Grammatical tense


A tense is a grammatical category that locates a situation in time, to indicate when a situation happens. There are three basic tenses in English: past, present, future.
Each has a simple form, a perfect form, indicating completed actions, a progressive form, indicating ongoing action, and perfect progressive forms.


Tense comes from Old French tens "time", from Latin tempus "time", a translation of Greek chrónos "time"."Tense" as an adjective is unrelated, since it comes from the perfect passive participle of the Latin verb tendere "stretch".(2)

Forms and graphic comparism:

Simple forms
Progressive forms
Perfect forms
Perfect progressive forms
Was/were making
Had made
Had been making
Am/is/are making
Have/has made
Have/has been making
Will make
Will be making
Will have make
Will have been making

Addtional information:

Special attention should be paid to the irregular simple past and past participle verb forms. Those need to be remember one by one with very little rule of the change of verb form.

The comparison between Chinese and English

In the Chinese language, there is no verb tense, so for Chinese English learners, it is very likely that they would forget the correct use of tense, especially in spoken English. Instead, verb tense is indicated by adverbs or or particles like “已经”which means already, before or after the main verb. As a result, Chinese students have difficulty with verb tenses. An error example would be:
I go shopping yesterday. ( I went shopping yesterday.)

Verb tenses in academic writing (3)

  • Simple present

Use the simple present to describe a general truth, an action that is happening now, or an action that occurs on a regular basis:
This study addresses the shortage of research about gifted students.
Sknner's theories remain valid today.
  • Simple past

Use the simple past tense to describe an action that took place at a specific point in the past:
The instructor discovered that her students retained information better when they were given more autonomy.
Zimbardo researched many aspects of social psychology.
  • Simple future

Use the future tense to describe an action that will take place at a particular point in the future:
Tomorrow, I will distribute the surveys to my students.
Many students will attend the residency next June.
  • Present perfect tense

Use the present perfect tense to describe an action that began in the past and continues in the present:
Researchers have shown that the corpus callosum is more developed in cats than in dogs.(Notice that the implication here is that the research showed this in the past and continues to show this presently.
Psychoneuroimmunologists have demonstrated the influence of stress on chronic illnesses.
  • Past perfect tense

Use the past perfect tense to describe an action that began in the past and continued for some time but is no longer happening.
Before Freud's discovery, psychologists had believed that hysteris was caused by a wandering womb.
since she had developed her critical thinking skills, Mary performed well on the test.

Future perfect tense

Use the future perfect tense to describe an action that is presently taking place and will continue taking place untill some point in the future.
I will have revised this thesis 50 times by the end of the semester.
I will have been at Walden University for 2 years by the time I complete the thesis.

Some exercises



1 Fabricius-Hansen, "Tense", in the Encyclopedia of language and Linguistics, 2nd ed. 2006
2 tempus. Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short. A Latin Dictionary on Perseus Project.

Other links

1 Some relections on English textbook input for Hong Kong students.
2 Irregular simple past and past participle verb forms.