Verbs and tenses

This page explains the difficulty of the English verb system for English language learners.

In this article I want to consider the thorny issue of English time and tense.

There is a superficial simplicity about the English verb. Even an irregular one like take has a maximum of only five forms: take, takes, taking, took and taken. And regular verbs like work have only four forms: work, works, working and worked. Compare this with French verbs, which can have more than thirty different forms.

Even the names of some tenses lead us to believe in the easiness of English. We refer for example to the present simple and the past simple. And the present simple is used to talk about the present, whereas the past simple is used to talk the past.

For example, "I live in Frankfurt" (present simple) or "I went to the theater last night" (past simple). What could be easier?

But look at the following sentences. In each of them there is a lack of correspondence between tense form and time reference. In other words, the past tense form does not refer to a state or event in past time. And the same goes for the present tense.

  • I'll tell her when I see her.
    Tense Form: present · Time Reference: future

  • Hurry up, the train leaves in 5 minutes!
    Tense Form: present · Time Reference: future

  • I was just sitting there quietly when in he comes and starts hitting me on the arm.
    Tense Form: present · Time Reference: past

  • I've not seen the film, but my friend tells me it's very good!
    Tense Form: past · Time Reference: present

  • When I asked him, he told me he didn't like you.
    Tense Form: past · Time Reference: present

  • I wouldn't tell you, even if you paid me a million dollars!
    Tense Form: past · Time Reference: future

  • I'd be surprised if it snowed tomorrow.
    Tense Form: past · Time Reference: future

  • I wish I had a lot of money.
    Tense Form: past · Time Reference: present

  • I was hoping we might change the time of our meeting.
    Tense Form: past · Time Reference: present

  • What name was it, please?
    Tense Form: past · Time Reference: present

  • He will stay up all night listening to music.
    Tense Form: future · Time Reference: past/present

Explanations

1. I'll tell her when I see her.

In some languages a future tense form would be used in the subordinate clause "when I see her". But English requires the present simple tense. Further examples:

  • I'll help you if you'll help me.
  • If she doesn't come soon, we are going to miss the train.

2. Hurry up, the train leaves in 5 minutes!

The present simple is the usual tense for future events that are determined by a schedule (and so outside of the speakers control). Further examples:

  • I start my new job next Monday.
  • The plane arrives in New York at 10pm.

3. I was just sitting there quietly when in he comes and starts hitting me on the arm.

This use of the present tense is sometimes called the graphic present. It is used in jokes and anecdotes to make the situation described seem more real and present. Another example:

  • She was working quietly at her desk. Suddenly there's a loud explosion and the light crashes down onto floor beside her.

The graphic present is also used in the newspaper headlines, such as: North Korean leader Kim Jong-il dies. (The present perfect [ has died ] always requires more column space and is probably avoided for this reason too.)


4. I've not seen the film, but my friend tells me it's very good!

This is the usual way of reporting an opinion that someone holds about something. It is also used in statements such as:

  • I hear you've got a new job.
  • I met John yesterday. He says he's going to punch you on the nose next time he sees you.

5. When I asked John, he told me he didn't like you.

It is perfectly possible to use the present tense here if you believe what John said still holds true, i.e.: When I asked John, he told me he doesn't like you! . By using the past tense, however, you are repeating the contents of John's message without any implication as to whether you think it is still true or not.


6. I wouldn't tell you, even if you paid me a million dollars!
7. I'd be surprised if it snowed tomorrow.
8. I wish I had a lot of money.

The past tense is used in Conditional 2 sentences like 6 and 7 above, and where the speaker express a wish, as in sentence 8. The further examples make it clear that this form is used when we wish to talk about an unreal or highly unlikely situation:

  • If I had more time, I'd take up golf.
  • I'd be extremely surprised if it snowed tomorrow.
  • If I played golf tomorrow, I'm so unfit I'd probably break my back.

9. I was hoping we might change the time of our meeting

The past tense is used here in order to make a suggestion more polite or deferential. Further examples:

  • I'm sorry to disturb you but I wanted to see the headmaster.
  • I was wondering if you had time to help me tomorrow.

10. What name was it, please?

The reason for the use of the past tense here is similar to that for number 9 above. It is considered impolite to ask directly: What's your name?

Note that, for the same reason, it is quite normal to be asked: What name did you say it was? - even if you have not yet stated your name.


11. He will stay up all night listening to music.

This use of will can be interpreted in the right context as referring to habitual behaviour extending from the past into the present.

Another example is: You will keep interrupting me! This is clearly not intended to be interpreted as a prediction, but as an admonishment about past and present behaviour.

The above uses of the present and past tense forms are relatively uncommon, however. And for this reason they are not generally the aspect of the English verb system that causes learners the most difficulty.

More problematic is making the choice between the simple and continuous The continuous form is also called progressive to denote an action in progress. forms of the verb. Test your knowledge on this aspect of verb grammar by doing the following quiz questions.


Quiz

1. Look at the following pairs of sentences (in either the present simple or present continuous) and see if you can explain the differences in meaning between them.



I live in Frankfurt is a simple statement of fact with no time reference, whereas I'm living in Frankfurt carries the implication that your stay in Frankfurt is likely to be temporary.

You are stupid! expresses my opinion about your personality. You are being stupid! on the other hand expresses my opinion about your current behaviour or attitude.

He always comes late to meetings is a simple statement of fact, while He's always coming late to meeting s implies that I am irritated by his lack of punctuality.

I'm a doctor is a simple statement of profession. The other sentence is much less common but can be imagined in a situation like the following: A woman comes home from work and sees her daughter examining her husband's foot. She asks her what's she doing and the girl replies: I'm being a doctor!

Do you remember that wonderful weekend we had in Paris just after we got married is a straightforward question to check if your wife remembers a long-ago occasion. The continuous form is far less likely but is possible in a situation where, for example, you look across the room and see your wife with a far-way expression on her face. You suspect you know what she is thinking about and ask: Are you remembering that wonderful weekend we had in Paris just after we got married?


2. Now consider the following questions with the verb "to think". Which one or more of the questions are incorrect, or are they all right? Can you explain the differing meanings of the correct questions?



What do you think?

This is correct and means What is your opinion? For example, you could tell your friend: I'm thinking about buying a new car but I'm not sure whether to buy new or second hand. What do you think? (The statement I'm thinking about buying a new car means I'm considering buying a new car. )

What are you thinking?

This is correct and is often asked of someone who is sitting quietly with a concentrated look on their face.

What do you think about?

This is incorrect as it stands. It would be acceptable if there were some continuation to the question. For example: What do you think about when you brush your teeth? or What do you think about as you are driving to work? In these cases the present simple tense is being used to express an habitual action.

What are you thinking about?

This means the same as What are you thinking? above.


3. Now choose the correct form of the present tense in the following pairs of sentences;

Imagine you are on vacation in France and are writing a postcard to your mother. What would you say?



In each case, the sentence followed by the tick icon is the correct answer.

  • What does he say? - I don't know. I can't hear him either! icon
  • What is he saying? - I don't know. I can't hear him either! icon

  • What's your favourite country? - I love France! icon
  • What's your favourite country? - I'm loving France! icon

Imagine you are on vacation in France and want to send a postcard to your mother. What would you write?

  • I love every minute of my holiday. The food is delicious, the weather is wonderful .. icon
  • I'm loving every minute of my holiday. The food is delicious, the weather is wonderful . . icon

  • Look! The cook is tasting the soup and now he's going to put more salt in it. icon
  • Look! The cook tastes the soup and now he's going to put more salt in it. icon

  • This soup tastes good! icon
  • This soup is tasting good! icon

  • Look out of the window. Are you seeing that man on the other side of the street? icon
  • Look out of the window. Do you see that man on the other side of the street? icon

  • Are you seeing the doctor for that nasty cough of yours? icon
  • Do you see the doctor for that nasty cough of yours? icon

The second answer is possible if the cough has persisted for many months or years.

  • What's happening? - The doctor is feeling her pulse. icon
  • What's happening? -The doctor feels her pulse. icon

  • I feel great today! icon
  • I'm feeling great today! icon

Note: Both answers are possible!

  • It's time to go - I don't feel welcome any more. icon
  • It's time to go - I'm not feeling welcome any more. icon

  • I'm thinking of buying a new car. icon
  • I think of buying a new car. icon

  • She's wonderful. I think the world of her! icon
  • She's wonderful. I'm thinking the world of her! icon

4. Finally, an easy question - if you think about it. (Not: If you are thinking about it.) Can you use will when referring to a past event?

As you probably guessed, the answer is "Yes! You can use will when referring to a past event." Consider the following sentence as an example:

  • I can't remember much about the film, but Kubrick was the director, so I know it will have been good!