Monday, August 19, 2013

The twelve tense system in English - an overview

Not everyone agrees on what comprises a tense. It is common to talk about present, past and future tenses, but some people think a tense must involve inflection (or morphological change), that is a change in the form of the verb itself, as in Latin and many European languages, so they recognise only two tenses - past and present. On the other hand, one early grammar book talked of six tenses.
In EFL/ESL we usually work on the basis that a tense combines a time (present, past or future) with an aspect (simple, continuous, perfect simple or perfect continuous). This gives us twelve active tenses. In theory we could also have twelve passive tenses, but in practice, only eight are used.
Although I will be talking a bit about individual tenses, my main aim here is to show how, in this way of looking at things, all twelve tenses fit into a neat, easy to understand scheme.

What are tenses

Some dictionaries define tenses as simply being about time:
any of the forms of a verb that may be used to show the time of the action or state expressed by the verb (Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary)
a category of the verb or verbal inflections, such as present, past, and future, that expresses the temporal relations between what is reported in a sentence and the time of its utterance (Collins)
Others add a bit more:
a set of forms taken by a verb to indicate the time (and sometimes also the continuance or completeness) of the action in relation to the time of the utterance (Oxford Dictionaries Online)
any of the forms of a verb that show the time, continuance, or completion of an action or state that is expressed by the verb (Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English)
The way we talk about tenses in EFL/ESL, and the way I'll be discussing them in this post, is more in line with that second set of definitions.

Introductory notes

  • Some people prefer to call future tenses future forms, but for the sake of consistency, and to show the close relationship between certain future forms and their past and present equivalents, I've kept the term tense throughout.
  • What I refer to as continuous tenses here are also sometimes called progressive tenses.
  • This way of categorisation is designed for teaching foreign learners. Linguists and other grammarians may have other needs and so look at tenses differently. There's a link to Glottopedia at the bottom for the linguistics angle. On the other hand, I strongly believe that this system would also be of benefit in teaching young native speakers about their language.

The five verb forms in English

English has five verb forms. That's not a lot compared with many languages. Thanks to the use of auxiliary verbs, also known as (aka) helping verbs, we can construct all our tenses from just these five forms. And in many verbs two of these forms are the same; and in a few verbs, even three of the forms are the same.
The only exception to this is the verb to be.
FormAKARegularIrregular 1Irregular 2Irregular 3
1st formbase formworkhavewriteput
2nd formpast formworkedhadwroteput
3rd formpast participleworkedhadwrittenput
-ing formpresent participle / gerundworkinghavingwritingputting
3rd person singular present simpleworkshaswritesputs
In traditional grammar, the first three forms and sometimes the -ing form are often known as the principal parts of the verb.
The base form is that found in dictionaries and gives us:
  • the infinitive
  • 1st form
  • the imperative

Auxiliary verbs

As I said, we form the tenses with the use of auxiliary (or helping) verbs:
  • primary auxiliary verbs

    • do - in present and past simple (negatives and questions only)
    • be - in continuous tenses
    • have - perfect tenses

A reminder of how the primary auxiliaries are used

  • Present and past tenses are formed with the primary auxiliaries do, be, have
  • Future tenses are formed with a combination of the modal will and the primary auxiliaries be and have
  • In simple tenses, the primary auxiliary do is usually only used in questions and negatives

Modal auxiliaries

There is also a group of verbs known as modal auxiliaries (or modals):
  • modal auxiliary verbs

    • will, would, can, could, shall, should, may, might, must, ought to

These are used for adding modality (possibility, obligation, probability etc) rather than for forming tenses, except for will, which is used to form future tenses. We'll have a quick look at modals at the end of this post.

The twelve Active tenses

Exercise 1 - Complete each sentence by entering the verb write in one of the five verb forms.

- 3rd person sg
I lots of emails every day.
She often to her friends.

ContinuousHe is a book at the moment.
Perfect simpleWe have already to the Council to complain.
Perfect continuousShe has been emails all morning.
SimpleHe two articles yesterday.
ContinuousHe was all day.
Perfect simpleWe had to them to tell them we were coming.
Perfect continuousShe was tired because she had been all day.
SimpleI will to you tomorrow.
ContinuousShe will be letters at this time tomorrow.
Perfect simpleBy 5 pm he will have three reports.
Perfect continuousSoon he will have been for ten hours.

Exercise 2 - Select what Active tense is being used in each of these sentences.

1. He had already eaten.
2. She'll be having her lunch at that time.
3. He's talking to Peter at the moment.
4. Has she been to the bank yet?
5. He probably won't have finished it by then.
6. I had been meaning to buy a new one.
7. She went there yesterday.
8. No worries, I'll do it later.
9. Very soon we'll have been waiting for half-an-hour.
10. He goes to the gym at least twice a week.
11. She was wearing a light brown raincoat.
12. I've been writing grammar exercises all morning.

The twelve tense system in table form

In many languages children learn their own native-tongue verb systems by the way of tables. This is not done much when teaching English to foreign learners, which I think is a shame, as it can help us to see the connections and relationships between different tenses.
Active tenses
Time >
will hide
Continuouswas hiding
were hiding
am hiding
is hiding
are hiding
will be hiding
Perfect simplehad hiddenhas hidden
have hidden
will have hidden
Perfect continuoushad been hidinghas been hiding
have been hiding
will have been hiding

The Passive

We usually only use eight of the twelve tenses in the passive, otherwise we'd get awkward constructions like He had been being hidden or She will be being hidden.
Passive tenses
Time >
Simplewas hidden
were hidden
am hidden
is hidden
are hidden
will be hidden
Continuouswas being hidden
were being hidden
is being hidden
are being hidden
are hiding
Perfect simplehad been hiddenhas been hidden
have been hidden
will have been hidden

Part 2 - a look at aspect

The uses of simple aspect

In some ways the simple aspect is the most difficult to describe, as it has different functions for each time and it is probably better understood by looking at the individual tenses, which I will do a bit later.
  • Simple tenses are used to talk about established facts
    past Last month Parliament passed a new law dealing with intellectual property.
    present Companies lose millions of pounds because of this problem.
    future The new law will come into force next week.
  • present simple is also used to talk about
    • general truths, relatively permanent states and actions that happen regularly

      The sun rises in the East and sets in the West
      I live and work in Poland
      She often visits her granny in Glasgow.

  • past simple is the standard tense for talking about the past
    • They arrived rather late.
      After she left university she got a part-time job in a bank.
      Many of Dicken's novels first appeared in instalment form in magazines.

  • future simple is also used to talk about personal decisions made at the moment of speaking, predictions, offers, and promises.
    • That's a good idea. I'll do it right now.
      Do you think it will rain later?
      I'll help you with that, if you like.
      I won't forget to write, I promise.

More detail will be given about individual simple tenses when we look at time in Part 3

The uses of continuous aspect

We use countinuous tenses to talk about:
  • actions happening around a particular time










    past At seven we were just sitting down to supper.
    present It's now nine o'clock and I'm doing the washing up.
    future At eleven I'll be reading a good book in bed.
  • temporary actions or situations
    past At that time we were still living at my parents' house.
    present She's just working there until something better turns up.
    future We'll be travelling for about six months.
  • change happening over time
    past The company was beginning to see better times.
    present More and more people are using social networks these days.
    future The nights will be getting shorter soon.
See the uses of past and future tenses for specific meanings

The relationship between continuous tenses

Notice how the three continuous tenses relate to each other when talking about actions happening around a certain time.







3pm Saturday




It is now 3pm on Saturday

PastThis time yesterday I was packing my suitcase
PresentRight now I'm sitting on a plane flying to Rio
FutureThis time tomorrow I'll be lying on the beach at Coca Cobana

The uses of perfect aspect

  • to describe actions completed up until a certain point




    past She'd met him once or twice before.
    present I've made two so far today.
    future He'll have finished it by the weekend.
  • with words like just, already, still and yet

    She had just moved there when it happened.
    He's already broken three world records
    Haven't you done your homework yet?
    And I bet he still won't have done it by the time we get home.

  • In past and present with words like ever and never

    He had never been there before.
    Have you ever heard such an awful noise?

For other uses, see individual tenses

The uses of perfect continuous aspect

  • to describe longer actions lasting up to a particular point in the past, present or future; actions which may or may not be completed by that point, and which may or may not continue after that point. The action is more important than its completion.




    past I'd been waiting for over an hour before he arrived.
    present She's been chatting on the phone for at least an hour.
    future By the time he retires, he'll have been working here for twenty years
    Example - I arrived at the bus stop at eight o'clock and it's now 8.20









    past By ten past eight, I'd been waiting for ten minutes.
    present It's now twenty past eight, and I've been waiting for twenty minutes.
    future If a bus doesn't come by 8.30, I'll have been waiting for half-an-hour.
  • in past and present tenses to describe the reason for an evident result

    She was out of breath because she had been running
    His hands are dirty because he has been cleaning the car

  • in the future to describe the reason for an expected result

    By the time she arrives, she'll have been travelling all day so she'll be feeling tired.

Differences between perfect simple and perfect continuous

We use perfect simple when we are talking about completed actions, especially where numbers are involved, and perfect continuous when we are more interested in the activity than completed events:
  • She has read all ten of his novels.
  • She has been reading all morning.
With for and since we can use both perfect simple and perfect continuous, but when we want to stress how long the action lasted, we usually use perfect continuous.
  • He's lived here since he was a child.
  • They had been travelling since early morning.
  • By the the end of this year, I'll have been working here for over twenty years.
  • When I retire, I'll have worked here for over twenty five years.

The relationships between the six perfect tenses

Notice how the three perfect simple tenses and the three perfect continuous tenses relate to each other, and the difference in use between perfect simple and perfect continuous tenses.
The time is now 11.00
09.00At nine o'clock I arrived at the office and started writing reports
 perfect simpleperfect continuous
10.00An hour ago I'd finished four reportsBy that time I'd been writing reports for an hour.
11.00It's now 11am and I've finished eight reportsUp to now I've been writing reports for two hours
12.00By midday I'll have finished twelve reports, with any luckBy then I'll have been writing reports for three hours, worst luck.

Part 3 - a look at individual tenses

Although I list the main uses of each tense, there may be some I haven't covered. In this post I don't really compare the use of one tense against another. There are one or two links below to posts that deal with that.

The uses of present tenses

  • Present simple is used:
    • to talk about things that are always true or seen as permanent

      The sun warms the Earth.
      Our favourite tree stands in a large meadow.
      She sings beautifully.

    • to talk about situations that are seen as relatively permanent

      He works in the City.
      She paints in watercolours in her spare time.
      They go to the local school.

    • to talk about habits and repeated or regular actions

      He usually plays golf at the weekend
      At weekends he goes for a run.
      Each summer we go somewhere different.

    • with state verbs which aren't normally used in continuous tenses

      It's OK, I believe you.
      It belongs to my brother.
      Mmmm, that smells good!

    • when using verbs that perform the action they describe

      I promise I'll do it today.
      She apologises for what she said.
      He denies having done anything wrong.

    • to talk about series of events as we speak, for example when giving instructions and in sports commentaries

      First you take an onion, then you peel it and fry it till slighly brown.
      And Johnson gets the ball and passes to Keenan, who scores.

    • when telling stories and jokes, and talking about the plots of films, books etc

      This horse goes into a bar and asks if they serve horses.
      Two people meet in a café while waiting for their respective dates.

    • when reporting what we have seen, heard or understood

      I hear Jenny's getting promoted.
      I see you found the ice-cream, then.
      Well, that explains it!

    • to talk about the future
    • in adverbial clauses starting with if, unless, in case, as long as and certain time expressions such as when, as soon as, after, before, until

      If I see her, I'll tell her the news.
      I'll contact you as soon as I have the information.

    • with be to to say that something must happen before something else

      If we're to get there on time, we'll need to hurry
      He'll have to work harder if he's to pass his exams.

    • in that clauses about the future when the verb in the main clause also refers to the future.

      I'll make sure she gets your message.
      He's going to insist that she returns the money immediately.

    • to talk about timetabled or scheduled events in the future

      Her train arrives at 3pm tomorrow.
      The first session of the conference starts at 9am on the 21st September.
      We get off at the next stop.

  • Present continuous
    • An activity in progress at the time of speaking

      Quiet! I'm trying to read this article.
      Why are we whispering?

    • A temporary situation over a longer period of time

      We're staying at my parents' until the new house is ready.
      I'm just doing this job until something better comes along.

    • Repeated actions over a limited period of time

      He's seeing a lot of Julie at the moment.
      Someone's banging on the door.

    • To talk about change, both short and long term

      It's getting a bit dark, shall I put the light on?
      The universe is still expanding.

    • Actions happening round now but not necessarily at this precise moment

      I'm reading this really good book at the moment.
      I'm considering applying for a new job

    • With certain frequency adverbs when we want to emphasise that somebody does something often, especially when we don't approve:

      He's always forgetting his keys.
      She's constantly complaining about her marriage.
      They're forever having exotic holidays. How on earth can they afford it?

    • Note - some verbs, sometimes called state or stative verbs, are not usually used in continuous tenses, eg: like, believe, know. With some state verbs, however, we sometimes use present continuous to emphasise that we are talking about a temporary situation happening now:

      She's really enjoying her new job.
      You're looking especially good today.
      The kids are loving this holiday.

    • to talk about the future
    • to talk about arrangements in the future:

      We're having a party at the weekend and you're invited.
      I'm playing golf with some friends on Saturday.
      Some of us are going for a drink after work if you want to come.

  • Present perfect - to talk about events in the past that have a connection to the present:
    • at an unspecified time in the past when the time is not important

      The human race has come a long way.
      Have you met my brother?

    • events during our lifetime up until now - especially with words like ever and never

      She's never been to India before.
      Have you ever eaten octopus?

    • events during a specified period up until now - especially with for and since

      We've lived in this house for ten years.
      They haven't seen her since she left, ten years ago.

    • events in the recent past, for example in news reports

      Scientists have discovered a new species of mammal.
      The government have announced a pay freeze for public sector workers
      Great news! Timothy has passed all his exams.

    • events in the (very) recent past - especially with adverbs like just, yet, already etc

      I haven't done it yet.
      I've already told you.
      We've (just) been given a pay rise.

    • events in the past that affect the present

      They've mended the TV. (We can watch it now)
      I've ironed your shirt. (You can wear it now)
      I've read all Jane Austen's books. (I can tell you all about them)

    • repeated actions in the current time period - today, this year etc

      I've written three emails this morning.
      I' tried to call her five times since lunchtime.

  • Present perfect continuous
    • for longer continuous actions, especially when we want to stress the length of time, especially with for and since.

      He's been working there for over twenty years now.
      I've been meaning to contatct you (ever) since I heard about your good news.

    • to explain a present condition

      She's been painting the sitting room and her clothes are covered in paint.
      He's exhausted. He's been digging in the garden all afternooon.
      Look! It's been raining.

The uses of past tenses

  • Past simple
    • for single completed action at a specific time

      She got married last week.
      The Beatles had their first hit, with 'Love Me Do', in 1962.

    • when talking about a time that is obviously in the past

      He was a very difficult child.
      For some reason the dinosaurs became extinct.

    • when talking about relatively long-term situations

      At that time we lived in Sussex.
      When she was younger she played a lot of basketball.

    • when talking about finished time periods

      I spoke to him about it yesterday.
      We went there last year.

    • sequences of actions

      He turned off the TV, locked the back door and went to bed.
      She left the shop and crossed the road.

    • for repeated actions in the past (see note below)

      He visited his parents every weekend.
      She often popped into the library on her way home.

  • Past continuous
    • actions in progress around a certain time

      What were you doing at four o'clock yesterday afternoon?This time last week I was just beginning my new job

    • temporary situations in the past

      He was staying with his parents until he could find a place of his own.
      It was raining so they decided to stay in.

    • background events in progress

      It was five o'clock and people were rushing home.
      The story starts when he was staying with his cousins in the West Country.

    • longer events in progress interrupted by a short action

      We were just sitting down to tea when the doorbell rang.
      She was travelling on the metro when she had her purse stolen.

    • longer events with verbs like wear and carry

      She was wearing an Hermès scarf and carrying a Gucci bag.

  • Past perfect
    • past events which occurred before another past event

      He had already finished college before he made his first CD.
      They stayed in the very hotel where they had been on their honeymoon.

    • events which occurred before the main story, when the story is in the past

      She knew she had met him before, somewhere.
      She had previously worked as a waitress.

    • to say the main action happened before something else (here, unusually, it is the later action that is in the past perfect)

      It was in the days before the computer had been invented
      She left the room before I had finished saying what I had to say.

  • Past perfect continuous
    • for longer continuous actions that happened up to a time in the past (and could continue), or shortly befor a time in the past.

      We had already been waiting for half an hour.
      I had been reading my newspaper and hadn't noticed the time.

    • for longer continuous actions before something happened in the past.

      They had been walking for an hour or so when they saw a small cottage.
      He was stopped by the police, even though he hadn't been speeding.

    • to emphasise that a situation before the main events lasted some time

      He had been working there all his life.
      It seemed though we had been dancing from dusk till dawn.

    • to explain a condition in the past

      She had been travelling all day so was rather tired.
      He had been running and was a bit out of breath.

Other ways of talking about the past - used to and would

As we saw, we can use Past simple to talk about repeated actions and habits and states in the past. If these are no longer true we can also use used to, and if we are talking about a repeated action, rather than a state, we can also use would
  • At the time I walked to work day.
  • I used to walk to work every day.
  • I would walk to work every day.
For states in the past that are no longer true, we can use Past simple and used to, but not would.
  • He had much longer hair then.
  • He used to have much longer hair then.
  • NOT He would have much longer hair then.
In this case, live and work function like state verbs
  • She lived and worked in Newcastle at that time.
  • She used to live and work in Newcastle.
  • NOT She would live and work in Newcastle.
The structure used to is the Past simple of an old verb use to, which is no longer used. So the negative and question forms are just like any other verb in the Simple past, without the final d.
  • She used to live in the South of France.
  • She didn't use to visit Britain much.
  • Did she use to live in the country?
  • Didn't she use to write books about life in Provence?
Used to is sometimes referred to as a semi-modal (see below). There's a link below to a post with exercises on used to and would.

Narrative tenses

This is just another term for the four past tenses, which are often used in the telling of stories (or narratives), although in practice, narratives also often involve the use of other forms, such as Reported speech and Future in the past.
There is a link below to some exercises on narrative tenses about the adventures of Ruddy Wee Hoody, my version of the Little Red Riding Hood story.

The uses of future tenses

  • Future simple (also known as the will future) is used to talk about:
    • simple facts (which don't involve a decision by the speaker)

      The government will make an announcement tomorrow
      This shop will be closed at the weekend for stocktaking.

    • personal decisions at the moment of speaking (often with think)

      We're running a bit late. I'll ring for a taxi.
      I think I'll help myself to another of these excellent biscuits

    • predictions

      Do you think he'll remember to buy milk?
      She says the weather will be better in September.
      I'll probably see him at the meeting.

    • offers and promises

      I'll give Sammy a hand with his homework, shall I?
      He says he'll make sure that the work is finished on time.

    • asking and agreeing to do something

      Next time you see him will you tell him I was asking for him?
      OK. I'll tell him when I see him tomorrow.

    • making orders and instructions softer, especially with have to and need to - a form of distancing

      I’m afraid you’ll need to rewrite this report. (eg your boss)
      I’ll have to ask you to come with me, Sir. (eg Customs official)
      That will be £20, please. (eg shop assistant, saying what is owed)

    Note - we also use other forms to express the simple future, which we'll look at in a moment.
  • Future continuous
    • events around a certain time in the future, especially with this time or at + time reference

      This time next week we'll be lying on a beach somewhere.
      We'll still be eating at eight thirty, so why don't you call around nine?
      If all goes to plan, I'll be starting up my own company next year.

    • temporary events or situations in the future

      My brother'll be looking after the dogs while we're on holiday.
      Fiona'll be working here until Jenny comes back from maternity leave.
      After that we'll be travelling for a bit.

    • Note - for other uses of future continuous, see the next section.
  • Future perfect
    • actions that will have been completed before a certain time in the future, especially with by + time reference

      We'll have finished the reports by Friday afternoon.

  • Future perfect continuous - the rarest and most exotic of all tenses
    • longer events lasting until a certain time in the future

      If a bus doesn't come in the next five minutes, we'll have been waiting here for half an hour.

Other ways of talking about the simple future

The future is to a certain extent unknown, so we can't talk about it with the same certainty as we can about the present and past. Perhaps for this reason the use of tenses and verb forms is a bit different when we talk about the future.
To talk about the simple future, as well as using Future simple (or the will future), we also certain other forms:
  • going to (also known as the going to future)
    • for plans and intentions - very common in spoken language

      I'm going to get my hair cut tomorrow
      Do you think she's going to apply for that new job?
      They're going to build a new playground in the park.

  • Present continuous
    • for arrangements (things you've agreed with other people and can put in your diary)

      I'm having lunch with my boss tomorrow
      We're visiting my cousins at the weekend
      She's having her hair done on Friday.

    • Asking about people's plans and arrangements (more common than will or going to)

      What are you doing at the weekend?
      Do you know if Peter is coming to the pub with us later?
      Is your family planning anything special for your birthday?

  • Present simple
    • for timetabled events (but we can also use will)

      The train gets in at 16.25. (or The train will get in at 16.25.)
      The meeting starts at ten sharp. (or The meeting will start at ten sharp.)

  • Future continuous
    • when we want to emphasise that something has already been planned or arranged

      We will be taking a holiday in September
      I'll be seeing John at the meeting tomorrow
      During the press conference, Mary will be dealing with any questions.

    • to make future events sound planned, not decided on at the time of speaking.

      This is your captain speaking. Today we will be flying at an altitude of forty thousand feet.
      I'll be discussing this with the boss tomorrow.
      She'll be talking about increasing customer loyalty.

    • to ask polite questions about somebody's future actions - a form of distancing

      Will you be using the car later on?
      What time will you be arriving?
      Will you be staying long?

  • Expressions with be (+ adjective +) to
    • the first two of these are often used in media reports

      The government are to announce new measures to combat unemployment.
      The strike is set start tomorrow, unless there is a breakthrough.
      The train is due to leave in ten minutes.
      We are just about to go out.

A comparison between will, going to, present continuous and future continuous.

willI'll discuss it with the boss tomorrow.

I'm deciding at the moment of speaking to discuss it with the boss tomorrow. The boss doesn't know anything about this.

going toI'm going to discuss it with the boss tomorrow.

I've already decided to discuss it with the boss tomorrow, but whether the boss knows this or not isn't important. The focus is on my intention, my decision.

present continuousI'm discussing it with the boss tomorrow.

I've arranged with the boss to discuss this with her tomorrow, and I'm emphasising that this arrangement has been made.

future continuousI'll be discussing it with the boss tomorrow.

I've decided to discuss it with the boss tomorrow. She probably knows about this, but here I'm simply stating a fact rather than focussing on the arrangement.

As an example of how confusing the future can be for learners, we can look at the simple event of a train leaving a station. Is this a timetabled event, a simple fact, an arrangement or a matter of some urgency? All of the following are possible:
  • The next train for Bristol leaves at 16.25
  • The 16.25 train for Bristol will leave from Platform 6.
  • The 16.25 train for Bristol will be leaving from Platform 6 in five minutes.
  • We'd better get a move on. The train's due to leave in five minutes.
  • Come on! The train's leaving in five minutes.
  • Hurry up! The train's going to leave any minute.

What about emphatic tenses?

One way we can add emphasis is to put extra stress on auxiliary verbs:
  • Why aren't you doing your homework? - I am doing it!
  • Why haven't you done the washing up? - I have done it!
In positive simple past and present tenses, we have to add the auxiliaries do and did.
  • You don't like vegetables, do you? - I do like vegetables.
  • What a pity she didn't pass her exam - But she did pass her exam. In fact she got a very high mark!
This use of do / does / did is occasionally referred to as emphatic tenses, but as there is no difference in time or aspect from standard simple tenses, and as we do exactly the same thing with other auxiliaries, I see no reason to call these tenses, and I've never seen them referred to as such in EFL materials - we usually simply call it emphatic do.
There's a link below to a post with explanations and exercises related to the emphatic use of auxilaries.

Part 4 - other uses of past tenses - backshifting

We use past tenses in other ways than simply to talk about the past. This often involves backshifting, using a past form instead of a present form, using Past perfect instead of Past simple, or using a 'past modal', instead of a standard modal.
Present simple>Past simple
Present perfect>Past perfect
Past simple>
Past perfect>
Present continuous>Past continuous
Present perfect continuous>Past perfect continuous
Past continuous>
must>had to
is going etc>was going etc
The main uses of backshifting are in:
  • Reported (or indirect) speech
  • Future in the past
  • Hypothetical conditionals and the 'unreal past'.
  • Distancing - being more tentative, more polite.

Reported speech

When the reporting verb is in the past, we usually backshift any verbs in the reported part:
  • 'She lives in London'

    - He told me that she lived in London.

  • 'OK, I did it. I spilt the milk'

    - He admitted that had done it. That he had spilt the milk.

  • 'Can you give me a hand with hanging up the washing'

    - She asked if I could give her a hand with the washing.

  • 'I'm going to apply for the new position.'

    - He said he was going to apply for the new position.

You can read more about this, and do some exercises, at my post linked to below

Future in the past

Sometimes people think about the future, and then think back about it later. In this case we use a past form of whatever future form we originally have use. We backshift the tenses or future forms in a similar way to reported speech
  • 'I'll tell her later'

    - He decided he would tell her later.

  • 'She's going to be an actress'

    - She was going to be an actress.

  • 'There's to be an early election'

    - I read that there was to be an early election

  • 'He'll be meeting his mother then'

    - I thought he would be meeting his mother then.

Future in the past if often used in narratives to tell us what will happen later.
  • He didn't realise it at the time, but this was the woman he would later marry.
Sometimes this use suggests that the thing didn't actually happen
  • She was going to be an actress, but somehow that never happened.
There's a link below to a post on Future in the past, with explanations and exercises.

Hypothetical conditionals and the 'unreal past'

In hypothetical conditionals, we use past tenses and forms in the if clause to express a present or future condition, and past perfect tenses to express a past condition.
  • Hypothetical conditionals about the present or future (Second conditionals)
    • If I won a lot on the lottery I would buy a new house.
    • I would tell you if I knew the answer. But I don't.
    • If we were to increase our order, could you offer us a larger discount?
  • Hypothetical conditionals about the past (Third conditionals)
    • If we had booked yesterday, we might still have got tickets.
    • He would never have known about it if he hadn't overheard their conversation.
    • Had she told me earlier, I would have been able to do something about it.
  • Hypothetical conditionals in mixed times (Mixed conditionals)
    • Wouldn't she have said if she was going to be late?
    • If she had studied harder at university she might have a better job now.
We also use 'unreal past' with certain expressions to express a wish, a regret or a suggestion.
  • I wish / if only
    • I wish I wasn't so lazy.
    • If only I hadn't said that to him.
    • I wish you wouldn't smoke so much.
  • with certain expressions
    • I'd rather we did something different this time.
    • Wouldn't you sooner we went out tonight?
    • Supposing we tried that new restaurant.
    • What if we offered you free delivery? How would that sound?
    • She behaves as though she was/were the Queen of Sheba.
    • It's high time you were in bed, young man.
    • It would be better if we waited a bit longer.
I've written posts on I wish and the unreal past, which are linked to below. There are also sevral posts on conditionals, which you can find on the contents page.


We often use the past modal forms could and would to make questions more tentative, more polite. We can use past tenses to do something similar. By distancing our questions, we also make it easier for the other person to say 'no'.
  • How much did you want to spend?
  • Did you want something in particular?
  • How long did you intend to stay for?
This can be made even more tentative by using past continuous, what Michael Swan, in Practical English Usage, calls 'double distancing'.
  • How much were you wanting to spend?
  • Were you wanting something to eat?
  • How long were you intending to stay?
On the other hand, using the past continuous like this in offers, (eg Were you wanting something to eat?) can sometimes make it sound as though you expect the answer 'no'.

I wondered if / I was wondering if

We can also use the expression I wondered if ... / I was wondering if ... to make indirect questions, especially in invitations, when we want to ask a favour or are checking up that someone has done something. Again, the past continuous version is even more polite or tentative than the past simple version.
Note that when we use wonder if in this meaning, the second verb also goes into a past tense, backshifting from the tense you would have used in the direct question.
  • Do you want to go to the cinema this evening?

    - I wondered if you wanted to go to the cinema this evening.

  • Are you using the car this afternoon?

    I was wondering if you were using the car this afternoon

  • Have you phoned your aunt yet?

    I wondered if you had phoned your aunt yet.

  • Did you put the rubbish out?

    I was wondering if you had put the rubbish out.

Part 5 - a very brief look at modals

Modal (auxiliary) verbs

There are ten modal verbs:

will, would, can, could, shall, should, may, might, must, ought to

(There are also a couple of semi-modals - need and dare, but they needn't concern us here.)
Most modals can be used in the same four aspect forms as will (itself a modal):
simplecould etc + 1st formWe could watch it later.
continuouscould be etc + -ing formShe could be doing it now.
perfectcould have etc + 3rd formThey could have gone to the party if they had wanted.
perfect continouscould have been etc + -ing formHe could have been telling the truth.
We don't usually refer to these as tenses, as the use of the modal suggests other things than a simple time relationship, for example, possibility, probability and speculation, as in these examples.
Note that we don't normally use can in perfect forms or before -ing forms or to-infinitives. In those cases we use be able to for example:
  • I've only been able to find a few examples of this.
Modals are a subject all of their own, so that's all I'll be saying about them here.


  1. Congratulations on such a thorough survey.

  2. Thanks for that Barrie, it's greatly appreciated. It was partly our discussions which spurred me on to write it, so I'm glad you found it.

  3. This is by far, by far the best source on english verbs I have seen yet. Been teaching 'em for 12 years with occasional source searches -- some results OK, some not, none anywhere near as complete as this. I enjoyed the historical research very much. Heard from one course from The Learning Company that the continuous tenses came from the Celtic language. Well struck!

    I teach "have to" and "need to" as modal verbs. What do you think?

  4. Thanks for that, Tom. If you're interested in the history of grammar, I've recently put up a post on A Brief History of Tense, a look at how English tenses have been treated in grammar books over the centuries.

    On continuous tenses/forms/aspect Wikipedia says 'One postulated source of the English current progressive aspect is the Celtic languages that have been spoken in Britain throughout its history, which all use a (to be)+preposition+verbal noun construction to form it'.

    For example, in Scottish Gaelic, 'tha mi a'dol' is 'I am going'

    As for modals, 'Need' and 'have to' certainly function like modals, and we'd normally tackle 'must', 'need to' and 'have to' at the same time. For example, today I've been doing a unit from Grammar and Vocabulary for CAE and CPE on 'Necessity, duty and advice', which includes 'must', 'have to', 'should', 'ought to', 'need to' and a few other constructions.

    As I wrote, 'need' is a semi-modal (along with 'dare'),as it can be structured both as a standard verb 'I don't need to do it', 'Do I need to do it?' or as a modal 'I needn't do it', 'Do I need do it?'.

    But 'have to' is really only used in standard form, so I wouldn't call it a modal, although agreeing it functions a bit like one. I searched for 'Hadn't I to' at Google Books, and all I got was several repetitions of a line from Byron - 'Hadn't I to go to the city? and hadn't I to remember what to ask when I got there?'. Even in nineteenth century books I can only find about half a dozen examples of 'I haven't to', although they include Trollope and Fenimore Cooper. Google Search doesn't come up with much more, although there is this one from A Fatal Gift, by Alec Waugh (Evelyn's brother) ' "Now," I said, "I haven't to go into one of the conventional professions. I luckily haven't to worry about money. I'll look around." '. But I think this is pretty unusual these days.

  5. Learn all the English tenses and not get confused is quite difficult. It takes a long time to be confident, and not to be confused.
    This infographic about 12 Major English Tenses helped me to remember and gave me good practice. Perhaps for someone, this form of presenting the material will be more memorable.