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Time Frames and Verb Tenses (Intermediate, B-Level)

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Learning verb tenses in a new language can be difficult, and English is no different. Verb tenses in English are used to express ideas in the present, past, or future; however, each verb tense has some nuances in meaning.


What makes it a bit more challenging for English-language learners is that the same verb tense can sometimes express different times depending on the context. That is why, for example, the present simple tense can express a future action and even a past action if you use it in storytelling.

Understanding what verb tenses do makes it easier to learn them. In this lesson, you will learn the concept of time frames, which will help you understand verb tenses in English and, in fact, in any new language you learn.

Understanding Time Frames

When you use verb tenses, you place actions, events, or states within a particular time frame.

In the sentences below, all sentences are about the same action (studying). In turn, the verb tenses place the verb in different time frames.

Action of studying in different time frames

I’m studying now.
(a present time frame)

I studied last night.
(a past time frame)

I’ll study again tomorrow.
(a future time frame)

I may study again tomorrow.
(a future time frame + a sense of likelihood expressed by the modal verb “may”)

I have been studying all day.
(a time frame starting in the past and extending up to the present)

I will have studied for three hours when you arrive this evening.
(a time frame starting at a point in the future and extending up to another point in the future)

The Misleading Names of Verb Tenses

Do not focus too much on the names of the verb tenses; otherwise, you will likely get confused.

For example, when you say, “I study every Monday,” you are using the present simple tense to talk about something that happens all the time. Even though the name of the verb tense is the present tense, you are not saying that the action is happening now or in the present.


The names of verb tenses date back to ancient scholars. English grammarians adopted those names even though they did not always fit English perfectly.

Often, traditional grammar terms are not updated to keep up with language changes. For example, at one point in the history of English, you would say, “I eat dinner right now.” In other words, they used the simple present to express an action in the present.

Today, to express something happening in the present, you must use the present progressive tense, “I am eating dinner right now.” We kept the name “simple present” even though it no longer refers to a present time frame.

Why Bother Learning the Names of Verb Tenses?

Knowing grammar terms can be useful as it gives you a common language to talk about the language with others.

The problem is not what you call a verb tense. The problem is relying on the name alone to understand what the verb tense actually expresses. As long as you understand that verb tenses put the action in different time frames (present, past, or future) regardless of what it is called, you will be able to learn and use verb tenses more effectively as a language learner.

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