Easy English Grammar

The Big, Fat English Tenses Overview (With PDF)

The big, fat english tenses overview

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First, take a look at this image. It shows all of the tenses in English.

English Tenses Overview

Want a closer look? Click here. (Image opens in a new tab.)

OK. Here are all the main English tenses in all their beauty.

Yes, it’s a little confusing at first, but don’t panic! Most of these are actually the same tense, just moved a little in time. (Notice the colours. And the fishermen.)

Let’s start with the past…

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The past tenses in English

Timeline with the past tenses in English

What’s going on here?

OK, so as you can see, we have three main tenses going on. We’ll look at these one by one, but first take a look at the “time of the story” frame. Why is that there?

When we talk about the present, we’re just looking at what’s happening now and reporting it.

When we talk about the future, we’re making plans and predictions. Nothing is completely certain (most of the time).

But when we talk about the past, we’re actually telling a story. In English, it’s very important to be clear about the time of the story.

If we go outside this story time frame, it’s important that we show it so that our story is clear and we understand what happened first and what happened second and, most importantly, what happened outside the story time frame.

1. The past simple

Timeline with the past simple tense

Why do we use it?

We use the past simple if we want to express a single action that happened in the past:

I met a very friendly giraffe on my last visit here.

…or a state in the past:

Picasso lived in that house for most of his life.

What’s the feeling of this tense?

The past simple is the most important tense for telling our story — it describes the main events in our story.

How do we use it?

Some people love grammar tables. (I don’t!) So here’s how it looks when you make it all technical:

The Past Simple

+
-
?
V2didn’t + V1did + subject + V1
He left his bike outside.He didn’t remember a thing.Did the building fall down again?

What’s V1, V2 and V3? Click here

V = verb

infinitive = verb 1
past = verb 2
past participle = verb 3

Here are some examples:

verb 1verb 2verb 3
eatateeaten
looklookedlooked
dodiddone
drinkdrankdrunk
Weird rules?

OK. I want to talk about something quickly here.

When we’re talking about language, it’s very useful to think about two people: the person speaking and the person listening. I’m going to call them “you” and “Ned”:

a person speaking and a person listening

That’s because language isn’t just a technical thing. It’s about the situation and the people using it.

And most importantly: who knows what?

When we use the past simple, it’s very important that both people in the conversation (you and Ned) know when the action happened. This is when we establish the story time frame.

Maybe we need to say it:

Something really weird happened to me last night.

…or perhaps you’ve already started talking about it, so you don’t need to say it again:

FRED: Something really weird happened to me last night.
ANDY: Really? What happened last night?
FRED: I met a really angry giraffe last night.

2. The past continuous

Timeline with past continuous tense

Why do we use it?

We use the past continuous to talk about:

1. Long actions in the past:

It was raining cats and dogs* outside.

*Raining cats and dogs = raining very hard

2. Repeated actions in the past:

She was taking the bus that week instead of the train.

What’s the feeling of this tense?

The past continuous is an important tense to help create atmosphere in our story.

While the past simple is the main action in our story, the past continuous gives us extra information about the background events.

How do we use it?

The Past Continuous

+
-
?
was/were + -ingwasn’t/weren’t + -ingwas/were + subject + -ing
Those giraffes were swimming in the pool again.I just wasn’t thinking properly.Were you feeding the donkey at the time?
Weird rules?

We (almost) always use the past continuous with the past simple. It’s “chained” to the main events of the story. (See the chain in the picture?)

We sometimes connect the past continuous with words like:

  • “when” (with the past simple)
  • “while” or “as” (with the past continuous)

 

While I was eating my dinner, I saw the most beautiful sunset.

When he came into the room, everyone was sleeping.

But again, this depends on how much the person speaking and the person listening know. If both of them understand the context, then we don’t need to connect the past continuous with the past simple:

ANNA: How did you meet Rents?
SAM: It’s a pretty boring story actually — we were working together.

3. The past perfect (and the past perfect continuous)

Timeline with the past perfect and past perfect continuous tenses

Why do we use it?

We use the past perfect when we want to add some information to our story, but the information happened before the story time frame.

This is when we become fishermen. When we use this tense, we’re actually “fishing” it from before the story.

What’s the feeling of this tense?

The past perfect tense, like all the perfect tenses, is a magic tense.

Why is it magic?

Because when we use the past perfect tense, we’re in two places at once. We’re in the time of the story but we’re connected to another time, before the story happened — without leaving the story time.

The fishing line keeps us connected to both times.

The only real difference between the past perfect and the past perfect continuous is:

  • We use the past perfect for single, short actions.
  • We use the past perfect continuous for long actions or repeated actions.

 

How do we use it?

The Past Perfect

+
-
?
had + V3hadn’t + V3had + subject + V3
He started feeling ill because he’d had bacon for breakfast.They hadn’t checked the weather forecast.Had you already met him before?

The Past Perfect Continuous

+
-
?
had been + -inghadn’t been + -inghad + subject + been + -ing
They’d been watching TV all day.They hadn’t been checking the security system.Had you been doing exercise?
Weird rules?

Like the past continuous, the past perfect is always connected to the past simple somehow (because the past simple shows the main events in our story. No past simple? No story!).

We can connect these two tenses directly with a connecting word or phrase like “when,” “because” or “earlier that day”:

I trusted him because he’d given me awesome advice before.

Perhaps we use it to show the relationship between two actions with a relative clause:

I knew that he’d been working on the project all week.

Or perhaps we don’t need to connect it in the sentence because both the person speaking and the person listening already know the connection:

MAXINE: You were so filthy that day!
LIN: Yeah. We’d been playing football in the rain.

The present tenses in English

Timeline with the present tenses in English

What’s going on here?

As I mentioned before, we use the present tenses to describe things around us. It’s more “scientific” or “analytical.” We’re observing the world and reporting it.

There are three main tenses for the present — the present simple, the present continuous and the present perfect (and its best friend, the present perfect continuous).

Let’s look at these one by one.

4. The present simple

Timeline with the present simple tense

Why do we use it?

We use the present simple to describe actions that happen regularly:

She meets Geoff every morning for breakfast.

…or things that are always true:

We live in London.

What’s the feeling of this tense?

When we use the present simple, there’s a strong feeling of “truth.” It describes things that don’t change. We also feel habits and regular lifestyle choices.

It’s kind of like a traditional uncle.

How do we use it?

The Present Simple

+
-
?
V1don’t/doesn’t + V1do/does + subject + V1
We never get up before 11.

She hates Titanic.
She doesn’t know the answer.Do they know how long that trip is?
Weird rules?

When we use the present simple with “he,” “she” or “it,” we need to add “s” to the verb:

My sister always listens to the worst music in the world.

And “do” becomes “does” in questions and negative sentences:

Geoff doesn’t know you very well, does he?

Does Obama really know your sister? I don’t believe you!

Surprising other uses

We can also use the present simple for:

Scheduled events in the future:

The train leaves at 7 o’clock.

Describing a story or a joke:

Three giraffes walk into a bar…

5. The present continuous

Timeline with the present continuous tense

Why do we use it?

Generally speaking, we use the present continuous for things that are happening now. Especially:

Temporary situations:

I’m taking the bus this week because my bike’s broken.

Unfinished actions:

I’ll call you later — I’m having lunch at the moment.

Changing situations:

He’s really getting better at playing the organ.

What’s the feeling of this tense?

If the present simple is like a traditional uncle, then the present continuous is like the crazy cousin.

While the present simple is all about permanence (not changing), the present continuous is all about change. It feels dynamic and active.

How do we use it?

The Present Continuous

+
-
?
am/is/are + -ingam/is/are + not + -ingam/is/are + subject + -ing
He’s talking to the tree again.We aren’t sleeping. We’re meditating.Why are you doing that?
Weird rules?

There’s an interesting rule about when you can’t use the present continuous.

When we talk about an action that we can’t control, then we (almost) never use the present continuous. We have to use the present simple instead.

These actions are usually connected to:

  • Feelings: “I love this song.” (not “I’m loving this song.”)
  • Thoughts: “I believe you now.” (not “I’m believing you now.”)
  • Heights, weights, dimensions, etc.: “It weighs 100 kg.” (not “It’s weighing 100 kg.”)

 

Surprising other uses

We can also use the present continuous to describe unusual or annoying habits, usually with words like “always,” “constantly” or “forever.”

My dog is always eating potatoes.

He’s forever singing that stupid song.

6. The present perfect (and present perfect continuous)

Timeline with the present perfect and present perfect continuous tenses

Why do we use it?

Like I said before, the perfect tenses are like magic.

With the present perfect, you’re in the present, but you’ve got a strong connection to the past.

What makes the connection?

We’re connected to the past with the present perfect in three general situations:

  1. When the time frame we use started in the past and isn’t finished: “Have you eaten today?”
  2. The effect of a past action is still with us now: “Look at the terrible thing you’ve done!”
  3. The action started in the past and isn’t finished: “I’ve known him for years.”

 

What’s the feeling of this tense?

When we use the present perfect, we’re actually talking about the “state” or the “situation” something is in now — but because of something before.

If you say that you’ve been working here for 5 years, we don’t think about the work. We think about how experienced you are now.

If you say that you’ve had your hair cut, we don’t think about your visit to the hairdresser’s. We think about how you look NOW.

We’re feeling the past echo into now — the results of past actions and events.

The only real difference between the present perfect and the present perfect continuous is:

  • We use the present perfect for single, short actions.
  • We use the present perfect continuous for long actions or repeated actions.

 

How do we use it?

The Present Perfect

+
-
?
have/has + V3haven’t/hasn’t + V3have/has + subject + V3
You’ve changed your hair again.She hasn’t slept for days.Where have you been?

The Present Perfect Continuous

+
-
?
have/has been + -inghaven’t/hasn’t been + -inghave/has + subject + been + -ing
I’ve been playing football.My car hasn’t been working well recently.Has Geoff been coming in late again recently?
Weird rules?

Surprisingly, apart from the fact that the present perfect is a bit of a weird tense, there aren’t really any strange rules.

You can find out more about the present perfect in our blog post about it.

The future tenses in English

Timeline with the future tenses in English

What’s going on here?

The future is a mysterious time. Nothing is certain! We have plans and goals, but plans can change and problems can stop our goals.

But the future can also feel like a time of hope.

As you can probably feel already from the past and the present, English has three basic types of tense (the simple, the continuous and the perfect), which we can move from past to present to future.

The future tenses work just like the other tenses. They’re just in the future, so they have less certainty.

7. The future simple

Timeline with future simple tense

Why do we use it?

We use the future simple when we want to talk about a single action in the future.

This is an interesting tense because we can use it in many ways. The most common are “will” and “going to.”

What’s the feeling of this tense?

The feeling of the future simple depends completely on which way we use it — with “will” or “going to.”

I wrote a blog post about these future forms (and many others). But to give you a simple explanation:

  • For intentions, “will” is more spontaneous and “going to” is more of a plan;
  • For predictions, “will” is less certain and “going to” is more certain.

 

How do we use it?

The Future Simple: Will

+
-
?
will + V1won ‘t + V1will + subject + V1
It’ll rain tomorrow.The police won’t find him.Will there be cake at the party?

The Future Simple: Going To

+
-
?
am/is/are + going to + V1am/is/are + not + going to + V1am/is/are + subject + going to + V1
He’s going to fall.We aren’t going to meet him tonight -- change of plan.Is his colleague going to tell the boss about this?
Weird rules?

Again, this depends on which future form you use. I recommend checking the post on future forms for more detail.

Surprising other uses

We can also use “will” to describe present habits. In this case, it can actually replace the present simple:

These dogs will bark, but they won’t bite.

Of course it’ll snow. It’s January.

8. The future continuous

Timeline with future continuous tense

Why do we use it?

We use the future continuous to talk about long or repeated actions in the future.

What’s the feeling of this tense?

This tense feels very certain. When you use this tense, it sounds as if you have strong plans and a good schedule.

How do we use it?

The Future Continuous

+
-
?
will be + -ingwon’t be + -ingwill + subject + be + -ing
They’ll be sitting in the plane this time tomorrow.I won’t be working anymore when I’m 55.Will he still be helping us after we’ve paid him?
Weird rules?

Like the past continuous, the future continuous can only work with another certain time in the future. (See the chain in the image?)

We usually either say the time:

This time tomorrow, I’ll be drinking lemonade on a sunny beach.

Or we can connect it to a simple action in the future:

When I get home tomorrow, I’m sure he’ll be sleeping again.

Or both the person speaking and the person listening know the time:

ANTON: His birthday’s going to be excellent.
ALEX: Is it?
ANTON: For sure! We’ll be dancing all night!
ALEX: Hmmm… Will there be cake?”

Surprising other uses

We use the future continuous a lot when we want people to feel that everything is under control. The classic example of this is when your pilot talks to you about your flight:

Good afternoon. This is your captain speaking. Today we’ll be flying at a height of 40,000 feet and at speed of 900 km/h. In a few minutes our cabin crew will be serving drinks and refreshments…

9. The future perfect (and the future perfect continuous)

Timeline with future perfect tense

Why do we use it?

This is an interesting tense.

Notice that there’s more than one orange “X” in the image. Why?

That’s because when we use the future perfect, we don’t actually say when the action will happen. It could be the time of the first “X,” the time of the second “X” or the time of the third “X.” We don’t know. Because it’s the future.

We use this tense to say that something will happen sometime before a certain point in the future. But we don’t know when. Because it’s the future.

The fisherman is sitting at that certain point and he’s connecting himself to the past of that future.

What’s the feeling of this tense?

We usually use this tense to set goals. When we make a deadline, we can use this tense:

I’ll have made a million dollars before I’m 35 years old!

But we can also simply use it when we want to make a prediction about the future, but we don’t know exactly when it will happen.

Sometime before I die, people will have started living on Mars.

How do we use it?

The Future Perfect

+
-
?
will + have + V3won’t + have + V3will + subject + have + V3
I’ll already have arrived at the hotel when you get there.My boss won’t have left the office by that time.Will they have finished when we get there?

The Future Perfect Continuous

+
-
?
will + have been + -ingwon’t + have been + -ingwill + subject + have been + -ing
He will have been travelling for 18 hours when we see him.By August, I won't have been smoking for a year.Will you have been working all day when I see you tomorrow?
Weird rules?

Like the past perfect, we need to connect the future perfect to a certain future time (the “X” to the fisherman).

Again, we can just say the time:

By 2027, I’ll have started my own business.

Or we can connect it with words like “when,” “by the time…” and “before.”

By the time he gets here, we’ll have already left.

Or it can just be clear from the conversation:

NORA: So we’ll see you at the airport?
LUCY: No, no. We will have gone by then.

So those are all the main tenses in English.

However, remember that language is a living, breathing thing. It doesn’t follow all the rules. Just like people, it likes to break the rules from time to time. So don’t follow these precisely all the time. You’re allowed to break them if you want to express something in a particular way, or if you want to sound more like the people you’re talking to. (I do it all the time.)

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39 thoughts on “The Big, Fat English Tenses Overview (With PDF)

  1. Thank you very much. This review is great! I enjoyed reading it and I love your sense of humor. I have laughed a lot and I have learned a lot: I will remember your giraffe forever…:)

  2. Re: “NORA: So we’ll see you at the airport?”
    Hm, not, ‘will we’, right? Or ‘so’ is some kind of tag-ish?
    And what about: ‘See you at the airport, then?’

    1. Awesome question!

      You’re right, it’s a kind of tag, without the tag. Just like in Russian, you can use the intonation, instead of the syntax, to form a question. The difference between Russian and English here is that this only works in INFORMAL English.

      And yes! You can throw in “then” at the end. It gives it an air of certainty.

      If you’re less sure about it you could go for “See you at the airport, or…?” — you can check this one out on my post about breaking English rules: https://www.clarkandmiller.com/things-british-english-speakers-say/

      Hope that helps!

  3. 5. The Present Continuous for…
    d) Delicate situations:

    In s8e7 House says:
    “So you’re taking bribes to plunder graves, and I need to show respect…” (and Milton doesn’t move)

    Here’re my ponderings.

    The Present Indefinite, in this case, might imply Past and Future — i.e. “usually” or even “often/always”. In other words: “It’s not your first time and you’ll do it again (coz you are criminal).”

    But House hasn’t done anything, yet. He’s like: “You’re helping me for money and, who knows, maybe it’s even your isolated/unique case. After all, you can stop at any moment.”

    Well, yes, it’s also an unfinished nuance, but I feel that way.

  4. In The Future Continuous, we can also use ‘(be) going to’:
    HOUSE: “… in two years their lawyers are gonna be fighting over the Bentleys… She’s got looks. He’s got money. One of them is bound to run out.” (s.7, ep.8)

    1. Totally true!

      We can also use more or less any future form in fact: “No. I can’t help you move house. I’m planning to be sitting by the pool and ignoring the world at that time.”

      Btw. I really like the fact that you cite genuine examples to make your point. Nice one!

      1. Thanks. I’ve got a bagel in Google — where does this quote come from?
        +
        Leonard: “Hang on. Some guy is going to be sleeping on your couch?” [TBBT, s.3, ep.7]

          1. Hm… should I say “your quote”? (about ignoring the world)? and why not “to move”?
            I ain’t big bagel eater, though, doesn’t it mean ‘nil’ ?

          2. Ahhh… I see. Well, I just pulled that line out of a hat. I completely made it up.

            Good question, though! With “help” there are two options: the bare infinitive “He helped me move” and the standard one “He helped me to move.”

            They’re both considered correct. The standard infinitive, I think, tends to be more favoured by Americans.

            I’m afraid I’ve lost you on the whole bagel thing, though …

          3. In Russian, when you lost any game, not necessarily in tennis, with zero points, we can say, in a very informal form — “you got a bagel”. Like to google something in vain.

  5. So, the table for The Future Continuous is not only missing the second row for ‘gonna’ but for ‘shall’ too… Yes, I’ve got an example, as you like it:
    Holmes: “No, uh, I shan’t be consulting on Irene’s case… A man should know when he’s beaten.” (Elementary, s.1, ep.23)

    1. Well, I wouldn’t say it’s missing anything — I chose not to include all the futures there because it would get ridiculously crowded! 🙂

      Be careful with “shall” by the way. It’s considered very archaic these days and you won’t hear it very often. The fact that your example is from the 19th century speaks for that.

      I challenge you to find a modern usage that isn’t either using it for humour or to exaggerate something… Good luck!

      1. Ok, I’m game! 😉
        Walter Cofield (to House): “… I’ll be deciding your fate today.@
        I think when we’re assuming fate, destiny, fortune or doom — it’s ‘shall’.
        And yes, I remember your answers: #964 and #1000.

        The 19th century? It’s New York 2013 and Jonny Lee Miller as a drama queen.

        1. Fair play! So let’s look at these one by one.

          The House quote doesn’t appear to be using “shall.” But I’d say you’re definitely onto something when you say the destiny, fate, doom etc. would be more likely contexts for shall. I think that’s what I meant when I was saying that it can be used for an “exaggerated” effect.

          Ahhh… so the quote was from a modern adaptation of Sherlock Holmes?

          1. Exactly. And for my money, the first season of it is quite good.
            Here are another two quotes from it: Lucy Liu as Joan Watson to Sherlock: “You stole a $50 million painting… you’re gonna take that back to the Aster Museum first thing in the morning.” [s1,e10] And the same to her father: “You’re gonna contact your publisher and you’re gonna track down the rest.” (the hard copies of his book) [s4,e7]…
            Correct me if I’m wrong, but it feels more like the command — sort of: “like it or not I’ll make you do it…”) Seibert: “…You’re gonna put on a suit, you’re gonna come to this party, and you’re gonna explain your research to a bunch of old people, or I swear to God, I’ll blind you with a hot spoon…@
            Remarkable, innit?

          2. Really good point made there. I’d say that yeah — “going to” is being used as a command here more than an observation. The more certain “going to” as opposed to “will” makes the command strong and assertive.

            You can also use this with the present simple as well “You go to the airport and you pick up the microfilm” (again — I totally made this one up). Though using this is a little less assertive than the “going to” one.

      2. RE: challenge for ‘shall’
        S.H. to Kitty: “Watson’s offered to reclaim a greater role in our collaboration so that I might give you some more personal time. I shall be accepting her offer. How you choose to spend that time… that’s entirely up to you.” (Elementary, s.3, ep.6)

        1. Oooohhh… Well found! I like this example a lot. There’s still an element of formality to it, but yes — it’s used in a fairly informal setting. The formality is there because he’s “accepting her offer.” As if it’s a formal invitation. It’s a nice use of “shall.”

          Again — well found!

  6. Yeah, but Present Simple (as Future Aspect) is about coordinating a plan, not a persistent demand, right? ‘Should’ (or ‘supposed to’), I feel, is better, especially in questions:
    Foreman: “Shouldn’t we be speaking to the patient before we start diagnosing?”

    1. For sure. I mentioned this in a post back in May. It’s nowhere near as persistent as using “going to” or even present continuous. Though — as always with language, the intended meaning of a phrase can really alter depending on how it’s pronounced and the personalities of the people using. I mean, look at how well sarcasm works in the UK, but much less in California.

      And yeah — “should” is a happy middle ground!

  7. And by California, you mean The Hollywood, right? Well, I’m not an expert obviously, but the person who doesn’t understand sarcasm is always being mocked in the Russian comedies as well — ‘genius’ can be an intentionally offensive word with a right intonation.
    Are you sure that so-called Good Sense Of Humor not a matter of individual taste but what — citizenship?
    And strictly speaking — sarcasm, exaggeration and metaphor is a lie and not white, alas. And when you use it with a person whom you don’t know well, you’re, in fact, not being honest or testing his or her intelligence… someone might say as an excuse of lower IQ.
    I, self, really like solving conundrums. 🙂

    1. Hmmm…. Well, I guess we’re getting to subjective views on humour and even communication.

      I think some nations and cultures include more sarcasm than others — and most Brits I know use sarcasm in their daily life to criticise, poke fun at but also to bond and to joke with. I definitely wouldn’t say that it reflects a lower IQ. Just a different way of dealing with each other. That’s why cross-cultural communication can be tricky at times.

      Genius, eh? 😛

      1. not yet… but i’m makin’ progress, you know, ‘aven’t decided on the side, though — it’s all about P.R., right? 🙂

        And the right answer for “a plan only exists in one’s head” — is not 42 — it’s food for thought — a diet of which you’ll never be tired. 😉

  8. I noticed that so-called V2 is used ONLY in The Past Simple/Indefinite Tense, so according to Occam’s Razor, it’s excessive thing (number). Likewise, V3 is, in fact, the Perfect/Passive form of the verb. And sometimes, yes, when V2=V3 it’s ‘ed’ (or “past”) form. The word “participle” is also for the linguistics not for the beginners. V1 is just Infinitive/Base/Dictionary form (why not “V0”?). I also dub the “ing-form” (V4?) — Cont/Gerund. It’s much more simple and logical then blank numbers, hence more helpful. A petty detail for the natives but very important one for learners, who confuse the infinitive and indefinite, imho.

    1. A few good points here.

      Yes — V2 is ONLY the past simple, while V3 can be used for the perfect or the passive. Interesting, eh?

      I also agree that “particle” isn’t strictly necessary. Since you’re interested in terms, though, we can talk about having a “declarative” knowledge of a language, where you know the rules and the terms and you can describe why we use a particular tense in one situation and another one in another situation; and a “procedural” knowledge of a language — that’s when you can just use it without really knowing how. That’s how most people use their first language.

      Also — I LOVE the idea of -ing being V4. Why on earth not? It has its own function and form and is more versatile than 2. Yeah — if 2 gets a number, why not -ing?

      Nice one!

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