The Ultimate Guide to Learning English Verb Tenses

The Ultimate Guide to Learning English Verb Tenses

Most of you can agree with me when I say:

English has confusing verb tenses! For example, saying “I play the guitar” has a much different meaning than “I’m playing the guitar.” The English language requires you to not only conjugate verbs into the past, present, or future, but into the main tenses too—simple, progressive (continuous), perfect, and perfect progressive.

Does this sound like a cacophony of mumble to you? Don’t worry! In this article, you’ll receive a quick lesson on the various English verb tenses with a short quiz at the end! The goal? To help you gain a foundation that helps you understand and recognize how and when to use the verb tenses.

Girl reading book

Understanding the Different English Verb Tenses

Okay, let’s get into some examples of the different English verb tenses. First things first: we need a scenario.

Meet Abby Day! A 19-year-old YouTube star who aspires to be a famous singer. Thankfully, Abby loves to write in her diary, providing her readers with continuous updates on her dream to be famous. Notice the conjugation of the verb to sing throughout the diary entries!

Simple tenses

Simple future:

March 7th

Dear Diary,

I’m feeling sick today, so I had to tell my YouTube subscribers that I will sing my rendition of Adele’s “Hello” tomorrow.

Simple present:

March 8th

Dear Diary,

This is what I will say in my YouTube video today:

Hi! My name is Abby Day, and I sing songs! I drink tea with honey to help keep my voice moist! Here’s my rendition of Adele’s “Hello.” I hope you like it!

Simple past:

March 9th

Dear Diary,

Yesterday, I sang “Hello” by Adele and uploaded it to YouTube. I enjoyed singing for my subscribers!

Side note: to sing is an irregular verb, which requires you to memorize simple conjugation rules. Keep in mind that there are around 200 irregular verbs. Yikes! Other irregular verbs include to bear, to beat, to run, to drink, to feel, to get, to know, and the list goes on. You can check out the lengthy list with their conjugations here.

When it comes to regular verbs, you add +ed to the end of the word when you use the simple past tense. For example, when you add ed to regular verbs such as play, jump, listen, scream, enjoy you get played, jumped, listened, screamed, enjoyed.

Perfect tenses

Future perfect:

March 7th

Dear Diary,

I’m feeling sick, so I can’t sing today. But by this time tomorrow, I will have sung my rendition of Adele’s “Hello.”

Present perfect:

March 8th

Dear Diary,

I have sung my rendition of Adele’s “Hello.” It went really well! I also gave a little introduction before singing! I told my fans that my name is Abby Day and let them know some fun facts about me!

Past perfect:

March 9th

Dear Diary,

I wish I hadn’t sung “Hello” by Adele! It has resulted in some mean comments from my fans! I think I’ll try something easier next time.

P.S. Have you noticed that I’ve used some contractions (hadn’t, can’t, I’ll)? You can learn more in-depth tips and tricks on how to speak informal English here. Beware: the article teaches you super informal contractions, and it has other tidbits of advice sprinkled throughout.

Progressive tenses

Future progressive:

March 7th

Dear Diary,

I am feeling sick, so instead of singing today, I will be singing my rendition of Adele’s “Hello” tomorrow.

Present progressive:

March 8th

Dear Diary,

I am singing Adele’s “Hello” while I write this journal entry! I can do two things at once. Woohoo!

Past progressive:

March 9th

Dear Diary,

While I was singing “Hello” by Adele to my YouTube subscribers, I was also writing a journal entry! I’m so talented!

Perfect progressive tenses

Future perfect progressive:

March 7th

Dear Diary,

At this time tomorrow, I will have been singing for six hours straight! One of my songs includes “Hello” by Adele.

Present perfect progressive:

March 8th

Dear Diary,

I have been singing Adele’s “Hello” forever, but I just can’t seem to hit the right notes!

Past perfect progressive:

March 9th

Dear Diary,

I had been singing “Hello” by Adele for ages when I finally realized that I’m not that good at singing.

Want more clarification on the diary entries above? Continue reading to learn some in-depth tips and tricks on how to understand the different English verb tenses.

Simple tenses

Get to Know the Simple Tenses

The simple tense, whether used in the future, past, or present, is well, the most simple. Let’s simplify it for you! (How many times can one say simple?)

Simple present tense

The simple present tense unveils facts, statements, or habits, such as, “I love soccer” or “I eat pizza every Friday.”

You can also use the simple present tense to discuss planned events taking place in the future: “School starts at 7 am tomorrow.” It’s not an action that will unfold in the future, but a planned, scheduled event.

Simple future tense

Meanwhile, the simple future tense reveals an event that hasn’t taken place but will likely happen sometime in the future. This tense requires you to tag will before the verb. For example, you can say, “I will do my homework tomorrow” or “I will walk home tomorrow morning.”

Simple past tense

Then there’s the simple past tense, which shares what happened in the past. It’s not a continuous event. Therefore, you use the simple past tense when something went down and finished in the past. For example: “I biked 50 miles yesterday!”

Perfecting the perfect tenses

It’s Time to Perfect the Perfect Tenses

Strangely enough, the perfect tenses can be the toughest ones to perfect. But I’ll try to lay a little foundation, so you can have a basic understanding of the following tenses before you expand your knowledge.

Present perfect tense

You use the present perfect tense when something happened in the past, but is still affecting you in the present. For example, when you’re visiting a friend for the first time in forever, you might say “We haven’t seen each other for ages!” You are in the present, but you’re referring to a time, action, or effect from sometime in the past.

Sound confusing? It’s not! I promise. Just follow this format when uttering a phrase in the present perfect tense:

Subject+to have+past participle

A sentence looks like this:

She has moved on from him.

Or you can use this format:

Subject+to have not+past participle

A sentence looks like this:

I have not eaten since yesterday!

This is where it gets weird, though. You wouldn’t say, “I haven’t ate since yesterday.” It just sounds strange, doesn’t it?

When you use the present perfect tense, you always use a past participle, but there are some irregular verbs, such as to eat becomes eaten not ate, to steal becomes stolen not stole, to swim becomes swum not swam, to take becomes taken and not took. You can learn the list of present perfect irregular verbs here—they are the verbs shown in column three.

Okay. Let’s move on to the past perfect tense!

Past perfect tense

Your Dictionary says that you use this tense to “show that an action happened before something else in the past.” For example, you could say, “I had studied French before visiting Paris, but it didn’t seem to help me communicate with the locals.”

Or you can use the past perfect tense to “show that an action happened before a specific time in the past.” For example, “I had gone for a run before seeing my friend.”

But wait, there’s more!

This same tense “can also be used to show dissatisfaction with the past.” For example, “I wish I had introduced my boyfriend to my family sooner.”

The best part? The past perfect tense follows the same format as the present perfect tense. You just need to conjugate to have to had rather than have or has. It looks like this:

Subject+to have+past participle

They had trained for months and months before hiking Kilimanjaro.

Or you can use this format:

Subject+to have not+past participle

They couldn’t hike Kilimanjaro because they hadn’t trained before attempting the strenuous hike.

The past perfect tense also uses the same irregular verbs as the present perfect! For example, the verb to write becomes written not wrote for both the present perfect and past perfect.

Past perfect:

They had written for hours before finishing the exam.

Present perfect:

They have written on this topic many times.

We’re almost through the perfect tenses! Next up: the future perfect tense.

Future perfect tense

Grammarly notes, “The future perfect is a verb tense used for actions that will be completed before some other point in the future.”

For example, if you’re nervous about an upcoming presentation, but you’re excited about an event afterwards, you may say, “I can’t wait for the party because I will have delivered my presentation by then!”

But sometimes you may mix up the future perfect tense with the future simple tense!

Here’s how you can distinguish the two tenses, according to Grammarly: “If you don’t mention a deadline, use the simple future tense instead of the future perfect tense.”

For example, if you’re organizing an event with your friends for next Friday at 7 pm, one friend may say, “I will have written my homework assignment by then, so I can probably come!”

Thankfully, the future perfect tense follows a similar format to the other perfect tenses:

Subject+will+to have+past participle

I will have finished my dinner before then because I finish work at 6 pm, so you don’t need to feed me!

Or you can use this format:

Subject+will+to have not+past participle

I will not have finished my dinner before then because I work until 7 pm, so you will have to feed me!

Girl biting pencil

Continue Learning With the Progressive Tenses

Introducing the ongoing, the continuous tenses: the past, present, future and progressive tenses. For each version of this tense, you follow a similar format:

Subject+to be+present participle (-ing)

Present progressive: I am playing soccer.
Past progressive: I was playing soccer.
Future progressive: I will be playing soccer.

So when should you use each progressive tense? Let’s get into it.

Present progressive tense

First things first: the present progressive tense! But I’ll let Perfect English Grammar do the talking because they explained it super well! You can use the present progressive tense in these circumstances:

  • Incomplete actions unfolding at the present moment—I am studying now.
  • Temporary situations, but keep in mind that the situation you’re describing may not be happening during the present moment, but it may be a continuous situation, such as I’m living in Canada or I’m working as a waitress, but I want to find another job.
  • Habits—She is exercising a lot these days or he is eating too much junk lately.

And this is where some of you may get confused:

You also use this tense when a future plan has been formed, and you’re confident that it will happen. Here are some examples:

  • I’m leaving for Canada tomorrow.
  • We’re going to Taylor Swift’s concert in two months!
  • I’m looking forward to the event next week.

Past progressive tense

Okay! Let’s move on to the past progressive tense. You use this tense to describe a continuous activity that occurred in the past. It usually goes hand-in-hand with another action. Here are some ways you can use this tense:

  • When you were doing something, but something else got in the way—I was listening to music when my mom asked me to clean the house.
  • When something happened at the same time as another event or action—While my friends were dancing, I was sitting at home eating chocolate.

Time to go to the future progressive tense!

Future progressive tense

You use this tense to discuss something that will happen in the future and will continue on for some time—don’t forget that it’s also called the future continuous tense. Whereas, the future simple tense indicates an event that will happen in the future, but will finish in the future.

Future simple tense: I will come over tomorrow night.

You won’t continue to come over. You will go to your friend’s house just once tomorrow night.

Future progressive tense: I will be watching Friends tomorrow night. What about you?

You can continue to watch Friends over and over. It’s impossible to not binge several episodes in one sitting!

The ongoing path

Continue Your Path to Perfection With the Perfect Progressive

Let’s allow math to explain the perfect progressive tenses! It’s simple math. I promise. All we need to do is add the perfect tenses with the progressive tenses.

Progressive tenses explain an event that will continue to unfold in the present, past, or future, whereas the perfect tenses talk about how the past influences the present. When it comes to formating, the progressive tenses follow this:

Subject+to be+present participle (-ing)

And the perfect tenses follow this:

Subject+to have+past participle

Combine the two together, add been, and you get the perfect progressive tense:

Subject+to have+been+present participle (-ing)

Here are some examples:

Present perfect progressive tense: We have been shopping forever!

You can use this tense to describe an event, scenario, or situation that happened in the past and continues to go on in the present. Or you can use the present perfect progressive tense to share something that happened in the past, but is no longer happening: She has been to Canada, so she doesn't want to travel there again!

Past perfect progressive tense: We had been walking for ages when Fran realized we were going the wrong way.

Like the past perfect tense, you can use this tense to describe a scenario, event, or situation that happened before another scenario, event, or situation in the past. But remember to add the past progressive tense into the equation, too.

Therefore, it’s a continuous scenario, event, or situation that happened before another scenario, event, or situation in the past: I had been eating dinner when someone knocked on my door. (Is this the start of a scary movie?)

Future perfect progressive tense: At this time next year, we will have been traveling for six months!

Even though the future perfect progressive tense always points to the future, you can still use it to share an event, situation, or action that alludes to something that happened before the event took place. Here are some examples:

  • We will have been working for 16 hours straight at this time tomorrow.
  • This April, we will have been dating for five years.

Pen and paper

Testing Your Knowledge on Verb Tenses

Are you ready to test your knowledge? Here are five questions! You’ll find the answers at the bottom!

  1. Abby sings songs.
    A) Simple past
    B) Present perfect
    C) Simple present

  2. She had been listening to music when her dog licked her hand.
    A) Past progressive
    B) Past perfect progressive
    C) Past perfect

  3. I will be going to my grandma’s house tomorrow. You?
    A) Future progressive
    B) Simple future
    C) Future perfect progressive

  4. I have not watched the latest episode of The Office!
    A) Past perfect
    B)Present perfect
    C) Past perfect progressive

  5. I am smiling a lot these days, but I don’t know why! Perhaps, it’s because I’ve found the love of my life. He just needs to learn my name—that’s all.
    A) Present progressive
    B) Present perfect progressive
    C) Present simple


  1. C 2. B 3. A 4. B 5. A

A pile of books

To Sum It Up…

Wow! That was a lot of info! Feel free to come back to this post any time for a reminder or a general tense-related grammar rule. It may be helpful to channel your inner Abby Day and write your own diary entries (or sentences) that apply the same verb to different tenses. Even if you don’t fully understand how or when to use the various verb tenses, it always helps to write things down.

Want to learn more grammar rules? You may want to check out this article, which focuses on the four must-know grammar rules for any English speaker!