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What Are Verb Tenses? (Advanced, C-Level)

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A “verb tense” tells us when an action, state, or event happens: in the past, present, or future.

We create verb tenses by changing the verb to show the time, that is, to put the verb in a particular time frame.

A verb tense also shows if the action, state, or event is ongoing or completed. That is called the “aspect.”


In English, you can conjugate the verb itself, such as be, am, is, are, was, and were, or do, does, and did. In addition to a conjugated verb, you can also add other structures to the verb; for example, the auxiliary verb will (conjugated in the present) + the verb gives you the simple future.

The Names of Verb Tenses

The nomenclature of the verb tenses comes from the time (past, present, or future) and aspect (simple or continuous / imperfect or perfect).

Table 1. Naming Verb Tenses




Verb Tense Name

past (imperfect)
past simple
past continuous
past perfect
past perfect continuous
present (imperfect)
present simple
present continuous
present perfect
present perfect continuous
future (imperfect)
future simple
future continuous
future perfect
future perfect continuous

A Note about Future Tenses

Although you have names for future verb tenses, English has no true future tense. In the future simple tense, you would say, for example, “I will go to the park.” However, the auxiliary “will” itself is in the present tense (present = will; past = would). In essence, English uses present tense verbs to express the future, for example:

  • I am leaving at 5 tomorrow. (be in the present + the present participle of the verb)
  • I am going to leave at 5 tomorrow. (be in the present + going to + verb)
  • I will leave at 5 tomorrow. (will + verb, where “will” is a present form)

Nonetheless, when we study English grammar, we traditionally refer to “will + verb” as the future simple.


Table 1 above shows where the names of the verb tenses come from; however, the name of the verb tense does not always tell you where it puts the verb in a time frame. In many cases, the same verb tense can express actions or events happening or having happened at different time points.

For example, the verb to leave in the sentence “The plane leaves at 7 tomorrow” is in the present simple tense, but it expresses the future.

Similarly, when you say, “I am studying,” the present continuous tense indicates something that is happening at this moment.

However, “I am studying to be a doctor," which uses the same verb tense, indicates something that you have been doing lately, but you may not be doing it right now.


The names of verb tenses are based on traditional grammar. They do not cover all possible verb constructions used in English to express different aspects of the verb. For example, English learners learn that “I have done” is the present perfect tense. Yet, they are not taught a specific name for “I should have done” or “I would have been doing."

The twelve named verb tenses in Table 1 form the basis of verb conjugations and tenses in English, but you should keep in mind that there are many other structures you should learn whether or not you know exactly what to call them.

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