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English Tense System

In some languages, verb tenses are not very important or do not even exist. In English, the concept of tense is very important.

On these pages we look at how to avoid confusing tense with time, and the structure of the 12 basic tenses, with examples using a regular verb, an irregular verb and the verb "be".

Test your understanding of these pages with our English Tense System Quiz.

Tense and Time

Don't confuse the name of a tense with time!

It is important not to confuse the name of a verb tense with the way we use it to talk about time.

For example, a present tense does not always refer to present time:

Or a past tense does not always refer to past time:

More about Tense and Time

Basic Tenses

12 tenses in active voice + 12 in passive = 24

For past and present, there are 2 non-complex tenses + 6 complex tenses (using auxiliary or helping verbs).

To these, we can add 4 "modal tenses" for the future (using the modal auxiliary verbs will/shall).

This makes a total of 12 tenses in the active voice.

Another 12 tenses are available in the passive voice.

See charts and examples for Basic Tenses

Basic Tenses with Regular Verbs

The usual structure of basic tenses with regular verbs is:

+ positive subject + auxiliary + main verb
- negative subject + auxiliary + not + main verb
? question auxiliary + subject + main verb

And here are the forms of the main verb that we use to construct the tenses:

base V1 past simple V2 past participle V3 present participle -ing
work worked worked working

See charts and examples for Basic Tenses with Regular Verbs

Basic Tenses with Irregular Verbs

The usual structure of basic tenses with irregular verbs is essentially the same as for regular verbs:

+ positive subject + auxiliary + main verb
- negative subject + auxiliary + not + main verb
? question auxiliary + subject + main verb

Here are the forms of the main verb that we use to construct the tenses:

base V1 past simple V2 past participle V3 present participle -ing
sing sang sung singing

See charts and examples for Basic Tenses with Irregular Verbs

Basic Tenses with be

The verb be is always different! The usual structure of basic tenses with the irregular verb be is:

+ positive subject + auxiliary + main verb be
- negative subject + auxiliary + not + main verb be
? question auxiliary + subject + main verb be

But for simple past and simple present tenses, the structures are not the same. In fact, they are even easier. There is no auxiliary verb. Here are the structures:

+ positive subject + main verb be
- negative subject + main verb be + not
? question main verb be + subject

And here are the forms of the main verb be that we use to construct the tenses:

base past simple past participle present participle -ing present simple
be was, were been being am, are, is

See charts and examples for Basic Tenses with be

Test your understanding of these pages with our English Tense System Quiz.