English Grammar: Importance of Tenses

You should always keep in mind that English is a chronological language. English speakers simply always need to know when some action or event took place. 
Chronology, or events and dates set in order of their happening, is expressed by English speakers through verb tenses. Each tense indicates the connection between two or more time periods or the exact time an activity occurred, which underlines the importance of English grammar tenses. They can be used to create different meanings from the same verbs and help to anchor the listener understand the meaning behind your story. Thus, English has a lot of verb tenses with some expressing a connection between two time periods whereas others indicate the exact timing of an activity. Further, the depth of the English tenses should never be underestimated. We can, indeed, express very different things when simply changing the tense; or even use tenses as rhetorical devices to stress whether we strongly believe a project "is going to succeed" or simply express that we "will see" if a project "will succeed". 
Some languages do not put as much emphasis on tenses and the chronological order of events and actions. Instead, they stress (hierarchical) relationships between the people involved in the events and actions that are being described by the speaker/narrator. Japanese is one example for a language that puts much more emphasis on relationships. Thus, English learners whose first language is Japanese need to pay extra attention to the tenses in English and should work with visualization aids to move English tenses from the rather abstract realm of textbooks to a much more tangible and understandable medium. For example, why not take a wooden box and imagine that the past tenses need to placed within that box to symbolize how they describe events and actions that started and were completed in the past. This method works for tactile and visual learners alike.

If you’re still wondering why verb tenses are important, then let’s walk through the different types of tenses and how they can be used to effectively communicate with other people. After all, the goal of this post is to understand the important verb tenses that will help you in businesses and daily life.

Where does the word ‘tense’ come from?

Understanding where words come from will help you remember why they’re important. You can quickly recall the value of a verb tense by memorizing that it comes from the Latin word tempus, meaning time. With the English verb tense lists below, you’ll be able to quickly understand how to communicate about different events in time.

Four Main Types of Verb Tenses

Past Tense
Present Tense
Future Tense
Perfect Tense

Four Forms of Verb Tenses


More About the Different Types of Verb Tenses

The four main types of verb tenses and two forms can be used in a variety of combinations to create unique meanings. With so many options, it can be hard to determine what type of verb tense to use at the appropriate time. Below, you’ll find definitions of the different verb tenses and examples to help you understand how these could be used in your daily life.

Simple Form Verb Tenses

You can think of simple verb tenses as the building block of all other forms. In English grammar, simple form verb tenses do not have an auxiliary verb in affirmative sentences, which you’ll find in other forms. Below, you’ll find examples of simple present, past, and future phrases that you can use in conversation.

Simple Present Tense – Definition & Examples

The present tense can be used in two ways: to express a recurring action and to represent a common belief. Below, you’ll find an example of how the present tense is used in each of these instances.

Example 1: The tallest buildings are on 42nd and E Street.

Example 2: On warm days, the students run home from the park.

Example 3: Plants process carbon dioxide through photosynthesis.

Simple Past Tense – Definition & Examples

If you’re talking with a friend or a coworker and you want to explain that you started and finished an activity in the past, then you’d want to use a simple past tense verb. Regular past tense verbs end with -ed, but you’ll also find irregular past tense verbs where the spelling of the root word changes.

Example 1: We jumped off the diving board and into the pool.

Example 2: We drove through the night to make it home after the party.

Simple Future Tense - Definition & Examples

In its simple form, the future tense signifies something that is going to happen in the future. You can identify or use the simple future tense by using will or shall (note: The latter is far less common than will). Aside from will and shall, you can also express the simple future tense with am, is, are + base verb + ing, going to, and the simple present.

Example 1: My team will finish the report on Friday.

Example 2: We’re going to the mall on Saturday to find new clothes before the concert.

Example 3: The race starts early in the morning before the sun rises.

Perfect Verb Tenses

Not all events are clearly situated within a time frame, which is to say that some events happen at an indefinite time. Do you remember the specific time you drank coffee today? Probably not, because it stretched out over an indefinite period of time in the past. Perfect verb forms also apply to past and future tenses, where an event took place before another or will be completed in the future before another action.

Present Perfect Tense - Definition & Example

Communicating events with indiscrete times can be tricky in English. The present perfect tense is supposed to make this easier. If you want to explain an event that happened at an indefinite time in the past or that began in the past and continues into the present, then I’ve put together a few examples below. These will help you understand the basic rule of the present perfect.

Example 1: My friends have seen the movie so many times, they lost count.

Example 2: People have gathered together to celebrate each other’s birthdays for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

Past Perfect Tense - Definition & Example

If you’re talking about multiple events that happened in the past, then the past perfect tense will be useful for you. This verb tense allows you to discuss or write about an event that took place in the past, but before another past action.

Example 1: All the cars had parked alongside the road to watch the meteor shower.

Future Perfect Tense - Definition & Example

Just like you can discuss the relationship between two events in the past, you can also do so for those occurring in the future. The future perfect tense describes an event that will occur before another in the future. You can identify future perfect tense verbs because they’ll use the phrase, will have with a past participle.

Example 3: When I finally visit Japan, I will have traveled to every country.

Progressive Verb Tenses

If you want to signify something that is ongoing or discuss two events that overlapped in time, then the progressive verb tense is the best option to use. Both in writing and conversation, progressive forms help to show the duration of an event rather than just stating that it occurs, occurred, or will occur.

Present Progressive Tense - Definition & Examples

Often times, it’s useful to explain that an occurrence is happening at the same time of your explanation or writing. In English, the verb tense you would use to show that an action is happening at the same time of the explanation is called the present progressive form. Typically, speakers and writers use a verb ending in -ing alongside am, is, or are to create a present progressive form.

Example 1: The students are studying for their exams for the next few weeks.

Example 2: The children are eating their breakfast before our hike today.

Example 3: I am finding a way to go to the festival this year!

Past Progressive Tense - Definition & Example

Aside from using a progressive verb tense to show that an event is occurring at the time of the statement, they’re also used when talking about events that happened in the past. A past progressive tense can be used to show an action that was happening at the same time as another in the past. These past tense progressive verbs are typically used with was or were and also end in -ing.

Example 1: Our friends were eating breakfast at our house when we got the news our family just landed in Chicago for a surprise visit.

Example 2: I was sitting in the lobby when the clock struck midnight.

Future Progressive Tense - Definition & Example

Like the other forms, the future progressive tense also uses verbs that end in -ing along with will be/shall be, and am/is/are + going to be. This tense is most commonly used in conversation and when writing to describe a future event that will be ongoing.

Example 1: My friends will be spending some time with us next Saturday.

Example 2: I am going to be waiting for you in the lobby of the hotel.

Perfect Progressive Forms

Aside from showing an event at a certain period of time or the relationship between two past or future events, there is one more option you have when discussing the time between events. A perfect progressive form allows you to explain an event that happened in the past, is occurring in the present, and may occur in the future. In other words, you can use this when trying to explain a project you started last week but you won’t finish until the next.

Present Perfect Progressive Tense - Definition & Examples

When making project updates, or trying to explain when you’re going on vacation, you might need to use the present perfect progressive tense. This verb tense describes an event or action that started in the past, continues in the present, and may continue into the future. This form is created by using has or have been and a verb ending in -ing.

Example 1: For the past two weeks, the team members have been debating who will be the next team campaign leader.

Past Perfect Progressive Tense - Definition & Examples

If you’d like to communicate with depth, then you can use the past perfect progressive tense. Trust me, it sounds more complicated than it is in practice. Put simply, this verb tense gives you the ability to talk about a past action that was ongoing and completed before another past action occurred.

Example 1: We had been baking for the holidays when we heard our friends knock at the door.

Future Perfect Progressive Tense - Definition & Examples

Especially when talking business, the future perfect progressive tense is helpful for communicating with others. If you need to explain the expectations one or two quarters out, then you can do so by communicating or writing with this verb tense. The future perfect progressive tense describes an event in the future that is ongoing, but occurs before an arbitrarily specified time. You can create this form by using will have been and a verb ending in -ing.

Examples: By the end of the century, we will have been using the internet for over forty years.

There you go — now that you know the different types and forms of verb tenses you can start to practice communicating about time with people. Challenge yourself with one of these verb tenses a week to try to improve your fluency. At the end of the week, write down the different phrases you used and keep an ongoing journal to commit them to memory.

Marike Korn