English Tenses

What are Tenses?

Tenses are grammatical constructs that clarify a time reference. By changing the tense you can express exactly when an event or action happened in relation to the time you are speaking. Correct use of English tenses is necessary if you want to be able to use the language fluently.


To form a tense you need to conjugate the verb. Basic tenses in all languages include the past, present and future tense but there are more complex tenses to express more subtle meanings about the timing of an event.

English tenses can seem difficult for learners but all languages have these structures and the conjugations of English are actually simpler than those of many others languages.


How to Form English Tenses

The correct use of English tenses enables you to express the exact time of an event, giving you subtle control over your language.

Tenses help you to explain if an event happened once a long time ago or many times this week, whether you are planning to do something tomorrow or next year, or whether you are performing an action right now or do the same action regularly every day.

Here is a list of the English tenses with verb examples for each tense, using ‘she’ and ‘they’ as the pronouns, and one regular verb (to walk) and one irregular verb (to eat) to form the tense:

Present tense

Simple present Present continuous
She eats She is eating
They walk They are walking

Past tense

Simple past Past continuous
She ate She was eating
They walked They were walking

Perfect tense

Present perfect simple Present perfect continuous
She has eaten She has been eating
They have walked They have been walking
Past perfect (pluperfect) Past perfect continuous
She had eaten She had been eating
They had walked They had been walking
Future perfect Future perfect continuous
She will have eaten She will have been eating
They will have walked They will have been walking

English tenses - present perfect

Future tense

Simple future Future continuous
She will eat She will be eating
They will walk They will be walking
She is going to eat She is going to be eating
They are going to walk They are going to be walking


Simple present conditional Conditional present continuous
She would eat She would be eating
They would walk They would be walking
Conditional past Conditional past continuous
She would have eaten She would have been eating
They would have walked They would have been walking

Forming conditional phrases

There are four kinds of conditional phrase:

  • The Zero Conditional
    (if + present simple, … present simple)
    If you go to the desert, it is hot
  • The First Conditional:
    (if + present simple, … will + infinitive)
    If it is hot tomorrow, we’ll go to the beach.
  • The Second Conditional:
    (if + past simple, … would + infinitive)
    If I had a car, I would drive to London.
  • The Third Conditional
    (if + past perfect, … would + have + past participle)
    If I had gone to the party, I would have seen them.

English tenses - conditionals


Gerund Present participle
She is eating She likes eating
They are walking They like walking

Used to + verb

The words ‘used to’ followed by a verb is used to express an action that happened habitually in the past but not anymore. For example:

I used to play the piano (but I don’t anymore)

They used to go swimming every weekend (but they don’t anymore)

She used to study French (but she doesn’t anymore)

used to - past tense

The Subjunctive

The subjunctive is not normally called a tense; it is usually called a ‘mood’. The subjunctive mood is used to convey doubt about a situation. It can also be used to convey urgency, suggestions, demands and other emotions.

Unlike some other languages, such as Spanish, which use the subjunctive a lot, the subjunctive is not used very often in English.

The subjunctive mood is used to describe a hypothetical situation:

If I were rich, I would buy a big house

If I were the Queen, I wouldn’t have worn that hat


The subjunctive can be used to express a wish:

I wish I were there

The subjunctive can also be used for demands and suggestions:

He insisted that you be there

It’s essential that they be told the truth

I suggest that he leave the car in the garage

How do you use the subjunctive in your native language? Let us know in the comments.


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