Understanding Time Frames
When you use verb tenses, you place actions, events, or states within a particular time frame.
For example, in the sentences below, all sentences are about the same action (studying) while the verb tenses place the action 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 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
If you get caught up on the names of the verb tenses, you can get very confused, especially if you are an English-language learner (ELL). 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.
In most cases, the names of verb tenses date back to ancient scholars. English grammarians adopted those names though, even then, they did not always fit English perfectly. Moreover, even when the name of a verb tense name matched what the tense expressed, they no longer do because English has changed over time.
Often, traditional grammar terms are not updated to keep up with changes in the language. 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 happening in the present. Today, to express something happening in the present, you must use the present progressive tense, “I am eating dinner right now.” Although we kept the name “simple present,” it no longer refers to a present time frame.
Why Bother Learning the Names of Verb Tenses?
Knowing what to call a verb tense creates a common language that others understand when you refer to it. The problem is not what you call it. The problem is relying on the name alone to understand what verb tenses actually express. As long as you understand that the same verb tense can put the action in different time frames (present, past, or future), you will be able to learn and use verb tenses more effectively as an ELL.
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