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Playing with tenses

In this lesson we’re looking at how to play with tenses in English.

We’re going to have a general tense review, and look at the questions you should be asking yourself when you are trying to decide which tense to use. Let’s look at tenses as a whole. Tenses, in a general sense, have two elements of meaning: time and aspect. You also have to consider the speaker’s point of view, and a couple of other things that we’ll look at.

Have fun with the lesson, and don’t forget to try the quizzes.

– James.

Lesson Contents

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Is the action present, past or future?
  • Does it refer to all time?

It is important to remember that time and tense are not always the same in English. Past tenses often refer to the past time, but not always. Present tenses often refer to the present time, but not always:

The film starts at 9pm. 
(present tense referring to the future)

In the play, the hero talks to a witch. 
(present tense referring to the past)

I wish I knew the answer, but I don’t. 
(past tense referring to the present)

I could come next week, if my boss lets me off. 
(past tense referring to the future)

Read the situations and add the sentence that describes each situation.

The three aspects add another layer on to the meaning of a verb:

  • Simple: The action is seen as a whole.
  • Continuous: The action is seen to have a duration.
  • Perfect: The action is seen as completed before another time.

The choice of verb form depends on many factors, and not on set grammatical rules. Here are the factors to consider:

The nature of the action or event

Because English can employ its various aspects, events can be viewed with one or several implications. Look at this sentence:

I have been asking my husband to fix the table for four years.

In many languages, this sentence would be in the present (I ask my husband) which gives the basic message, but here we’ve added two aspects. The perfect aspect emphasises both past and present, so that we know that this has been happening for a long time. The continuous aspect adds the repetitive nature of the speaker’s request. She hasn’t asked once, but a hundred times, every week for four years. None of this information would have been conveyed if we’d used the present.

How the speaker sees the event

Look at these sentences:

  1. He always buys the drinks.
  2. He’s always buying the drinks.
  3. I’ll talk to Mary about it later.
  4. I’ll be talking to Mary about it later.

In each pair of sentences the actions are the same, but the speaker looks at them differently.

  • Sentence 1, the present simple expresses a simple fact.
  • Sentence 2, the present continuous shows mild frustration, or irritation.
  • Sentence 3, will expresses a promise made at the time of speaking
  • Sentence 4, the future continuous shows a lack of intention, or plan. The speaker here is simply saying that in the natural progression of time, he’ll cross paths with Mary and speak with her.

The future continuous is a very non-confrontational way of talking about the future. This is why it’s used in hotels and restaurants.

How long will you be staying with us?

Will you be needing a wake-up call?

The meaning of the verb

In some sentences, the choice of verb form is decided by the verb. State verbs such as belong, believe, understand etc. express conditions that remain unchanged over a period of time. This is why we mostly find them in simple forms.

I understand what you’re on about.

This clock belonged to my father, now it belongs to me.

Similarly, verbs such as wait, rain and run, give the impression of an activity over a period of time. This is why we often find them in continuous forms.

I’ve been running, that’s why I’m sweaty.

Oh no. It’s raining again.

Read the sentences, look at the underlined section, then choose the tense below.

All Quizzes