In the English language, we typically think of verb tenses as being past, present, and future. However, we actually have twelve different verb tense cases: four for each “time frame.” Sometimes they seem interchangeable, but each one does indicate a very specific point in time or period of time. The continuous verb cases are less common, but are still useful to learn. Below we have outlined each case (split into “present,” “past,” and “future” sections) with examples for you to identify the differences between them.
For a point of reference, when we refer to these terms, here are some “formulas” you can use to build your verbs (although these are not always the case):
“PERFECT” = “to have” verb + “-ed” verb
To Be Verbs: Am, Is, Are, Was, Were, Be, Being, Been
To Have Verbs: Have, Has, Had, Having
NOTE: Some grammar books and instructors use the term “progressive” rather than “continuous.” Because we feel “continuous” is a more descriptive label, we have opted to use it. So substitute “progressive” if you need to so that you more easily identify the verb tense and its use.
Present verb tenses indicate things happening right now. There are four forms: simple present, present perfect, present continuous, and present perfect continuous.
Simple present indicates that an action is occurring in the immediate present.
Example: They study by looking over their notes and their textbook.
Present perfect indicates that an action began in the past and has been occurring up until the immediate present.
Example: They have studied for six hours, and now it is time for a snack.
Present continuous indicates that an action is happening in the immediate present as you are talking about it.
Example: They are studying right now.
Present Perfect Continuous
Present perfect continuous indicates that an action began in the past and has been occurring until the immediate present. The focus is on the action’s process as it continues to occur and is unresolved.
Example: They have been studying for so long that they are losing their grip on reality.
Past verb tenses indicate things that happened in the past and have finished happening. The difference is in the length of time implied. The forms are simple past, past continuous, past perfect, and past perfect continuous.
Simple past indicates that an action happened and was resolved in the past.
Example: They studied on Saturday for their exam.
Past perfect indicates that an action happened over the course of a longer period of time, was resolved, and was followed by another action.
Example: They had studied Chapter 6 before Luke noticed it would not be on their exam.
Past continuous indicates that an action was occurring, but was interrupted by another action and so is unresolved.
Example: They were studying when they saw their professor’s email extending their exam to the next day.
Past Perfect Continuous
Past perfect continuous indicates that an action happened for a while in the past and may not have been resolved. The focus is on the action’s process as it has continued.
Example: They had been studying the material thoroughly.
Future verb tenses indicate things happening in the future. There are four forms: simple future, future continuous, future perfect, and future perfect continuous.
Future tense indicates that an action will occur in the future.
Example: They will study for their exam next Monday.
Future perfect indicates that an action will occur at a specific time and be resolved in a specific length of time in the future.
Example: They will have studied for thirty-six hours by Saturday evening.
Future continuous indicates that an action will continue to occur in the future.
Example: They will be studying carefully for the exam.
Future Perfect Continuous
Future perfect continuous indicates that an action between two points in the future is unresolved.
Example: They will have been studying for nearly seventy-two hours by the time they will take their exam.
From the examples above, you can probably see how tricky learning verb tenses can be. Their differences are sometimes too small to easily differentiate them from each other. Continue to practice using them in your writing, and if you get stuck, come up to The Learning Hub for an appointment!