Understanding Verb Tenses

road sign: past, present, future
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In grammar, tense is the time of a verb's action or its state of being, such as present (something happening now), past (something happened earlier), or future (something going to happen). These are called the verb's time frame. For example, examine I walk (present), I walked (past), and I will walk (future). 

Next, a verb can have an aspect, which gives more formation about the state of the verb's action. They are simple, progressive, perfect, or perfect progressive. Simple is covered by the basic present, past, and future tense verb forms. A verb with a simple aspect doesn't necessarily specify if an action is complete or not. For an action that's ongoing or unfinished, you use continuous/progressive tenses. If the action was completed, you use perfect or or perfect progressive tenses: 

  • I walked (simple past) 
  • I am walking (present continuous, action is ongoing) 
  • I was walking (past continuous, action continued in the past) 
  • I will be walking (future continuous, ongoing action will happen later)
  • I have walked (present perfect, action is completed) 
  • I had walked (past perfect, action was completed in the past)
  • I will have walked (future perfect, action will be completed in the future)
  • I have been walking (present perfect progressive, the current ongoing action is complete)
  • I had been walking (past perfect progressive, action was ongoing in the past and completed in the past)
  • I will have been walking (future perfect progressive, ongoing action will be completed in the future)

Irregular Verbs

Of course, not every verb form in English is as easy as forming regular verbs such as walk into its participles of walking and walked. Take for example, go, which changes to went and gone in the past:

  • I went (simple past) 
  • I am going (present continuous, action is ongoing) 
  • I was going (past continuous, action continued in the past) 
  • I will be going (future continuous, ongoing action will happen later)
  • I have gone (present perfect, action is completed) 
  • I had gone (past perfect, action was completed in the past)
  • I will have gone (future perfect, action will be completed in the future)
  • I have been going (present perfect progressive, the current ongoing action is complete)
  • I had been going (past perfect progressive, action was ongoing in the past and completed in the past)
  • I will have been going (future perfect progressive, ongoing action will be completed in the future)

Helpers and Conditional Mood

Auxiliary verbs, also called helping verbs, create continuous and perfect tenses; auxiliaries include forms of "to be" or "has," such as in the examples from above:

  • I am/was walking (continuous)
  • I have/had walked (perfect)
  • I will walk (future)

English doesn't have a separate verb form for future tense (like adding an -ed to create a past tense word), just shows it through auxiliary words next to the verbs, such as I will walk, I shall be walking, or I am going to walk. 

If something might happen or it might not (conditional), that's the conditional mood (not a separate verb form either), and it also formed with auxiliary verbs, such as may or can: I may walk (present conditional) or I could walk (past conditional).

The Debate as to Whether Future Is a Tense

Many contemporary linguists equate tenses with the inflectional categories (or different endings) of a verb, which means that they don't consider future to be a tense. English maintains an inflectional distinction only between the present (for example, laugh or leave) and the past (laughedleft). But if you equate "tense" with a time change, then future is indeed a tense.

  • "English...has only one inflectional form to express time: the past tense marker (typically -ed), as in walked, jumped, and saw. There is therefore a two-way tense contrast in English: I walk vs. I walked—present tense vs past tense. English has no future tense ending, but uses a wide range of other techniques to express future time (such as will/shall, be going to, be about to, and future adverbs). The linguistic facts are uncontroversial. However, people find it extremely difficult to drop the notion of 'future tense' (and related notions, such as imperfect, future perfect, and pluperfect tenses) from their mental vocabulary, and to look for other ways of talking about the grammatical realities of the English verb." (David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 2003)
  • "In discussing tense, labels such as present tense, past tense, and future tense are misleading, since the relationship between tense and time is often not one-to-one. Present and past tenses can be used in some circumstances to refer to future time (e.g. If he comes tomorrow..., If he came tomorrow...); present tenses can refer to the past (as in newspaper headlines, e.g. Minister resigns..., and in colloquial narrative, e.g. So she comes up to me and says...); and so on." (Bas Aarts, Sylvia Chalker, and Edmund Weiner, Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2014)

    The Lighter Side of Verb Tense

    The past, the present, and the future walked into a bar.

    It was tense.