The Simple Tenses

Neither the Simple Present nor the Simple Past uses auxiliary verbs in indicative statements. The Simple Future, however, uses will. Questions in the Simple Present use do or does as the auxiliary; in the Simple Past did is used.

Simple Present
Simple Past

Many verbs are irregular in the Simple Past. These irregular forms need to be learned. See Irregular Verbs at the end of this section.

Simple Future

Progressive Tenses

The progressive tenses all use the relevant part of be as the auxiliary verb, and the main verb has an -ing ending.

past      was, were      work      -ing
present      am, is, are      work      -ing
future      will be      work      -ing
Present Progressive

The verb is going + to do (something) is a commonly used structure for expressing future intent.

We are going to watch a movie next Saturday evening.
We are goingto have Bob and Sue over for dinner.

Past Progressive
Future Progressive

Perfect Tenses

The perfect tenses all use the relevant part of have as the auxiliary verb, and the main verb is the past participle form.

past      had      walked
present      have, has      walked
future      will have      walked

Many verbs have an irregular past participle; these irregular past participles must be learned. See Irregular Verbs at the end of this section.

Present Perfect

The following words are often used with the present perfect:

already      never      recently      in the past few days, weeks, etc.
yet      ever      lately      this week, year, century, etc.
since      just      so far       

He's already started college, but he hasn't had any results yet.
He's matured a lot since he started.
Jane has never had any difficulty making friends.
Have you ever been abroad?
Things have worked out well so far.
There have been a lot of absences recently.
I haven't seen Greg around lately. Is he alright?
In the last few days, the station has had over eighty requests for that song.
I've read that technology has advanced more in this century than in the previous ten.

Past Perfect
Future Perfect

Perfect Progressive Tenses

The perfect progressive tenses use the relevant perfect tense of the verb be as the auxiliary verbs; the main verb has the -ing progressive ending.

past      had been      watch      -ing
present      have been, has been      watch      -ing
future      will have been      watch      -ing
Present Perfect Progressive
Past Perfect Progressive
Future Perfect Progressive

Irregular Verbs

There are a number of irregular verbs in English; they are irregular in the simple past form and, or, the past participle. Rather than learning each verb separately, many of the verbs can be put into a group of verbs that change their form in a similar way. If you are in any doubt about a verb, whether it is irregular or not, or the exact form that an irregular verb takes, your dictionary is a good reference. Many dictionaries contain a supplement listing a large number of irregular verbs alphabetically; they all indicate in the main listing if a verb is irregular, and if so the form(s) it takes.

Note:   V = vowel
    C = consonant
Group I Verbs
Chart—Group I Verbs
Group II Verbs

The simple past and past participle forms are the same.

Chart—Group II Verbs
Group III

The simple past is different from the other verb forms; the past participle is the same as the infinitive.

Chart—Group III Verbs
Group IV

The verb form stays the same in the infinitive, simple past and past participle.

Chart—Group IV Verbs
Group V

The simple past is the same as the verb name; the past participle is different

Chart—Group V Verbs


The English language has two voices, active and passive; however, in formal writing, the active voice is always preferred because it is more direct and forceful than the passive.

The passive form of verbs is not often used in writing now; most instructors prefer their students to use the active voice as it gives more power to the writing and it is more direct. There are special circumstances, however, when using a passive construction is preferable. It is also important to recognize passive constructions when you are reading so that you can understand them correctly.

Someone stole my pen. (Active)
My pen was stolen. (Passive)

There are circumstances, however, in which the passive voice is preferred.

  Past Present Future
Simple You were heard You are heard You will be heard
Progressive You were being heard* You are being heard You will be being heard*
Perfect You had been heard You have been heard You will have been heard
Perfect Progressive You had been being heard** You have been being heard** You will have been being heard**

* These verb forms are unusual.
** These verb forms are not in general use as they are very awkward.

Changing the Active to the Passive

There are three steps necessary in transforming an active sentence into a passive one:

To refer to the original subject of the sentence, a fourth step is needed:

Points to remember:

  1. Only transitive verbs (there must be an object) can be put into the passive.

  2. Auxiliary verbs are retained in the passive transformation.

  3. Subject-verb agreement rules apply to passive sentences just as they do to active ones.

    They sued him for breach of contract. (The object of sued is him.)
    He was sued for breach of contract.

    They would have killed him if you hadn't stepped in.
    He would have been killed if you hadn't stepped in. (The auxiliary verbs are retained. Only the main verb is transformed.)

    They are tearing down the old city hall.
    The old city hall is being torn down. (The new subject, city hall is singular, so the verb be must agree with it.)


The English language has three moods: indicative, imperative, and subjunctive. The subjunctive is a mood that applies to verbs and which, therefore, has present, past, and perfect forms.




Conditional and Hypothetical Expressions
Hypothetical Constructions
Usage Wish Clause
Wish + a noun clause simple present + (that)
e.g., I wish (that)
simple past
I had more of money.*
Generally true simple present + (that)
e.g., I wish (that)
simple past
I exercised more.
Statement referring to the past simple present
e.g., I wish (that)
past perfect
I had paid attention to the teacher.
A promise, certainty, possibility or ability simple present
e.g., I wish (that)
modal (would/could) + verb name
I would be a better student.
I could study more effectively.

*If the verb be is used, then to be formally correct use were in these constructions, e.g., I wish (that) I were rich. This usage is called the subjunctive.

Modals and Related Expressions

Modals are part of a verb phrase; they give more information about the main verb by qualifying it in some way. Modals also have an effect on the grammar of the verb phrase; after a modal, the infinitive form (verb name) is used. Some modals can be used with different time references, present, past or future; others are restricted to one or two time frames. Some modals can be used in negative expressions, others cannot, and sometimes when used in a negative expression the usage changes. The chart below summarizes the time frames that are possible with the modals and their most common usages.

Chart—Modals and Related Expressions

Note that in many cases the present and future constructions are the same; the difference is in the context and any specific time clues that are used.

Verbals—Infinitives and Gerunds

There are a few basic rules regarding the use of infinitives and gerunds.


In addition, some verb phrases take gerunds e.g., carry on (doing something), or put off (doing something). Also, infinitives may be used after a number of adjectives, e.g., happy (to do something) or determined (to do something), or other structures.

For further explanation and more examples of any of this grammar, please consult a grammar reference book.

Chart—Infinitives and Gerunds