What Are Tenses: A Complete Tense Lesson with Rules and Examples

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Lesson Overview

Learning Objectives

  1. Learn to correctly identify and use simple, continuous, perfect, and perfect continuous tenses in past, present, and future forms.
  2. Distinguish between different tenses to accurately describe actions at various times.
  3. Identify and correct common mistakes in tense usage, enhancing written and spoken English.
  4. Practice applying tenses in various contexts, including storytelling and planning.
  5. Understand the usage of time markers and auxiliary verbs with tenses to indicate time and action sequence.

Introduction to Tenses

Imagine you have a time machine, allowing you to visit the past, explore the future, or enjoy the present moment. Tenses are the linguistic time machine of English, helping us express when actions happen.

In this Tense lesson, we'll dive into the three main time zones of English: the past, the present, and the future. With examples and interactive exercises, you will master the art of tenses, making your writing and speaking clearer and more dynamic. 

What Are Tenses and Their Types? 

Tenses in English are used to express the timing of an action or state of being. They tell us when something happens. However, it's not just about pinpointing a moment on a timeline; it's also about the action's continuity, completion, and frequency.

There are three primary times we talk about:

  1. Past: For actions or states that happened before now.
  2. Present: For actions or states happening right now or that are ongoing.
  3. Future: For actions or states that will happen after now.



Within these three main categories, there are several subtypes, making a total of 12 tenses in English. Each one adds its own flavor to the timeline, helping to paint a more detailed picture of when and how something happens.


1. Past Tenses

The Past Tense is used to describe actions or events that occurred at a specific point in time before the present.

  • Simple Past: Used for completed actions in the past. 

Example: I walked to the park yesterday.

  • Past Continuous: Used for actions that were ongoing in the past. 

Example: I was walking when it started to rain.

  • Past Perfect: Used for actions completed before another past action. 

Example: I had walked to the park before it started to rain.

  • Past Perfect Continuous: Used for ongoing actions in the past that were completed by a certain point. 

Example: I had been walking for an hour when it started to rain.


2. Present Tenses

The Present Tense is used to describe actions or conditions that are happening right now or habitual actions that occur regularly.

  • Simple Present: Used for habitual actions or universal truths. 

Example: I walk to the park every day.

  • Present Continuous: Used for actions happening right now or for future plans. 

Example: I am walking to the park.

  • Present Perfect: Used for actions that happened at an unspecified time in the past or that started in the past and continue to the present. 

Example: I have walked to the park many times.

  • Present Perfect Continuous: Used for actions that started in the past and continue to the present. 

Example: I have been walking for an hour.


3. Future Tenses

The Future Tense is used to describe actions or events that are expected to happen after the current time.

  • Simple Future: Used for actions that will happen in the future. 

Example: I will walk to the park tomorrow.

  • Future Continuous: Used for actions that will be ongoing at a specific time in the future. 

Example: I will be walking to the park at 3 PM tomorrow.

  • Future Perfect: Used for actions that will be completed by a certain future time. 

Example: I will have walked to the park by 3 PM tomorrow.

  • Future Perfect Continuous: Used for actions that will be ongoing up until a certain point in the future. 

Example: By 3 PM tomorrow, I will have been walking for an hour.


Now that we have an overview of the different types of tenses, let's dive deeper into the rules that govern their use, along with some examples to clarify each point.

How to Use Tenses Correctly

Here are simple rules for using the tenses correctly.


Rule 1: Simple Tenses for Routine Actions or General Truths

Simple Tenses talk about general things that are true, things we do all the time, or something that happened just once in the past.

  • Simple Present: We use it for things that happen regularly or truths. When the subject of a sentence is singular (he, she, it, or any single person or thing), we often add "s" or "es" to the base form of the verb. The choice between "s" and "es" depends on the spelling and sound of the verb's base form. 
  • Add "s" to most verbs: "He runs."
  • Add "es" to verbs that end in -sh, -ch, -ss, -x, -o: "She watches."


For plural subjects or the pronouns "I," "you," "we," and "they," we use the base form of the verb without any ending: "They walk to school."

Subject TypePositive FormulaPositive ExampleNegative FormulaNegative ExampleInterrogative FormulaInterrogative Example
Singular (He/She/It) + Noun Subject + base verb + "s/es"John writes. / She goes.Subject + does not + base verbJohn does not write. / She does not go.Does + Subject + base verb?Does John write? / Does she go?
Plural (I, We, You, They) + Noun Subject + base verbWe walk. / You walk.Subject + do not + base verbWe do not walk. / You do not walk.Do + Subject + base verb?Do we walk? / Do you walk?


  • Simple Past: This is for things that happened and finished in the past. The formula is usually the subject + past form of the verb.


Subject TypePositive FormulaPositive ExampleNegative FormulaNegative ExampleInterrogative FormulaInterrogative Example
Singular (I, You, He/She/It) + NounSubject + verb (second form/past form)I walked. / She saw.Subject + did not + verb (base form)I did not walk. / She did not see.Did + subject + verb (base form)?Did I walk? / Did she see?
Plural (We, You, They) + NounSubject + verb (second form/past form)We walked. / They played.Subject + did not + verb (base form)We did not walk. / They did not play.Did + subject + verb (base form)?Did we walk? / Did they play?


  • Simple Future: We use it for things that will happen in the future. The formula is usually will + base verb.


Subject TypePositive FormulaPositive ExampleNegative FormulaNegative ExampleInterrogative FormulaInterrogative Example
Singular (I, He/She/It) + NounSubject + will + verb (base form)I will read. / She will go.Subject + will not + verb (base form)I will not read. / She will not go.Will + subject + verb (base form)?Will I read? / Will she go?
Plural (We, You, They) + NounSubject + will + verb (base form)We will walk. / They will playSubject + will not + verb (base form)We will not walk. / They will not playWill + subject + verb (base form)?Will we walk? / Will they play?


Rule 2: Continuous Tenses for Ongoing Actions or Future Plans

Continuous Tenses are about actions that are happening right now or will be happening at a specific time in the future.

  • Present Continuous: It's used for things happening at this very moment or for future plans. The formula is am/is/are + verb + ing.


Subject TypePositive FormulaPositive ExampleNegative FormulaNegative ExampleInterrogative FormulaInterrogative Example
I + am + verb + ingI am reading.I + am not + verb + ingI am not reading.Am + I + verb + ing?Am I reading?
Plural (We, You, They) + NounSubject + are + verb + ingYou are studying. / They are playing.Subject + are not + verb + ingYou are not studying. / They are not playing.Are + subject + verb + ing?Are you studying? / Are they playing?
Singular (He/She/It) + NounHe/She/It + is + verb + ingShe is dancing. / It is raining.He/She/It + is not + verb + ingShe is not dancing. / It is not raining.Is + he/she/it + verb + ing?Is she dancing? / Is it raining?


  • Past Continuous: This tense talks about things that were happening at a specific time in the past. The formula is was/were + verb + ing.


Subject TypePositive FormulaPositive ExampleNegative FormulaNegative ExampleInterrogative FormulaInterrogative Example
Singular (He/She/It) + NounHe/She/It, I + was + verb + ingShe was dancing. / I was reading.He/She/It, I + was not + verb + ingShe was not dancing. / I was not reading.Was + he/she/it, I + verb + ing?Was she dancing? / Was I reading?
Plural (We, You, They) + NounYou/We/They + were + verb + ingYou were studying. / We were walking.You/We/They + were not + verb + ingYou were not studying. / We were not walking.Were + you/we/they + verb + ing?Were you studying? / Were we walking?


  • Future Continuous: It's for things that will be happening at a specific time in the future. The formula is will be + verb + ing.


Subject TypePositive FormulaPositive ExampleNegative FormulaNegative ExampleInterrogative FormulaInterrogative Example
Singular (He/She/It) + NounHe/She/It, I + will be + verb + ingShe will be dancing. / I will be reading.He/She/It, I + will not be + verb + ingShe will not be dancing. / I will not be reading.Will + he/she/it, I + be + verb + ing?Will she be dancing? / Will I be reading?
Plural (We, You, They) + NounYou/We/They + will be + verb + ingYou will be studying. / We will be walking.You/We/They + will not be + verb + ingYou will not be studying. / We will not be walking.Will + you/we/they + be + verb + ing?Will you be studying? / Will we be walking?


Rule 3: Perfect Tenses to Show Completion

Perfect Tenses show us that an action is complete, either just now, in the past, or by a certain time in the future.

  • Present Perfect: It shows something happened at an unspecified time before now. The formula is have/has + past participle of the verb.


Subject TypePositive FormulaPositive ExampleNegative FormulaNegative ExampleInterrogative FormulaInterrogative Example
Singular (He/She/It) + NounHe/She/It, I + has/have + past participleShe has seen. / I have read.He/She/It, I + has/have not + past participleShe has not seen. / I have not read.Has/Have + he/she/it, I + past participle?Has she seen? / Have I read?
Plural (We, You, They) + NounYou/We/They + have + past participleYou have studied. / We have walked.You/We/They + have not + past participleYou have not studied. / We have not walked.Have + you/we/they + past participle?Have you studied? / Have we walked?


  • Past Perfect: This shows something was completed before another action in the past. The formula is had + past participle of the verb.


Subject TypePositive FormulaPositive ExampleNegative FormulaNegative ExampleInterrogative FormulaInterrogative Example
Both Singular & Plural Subjects Subject + had + past participleShe had finished. / We had walked.Subject + had not + past participleShe had not finished. / We had not walked.Had + subject + past participle?Had she finished? / Had we walked?


  • Future Perfect: It tells us something will be completed by a certain future time. The formula is will have + past participle of the verb.


Subject TypePositive FormulaPositive ExampleNegative FormulaNegative ExampleInterrogative FormulaInterrogative Example
Both Singular & Plural SubjectsSubject + will have + past participleShe will have finished. / We will have walked.Subject + will not have + past participleShe will not have finished. / We will not have walked.Will + subject + have + past participle?Will she have finished? / Will we have walked?


Rule 4: Perfect Continuous Tenses for Action Duration

Perfect Continuous Tenses are all about how long something has been happening or how long something had been happening before something else.

  • Present Perfect Continuous: It talks about actions that started in the past and are still happening now. The formula is have/has been + verb + ing.


Subject TypePositive FormulaPositive ExampleNegative FormulaNegative ExampleInterrogative FormulaInterrogative Example
Singular (He/She/It) + NounHe/She/It + has been + verb + ingShe has been reading. / It has been raining.He/She/It + has not been + verb + ingShe has not been reading. / It has not been raining.Has + he/she/it + been + verb + ing?Has she been reading? / Has it been raining?
Plural (We, You, They) + NounI/You/We/They + have been + verb + ingI have been studying. / We have been walking.I/You/We/They + have not been + verb + ingI have not been studying. / We have not been walking.Have + I/you/we/they + been + verb + ing?Have I been studying? / Have we been walking?



  • Past Perfect Continuous: This tense is for actions that were happening over a period in the past, up until another action. The formula is had been + verb + ing.


Subject TypePositive FormulaPositive ExampleNegative FormulaNegative ExampleInterrogative FormulaInterrogative Example
Both Singular & Plural Subjects Subject + had been + verb+ingShe had been studying when I arrived. / We had been walking before it started raining.Subject + had not been + verb+ingShe had not been studying long when the bell rang. / We had not been walking long when it started raining.Had + subject + been + verb+ing?Had she been studying when you arrived? / Had we been walking when it started to rain?


  • Future Perfect Continuous: It's for actions that will have been happening for a certain period by a certain future time. The formula is will have been + verb + ing.


Subject TypePositive FormulaPositive ExampleNegative FormulaNegative ExampleInterrogative FormulaInterrogative Example
Both Singular & Plural Subjects Subject + will have been + verb+ingShe will have been studying for three hours by 8 PM. / We will have been walking for an hour by then.Subject + will not have been + verb+ingShe will not have been studying long by then. / We will not have been walking long by then.Will + subject + have been + verb+ing?Will she have been studying for three hours by 8 PM? / Will we have been walking for an hour by then?


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Common Errors & Tips While Using English Tenses

1. Error in Verb Forms

  • Error: Incorrect verb form usage, e.g., "She write every morning."
  • Tip: For Simple Present and singular subjects, add "s" or "es" to verbs.
  • Correct: She writes every morning.

2. Simple Past vs. Past Participle Confusion

  • Error: Mixing simple past and past participle, e.g., "He has fly to Paris."
  • Tip: Know your verbs. Use "flew" for simple past and "flown" for past participle. 
  • Correct: He has flown to Paris.

3. When to Use Present Perfect

  • Error: Using simple past instead of present perfect, e.g., "I finished my homework."
  • Tip: Use present perfect for actions affecting the now. 
  • Correct: I have finished my homework.

4. Overusing Continuous Tense

  • Error: Misusing continuous tense, e.g., "I am running every day."
  • Tip: Reserve continuous for current or future actions. For habits, use simple present. 
  • Correct: I run every day.

5. Future Sentences with "If"

  • Error: "Will" in "if" clauses, e.g., "If it will rain, I will stay home."
  • Tip: In conditional sentences about the future, use simple present in the "if" clause. 
  • Correct: If it rains, I will stay home.

6. 'Since' vs. 'For'


  • Error: Confusing 'since' with 'for', e.g., "I've been here since three hours."
  • Tip: Use 'since' for a point in time, 'for' for a duration. 
  • Correct: I've been here for three hours. 

7. Placement of Time Adverbs

  • Error: Wrong placement of time adverbs, e.g., "I have yesterday finished my homework."
  • Tip: Time adverbs are usually placed at the end of a sentence. 
  • Correct: I finished my homework yesterday.


Exercise 1: Identify The Tense (Simple Past, Simple Present, Simple Future) Of Each Sentence

  1. I walk to school every day.
  • Simple Present

2. She will visit her grandma next weekend.

  • Simple Future

3. They played at the park yesterday.

  • Simple Past

4. We will finish our project tomorrow.

  • Simple Future

5. He studies in the library.

  • Simple Present


Exercise 2: Correct The Tense Mistake In Each Sentence

  1. She go to the gym every morning.
  • She goes to the gym every morning.

2. He didn't eats breakfast today.

  • He didn't eat breakfast today.

3. They will goes to the zoo next Sunday.

  • They will go to the zoo next Sunday.

4. I am understand the math problem now.

  • I understand the math problem now.

5. We has finished our homework.

  • We have finished our homework.


Exercise 3:  Complete Each Sentence With The Correct Form Of The Verb Given In Parentheses

  1. She __________ (plays/will play/played) the piano when her friend arrived.
  • played

2. I __________ (go/goes/will go) to the dentist tomorrow.

  • will go

3. They __________ (has been/have been/had been) waiting for the movie for two hours.

  • have been

4. I __________ (am eating/eat/ate) dinner at 7 PM every night.

  • eat

5. We __________ (visited/visit/will visit) our cousins last summer.

  • visited


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Conclusion

We learned to use different tenses for past, present, and future actions in English. These tenses are flexible, allowing us to express ideas about time in a nuanced way. Interestingly, we sometimes use the present tense to talk about future events, especially when they are scheduled or planned.

Visualize time as a line to help understand this concept: past tense is for actions behind us, present tense is for what's happening now, and future tense is for events ahead. Keep practicing these tenses to improve your storytelling and planning discussions.

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