In my last post, I reviewed the 12 different verb tenses in English. I explained their meanings and uses with examples. This week, I’m going to focus on some confusing English verb tenses. They can be confusing because they’re very similar. In some cases, there is little difference between the different verb tenses. As a bonus, I’ll also tell you which verb tenses are most commonly used so you’ll know where to focus your efforts.

A picture of a cliff and the ocean in Sapian, representing the sentence I've been to Saipan

The Simple Past vs. the Present Perfect

Both of these tenses refer to events that happened in the past. The two differences between the tenses are:

  1. With the simple past tense, we know when the event happened. If we don’t know when (or it’s not important to know when), we use the present perfect tense.
  2. The present perfect does not refer to specific past events. It’s used to talk about experiences we have or haven’t had. 

Look at the difference between these sentences.

  • Simple Past: I went to Saipan in 2009. (We know when I went to Saipan)
  • Present Perfect: I have been to Saipan. (We don’t know when I went to Saipan. We only know that at some point before now, I have had the experience of going to Saipan.)

Note the use of the past tense of ‘go’ in the simple past, but the use of the past participle of ‘be’ in the present perfect. We can use the past participle of ‘go’ in cases such as:

I have gone snorkeling. I went snorkeling in Saipan when I went there with my family.

In the second sentence, I used the simple past tense, though I didn’t state when I went to Saipan. But I have referenced a specific trip to Saipan—the trip to Saipan I went on with my family. That’s why using the simple past tense is acceptable in this case.

Tip: If you are talking about a specific event in the past, you will likely need to use the simple past tense. If you are talking about an experience you have or haven’t had, use the present perfect tense.

That’s the first example of confusing English verb tenses—five more to go.

A black and white picture of a woman with a beer at the bar, representing the phrase I'm meeting Jennifer at the bar

The Simple Future Tense vs. the Present Continuous (with future meaning)

In my previous post, I discussed how we need to use ‘be going to’ when talking about planned events in the future. I also mentioned we can use the present continuous tense to talk about planned events in the future. But we have to be certain they will happen.

  • Simple Future: I’m going to meet Jennifer at the bar at 8 pm.
  • Present Progressive: I’m meeting Jennifer at the bar at 8 pm.

There is practically no difference in meaning between these sentences. Depending on how the sentence is spoken, it could emphasize that this meeting will definitely occur.

I also discussed that we can’t use will when talking about planned events. That’s not entirely true. That’s one of the reasons there are so many confusing English verb tenses. There are always exceptions.

  • A: How are you going to meet Jennifer and get your assignment done?
  • B: Hmmm…Okay, I’ll meet Jennifer at 8 pm, but I’ll leave the bar no later than 10 pm. That’ll give me enough time to finish my assignment before going to bed.

In this case, B is talking about plans for this evening…but they are making these decisions as they’re speaking. This wasn’t a plan they had before. Compare that to:

  • B: Don’t worry. I’ve already thought of that. I’m going to meet Jennifer at 8 pm, but I’m going to leave by 10 pm. Then, I’m going to go straight home and start working on my assignment.

In this case, B has thought about all this previously and has a plan, so they must use be going to with the future tense.

Tip: If you’ve thought about your plans before now (i.e. as you’re speaking), use the simple future with be going to. If you’re certain about a future event, you can use the present progressive, but you don’t have to. If you’re uncertain about the future, it’s probably best to use the simple future with will.

Fed up with these confusing English verb tenses yet? We’ve still got four more to go.

An image of a balding male teacher writing on a chalk board, representing the concept of teaching EFL

The Present Perfect vs. the Present Perfect Progressive (using for or since)

The present perfect is mainly used to talk about experiences. But it can also be used to talk about events that started in the past and continue until now. We usually use the present perfect progressive in this case. But when we do, the emphasis is on the duration of time.

  • Present Perfect: I have taught EFL in Korea for 25 years.
  • Present Perfect Progressive: I have been teaching EFL in Korea for 25 years.

Again, there is little difference in meaning between these two sentences. The slight difference in nuance is that in the 2nd sentence, I’m emphasizing the 25-year time span. Imagine I was arguing with someone about teaching English in Korea. Let’s say I wanted to emphasize my extensive experience while making my point. I could start my reply with, “Look, I’ve been teaching EFL in Korea for 25 years, so ….”

Remember that you can’t use stative verbs with progressive tenses.

  • Present Perfect Progressive: I have been knowing him since 2002.
  • Present Perfect: I have known him since 2002.

Tip: If you’re referring to an activity (i.e. using an action verb) that started in the past and continues until now, you can use either tense. This especially applies to verbs like live, work, and teach. If you want to emphasize the duration (i.e. how long you’ve been doing that thing), use the present perfect progressive. If you’re using a stative verb, use the present perfect tense. 

A picture of woman with boxes in her arms and a bag over her shoulder closing a door as she leaves, representing the sentence, Susan left.

Simple Past vs. Past Perfect (with before or after)

We’ve learned that the past perfect tense is used to show that one event in the past finished before another one. Consider the slight difference in meaning between these sentences.

  • Simple Past: Susan left the apartment when James arrived. (These two events happened at the same time. You can imagine Susan exiting through the doorway as James is entering.)
  • Past Perfect: Susan had left the apartment by the time James arrived. (Susan left the apartment. After she left, James arrived. They never saw each other.)

But if we use either before or after in the sentence, we can use the simple past tense since the timeline is clear.

  • Simple Past: Susan left the apartment before James arrived. (This has the same meaning as the past perfect sentence above.)

Tip: If you need to explain the order of events that happened in the past, use the past perfect. You can also use before/after with the simple past.

I’m not sure why you’re complaining about these confusing English verb tenses. They’re as clear as mud. 😉

An image of a white, human representation sitting in a chair watching an old TV with antennas, representing the phrase, I'm going to be watching TV

Simple Future vs. Future Progressive 

Usually, the future progressive is used to talk about an event that will be in progress at some time in the future. Sometimes, there is little difference between the simple future and the future progressive.

  • Simple Future: I’m going to watch my favorite show at 9 pm tomorrow.
  • Future Progressive: I’m going to be watching my favorite show at 9:30 pm tomorrow.

Sentence 1 tells us your plan for tomorrow, and that your favorite show begins at 9 pm. Sentence 2 is similar, but it stresses that you will be in the middle of watching your show at 9:30 pm. It will have started before 9:30, it will be in progress at 9:30, and it will likely continue past 9:30.

  • Simple Future: I’m going to visit my friend in Busan on Saturday.
  • Future Progressive: I’ll be visiting my friend in Busan on Saturday.

In this case, in sentence 1, I’m going to travel to Busan on Saturday to visit my friend. In sentence 2, it is unclear when I will travel to Busan, just that on Saturday, I will be in the middle of visiting my friend.

Tip: Progressive tenses emphasize that something will be in progress at a certain time in the past, present, or future. If that is what you wish to draw attention to about a future event, use the future progressive.

A picture of Korean street at night with lots of lighted signs, representing the sentence, I will have been living in Korea

Future Perfect vs. Future Perfect Progressive 

We learned there’s little difference between the present perfect and present perfect progressive. The same is often true for the future perfect and future perfect progressive.

  • Future Perfect: In December, I will have lived in Korea for 26 years.
  • Future Perfect Progressive: In December, I will have been living in Korea for 26 years.

Again, the slight difference in nuance is the emphasis on the duration of time in the second sentence. It carries the idea of “I can’t believe that 26 years have passed since I first came to Korea.”

Tip: Again, if you wish to emphasize the duration of time, use the future perfect progressive. If you want to stress that a milestone will be reached at a certain time in the future, use the future perfect. Next year, he will have been studying at this university for seven years. / Next year, he will have studied here for seven years.

I hope these confusing English verb tenses are making a little more sense. But do you need to learn them all? Fortunately, the answer is a definite “No.”

An image of a  notebook with the Most common verb tenses in English written at the top, followed by
1. Simple present tense
2. Simple past
3. Simple Future
4. Present Progressive
5. Present perfect

There are too many tenses—which ones should I focus on?

As mentioned in my previous post, 12 verb tenses seem like a lot. And it is. Luckily for you, for most conversational situations you’ll be in, you only need to focus on a few of them. But which ones? You won’t need all these confusing English verb tenses for most conversational settings.

According to a post at Ginseng English, based on a study done by Krámský (1969), the five most commonly used verb tenses are:

  1. Simple Present (57.51%)
  2. Simple Past (19.7%)
  3. Simple Future (8.5%)
  4. Present Perfect (6.0%)
  5. Present Progressive (5.1%)

The Ginseng English post mentions that spoken English differs from written English. The English we speak with our friends is different from the English we use in the office. That is a reminder of why context is always essential when discussing language.

I wanted to determine if this was an accurate reflection of verb tense frequency in conversational English. But, I didn’t have the time or resources to conduct extensive research. So I examined the script from a popular American drama, Gilmore Girls. You may be interested to know how I got the script. I got it using a handy little extension for Chrome called Language Reactor. I previously wrote about using this extension for language learning.

Full disclosure—this was a very quick and dirty bit of research. I went through all 699 lines and tagged them using the dominant verb tense used in the line of dialogue. I did this very quickly and likely made mistakes. I’m sure of it. This was not meant to stand up to the rigors of peer review. I was just curious if the numbers above were generally accurate.

After identifying all the different tenses and how often each occurred, I did some simple math. Here are the results I came up with. 

Simple Present50474.5
Simple Past8813
Simple Future426
Present Progressive406
Present Perfect132
Past Progressive82
Perfect Progressive20.3
Gilmore Girls—Season 1, Episode 1

You’ll notice the frequency order of my findings matches those from Ginseng English for the top 3 spots. The present perfect and present progressive swap places in positions 4 and 5. That slight discrepancy aside, there was something to be learned from the Ginseng English post and my quick and dirty research. The simple present tense is the overwhelming tense used—by a lot.

That should show you that you need to focus the majority of your efforts on using the simple present tense properly. We use the simple present in so many ways. We state facts, but these ‘facts’ may not be the kind of facts you usually think of when you hear the word fact.

“I feel tired” is expressing an emotion, but the statement is a fact. “I hate you” is an emotion, but it’s a fact in the sense that what I’m saying is true. “You are crazy” is a judgment, but again, grammatically speaking, it’s a fact. “I think English is difficult” is an opinion, but it’s me stating a fact (the fact is that this is my opinion).

An image of the phrase keep it simple, indicating English language learners should focus on the the simple present, the simple past, and the simple future tenses

You should spot another clear takeaway. The simple forms of each tense are the most common: the simple present, the simple past, and the simple future. Spend some time learning to use these tenses correctly. We tend to talk about the past more often than the future. We discuss what happened to us, who was with us, and whether we enjoyed the event or not. It’s less common for us to talk about the future. But if I remember correctly, most uses of the future tense in the script were examples of people reacting/making decisions while speaking.

  • “He’ll get you some coffee.”
  • “I’ll look at it if I get a chance.”
  • “We’ll make cookies.”

There were only two instances of the present perfect continuous—“I’ve been watching you.”/“I’ve been trying all day.” In this 43-minute episode, 5 of the 12 tenses weren’t present at all. I’m sure if I studied more scripts from different shows and different genres, I would find examples of some of those tenses. But I wouldn’t be surprised if I didn’t find examples of all 12 verb tenses. 

Use this information as a guide, not as the law. Use it to plan how you will devote your time to learning the different tenses. You will gain far more practical benefits from learning how to use the simple present tense correctly than studying the future perfect progressive. There is a law of diminishing returns when it comes to learning more verb tenses. This also occurs when learning vocabulary—a topic for a future post. You have the knowledge now. It’s up to you how you use it.

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