English can be a very confusing language for both native and non-native speakers alike. Though most native speakers know which verb tense to use, many would struggle to explain the rules for using the different verb tenses. That is if they could actually identify the verb tense they were using.

Most of us acquire the grammar of our native language—we don’t learn it. We may (or may not) learn about it in school later on. Most native English speakers struggle to explain even the most simple grammatical concepts. Yet they can speak English perfectly fine. When I first arrived in Korea, I knew next to nothing about English grammar. Though I’m still far from an expert, I’ve learned enough that I can discuss grammar. I can explain things to my students, rather than just say, “That’s the way it is.”

A pitcher may not know the exact physics principles that make the ball curve when he throws it. But he knows if he holds the ball a certain way and releases it in a certain way, he’ll likely get the result he was after. Of course, there’s nothing stopping him from studying the principles of physics involved. He may even use his new knowledge to improve his form. But that is usually not the case. When we acquire the grammar in our native language, we don’t need to understand it to be able to use it. We know inherently how it works, as the pitcher inherently knows how to make the ball curve after a lot of practice.

The same cannot be said for most people trying to learn a foreign language. Some experts argue that we don’t need to understand the grammar of the target language. Many learners find it very difficult to imagine trying to learn a language without learning the grammar rules. It’s like trying to learn the rules of chess without anyone explaining them to you. After weeks, if not years of observation, you may be able to figure out the rules. But it would be much easier (and quicker) for someone to tell you the rules while demonstrating them to you.

And that’s the goal of this post—to explain the meanings of the 12 different verb tenses in English. If you understand what they mean and how they’re used, you’ll have a much better chance of using them correctly yourself.

A chart identifying all 12 verb English verb tenses
*Note: I am well aware that English doesn’t actually have 12 tenses. Depending on which linguistic expert you talk to you, you’ll get different answers about how many tenses and aspects English actually has. But most English learners are familiar with the concept of 12 tenses, so I will continue to use that terminology here for the sake of simplicity.

You keep using that tense, but it doesn’t mean what you think it means

The Present Tenses

Most learners are aware that the present refers to now. But when use the simple present tense, we’re not talking about the present.

An image of the word present repeated 4 times, representing the present tenses

Simple Present Tense: I drink coffee.

The simple present tense is used to talk about: 

  • daily habits & routines.
  • facts.
  • general truths.

The simple present tense is not used to talk about the present or what’s happening now. This can be a very confusing thing for beginners to understand. We do not use the simple present tense to talk about the present. And you wonder why people struggle to learn English!

Habits/Routines: I drink coffee every morning. It is part of my daily routine. I’m not drinking coffee now.

Fact: I speak some French. Fact → I am not fluent, but I am able to speak a little French. I’m not speaking French right now.

General Truth: People use language to communicate. This is something known by the general public. It is not news or shocking information.

None of the 3 statements above make reference to what’s happening right now. To talk about what’s happening right now, we need to use the present progressive.

Present Progressive Tense: I am drinking coffee.

The present progressive tense is used to: 

  • describe something that is happening (is in progress) at the moment of speaking. It began before now, is currently happening, and will probably continue into the future for some time.
  • describe something that is in progress, in a general sense. It is not actually happening right now.
  • describe a future event that will definitely happen, usually a planned or scheduled event.

In progress: You are reading this blog post. You started reading this blog post a few minutes ago. You are currently in the middle of reading it. If I’ve done a good job, you will continue to read it (into the future).

In progress generally: I am studying Korean these days. I am not studying Korean at this precise moment. But generally speaking, this is something I’m doing these days.

Planned future event: He’s meeting Susan for coffee at 3 pm. The speaker and Susan made definite plans to meet at a cafe to drink coffee at 3 pm. This can only be used with future events you are quite certain will happen. If someone asked you what you were going to have for dinner tonight, you couldn’t answer, “Maybe I’m having pizza.

Generally speaking, when we want to talk about what is happening right now, or in our lives generally, we use the present progressive. Depending on how it’s used, it may have a future meaning, as in the 3rd example above. The present progressive is used to talk about the future—what’s confusing about that?

*Note: Progressive tenses are also called continuous tenses. (i.e. the present continuous tense, the past perfect continuous tense)

Present Perfect: I have drunk coffee.

The present perfect tense is used to:

  • talk about experiences that have (or have not) happened before now. The exact time is not mentioned. If it is, we need to use the simple past tense.
  • the repetition of events up until now.
  • describe a situation that began in the past and continues to the present (using *stative verbs, with since or for).

*Stative verbs describe a state of being rather than an action (e.g. know, like, seem).

Experience:

  • I have eaten grasshoppers. I have had the experience of eating grasshoppers. I know what they taste like. It is not known when I did this.
  • I have never tried bubble tea. I have never tasted bubble tea. I don’t know what it tastes like. I have never had that experience.

Repeated Events: We have had 4 major storms so far this year. Thus far this year, we have had repeated storms. There is no mention of exactly when these storms happened.

Situation: I have known him for 18 years. I have known him since 2003. We met 18 years ago. We are still friends.

The present perfect is mainly used to talk about experiences you have or haven’t had. No exact time is mentioned. It is just known that sometime between when I was born and this moment, I have had this experience. It is my hope that if you haven’t had the different English verb tenses clearly explained to you, this blog post will be useful.

Present Perfect Progressive: I have been drinking coffee…

The present perfect progressive is used to: 

  • describe an event that started in the past and continues until now, using active verbs with for or since.
  • describe recent activities in progress, i.e. things happening lately.

Event That Started in the Past: He has been playing the guitar since he was 10 years old. He started playing the guitar at the age of 10, and he continues to play the guitar.

Recent Activities: They have been watching more TV shows than usual these days. In recent weeks, they have been watching more TV shows than they normally would.

There is almost no difference in meaning between the present perfect and the present perfect progressive with certain verbs, like live, work, and teach.

I have lived here for 25 years. / I have been living here for 25 years.
I have taught EFL since 1995. / I have been teaching EFL since 1995.

Since I stopped teaching, I have been spending a lot more time on my computer. That might be a good thing for you, my loyal readers, but not for my general health. 

Those that don’t know how to use the past tense are doomed to make mistakes

The Past Tenses

The past tenses are used to talk about things that have happened before now. In some cases, the event has ended before now, and in some cases, the event started in the past and continues to the present.

An image of the word past spelled out using scrabble tiles, representing the past tenses
Photo created by freepik – www.freepik.com

Simple Past Tense: I drank coffee…

The simple past tense is used to: 

  • describe events that started and finished at a certain time in the past. The event must have finished before now, and we need to know when it happened, either directly or by context. If we don’t know when, we use the present perfect.

I lived in Canada. → Technically wrong, since we don’t know when. It would be okay to say: I have lived in Canada. I have had the experience of living in Canada. No mention of time is needed.

I lived in Seoul. → Also technically wrong because this has not finished. I still live in Seoul.

I lived in Canada until 1995. → This event started and finished in the past and we know when it happened.

Past Progressive Tense: I was drinking coffee when… / While I was drinking coffee,…

The past progressive tense is used to:

  • describe an event that was happening when it was interrupted by another event, using when or while.
  • describe two events that were happening at the same time in the past.

One event interrupted another: I was drinking coffee when the phone rang. / While I was drinking coffee, the phone rang.

Two events happening simultaneously: I was drinking coffee while I was waiting in line.

The event that interrupts the event in progress is expressed using the simple past tense. It is the shorter of the two events. While I was writing this post, I realized it would be longer than I’d intended.

Past Perfect: I had finished my coffee…

The past perfect tense is used to:

  • describe an event that finished in the past before another event began, also in the past.

I had finished my coffee by the time the doorbell rang. Event A (drinking coffee) finished before event B (the doorbell ringing) happened. The second event is expressed using the simple past.

I had already written the previous section by the time my favorite TV show started.

Past Perfect Progressive: I had been sipping coffee…

The past perfect progressive is used to:

  • describe the duration of the first event when describing two events that happened in the past, using for or since.
  • describe an activity that was in progress at a time close to another activity that also happened in the past

Duration: I had been waiting in line for hours when they announced all the tickets were sold out. Event A (standing in line) had been happening for several hours, right up to the time event B (the announcement) happened.

Close in time: When she arrived, she was breathing heavily because she had been running. Her running had just finished happening right before she was breathing heavily.

I had been working on this blog post for over an hour when I realized it was after midnight.

The future is now, and now is the time to learn how to use the future tense

The Future Tenses

The future tenses are used to express what will happen in the future, or what we think will happen in the future. No one can know for certain what will happen in the future. But we use different forms of the future tense depending on how certain we are things will or won’t happen. We also use different forms based on if we have made plans for the future or not.

An image of a road sign with the text Welcome, the future is now, representing the future tenses

Simple Future Tense: I will drink coffee. / I Am going to drink coffee.

The simple future tense is used to:

  • make predictions about what will or will not happen in the future—can use either will or be going to.
  • express a prior plan—must use be going to.
  • react/volunteer to do something. When we reach a decision as we’re speaking, usually in response to something, we have to use will.

Prediction: I am going to be rich. / I will be rich. Both have the same meaning.

Prior Plan: I am going to meet Rachel at 7 pm. (Not: I will meet Rachel at 7 pm.)

Reacting/Volunteering: A: Could someone please open the window? B: I’ll do it! (Not: I’m going to do it!)

Decision made while speaking: A: What are you going to have for dinner? B: I’m not sure. Maybe I’ll have steak or maybe I’ll have pasta. (Not: Maybe I’m going to have steak or maybe I’m going to have pasta.)

A lot of people are going to read this blog post. In other words, I think a lot of people will read this blog post (predictions). I’m going to post it on Sunday evening (prior plan). If a lot of people don’t read this post, I don’t know what I’ll do. Maybe I’ll stop writing this blog (decision made as I typed this sentence).

Future Progressive Tense: I will be drinking coffee… / I am going to be drinking coffee….

The future progressive tense is used to:

  • describe an event that will be in progress in the future when it will be interrupted by another event.
  • describe an event that will be in progress at a certain time in the future.

Interrupted: I will be replying to emails when you get up at 9 am. / I’m going to be replying to emails when you get up at 9 am.

Certain time: Don’t call me at 9:30. I’ll be watching my favorite TV show. / Don’t call me at 9:30. I’m going to be watching my favorite TV show.

By this time on Monday evening, I’ll be responding to comments on this blog post.

*Note: Like other progressive tenses, we can only use the future progressive tense with action verbs, not stative verbs.

Future Perfect: I will have finished my coffee… / I am going to have finished my coffee…

The future perfect is used to:

  • describe an event that will have been completed before another event starts in the future (used with by the time).

I will have finished watching my favorite show by the time you get home.

I am going to have finished watching my favorite show by the time you get home.

You will have spent more than 10 minutes reading this article by the time you get to the end. If you make it to the end, thanks for sticking around!

Future Perfect Progressive: I will have been drinking coffee… / I am going to have been drinking coffee…

The present perfect progressive is used to:

  • describe the duration of an event that will be in progress before another event in the future.

I will have been watching my favorite show for 45 minutes by the time my son gets home.
I’m going to have been watching my favorite show for 45 minutes by the time my son gets home.

I will have been working on this blog post for several hours by the time I’m finished.

Congratulations—You made it through all 12 tenses

Wow! Fantastic job! That was a lot of information to absorb. Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of the 12 verb tenses used in English. Take a deep breath and relax. You deserve it!

A picture of a woman with trees and flowers in the background. Her eyes are closed and it appears she has just let out a long breath and is relaxed

Of course, there are exceptions—there are always exceptions when learning about English grammar. But this guide should have given you a better general understanding of their meanings and uses.

Twelve verb tenses must seem like a lot. And some of them are quite similar and seem to overlap, don’t they? Luckily for you, you only need to really focus on 5 of these verb tenses for most basic conversations. But which ones? Hmmm…I guess you’ll have to check back next week to find out which ones. I’ll also provide some clarification about similar verb tenses and how to decide which one to use.

In the meantime, if you have any questions about this blog post or verb tenses, please post in the comments below.

7 thoughts on “All 12 English verb tenses—clearly explained [with examples]

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