Mastering the most common verb tenses in English

Quick review of six common verb tenses

Many beginner learners use present simple all the time, which sounds extremely odd. You shouldn't forget the three simple tenses of English: present, past and future. Here are some examples of these simple verb tenses.

I speak (Present Simple)
I spoke (Past Simple)
I will speak (Future Simple)

Learning them is a great step forward. However, you must have certainly noticed that there are many other tenses, like those using an auxiliary verb plus one or more verbs. In this lesson, we will add three very common tenses, which are particularly frequent in conversation:

I am speaking (Present Continuous, as an immediate present)
I have spoken (Present Perfect, alternative form of 'past')
I am going to speak (Future with Be Going To, for established plans)

Affirmative, negative and questions

Remember that all these tenses make use of auxiliary verbs to create negative sentences and questions:

I speak * I don't speak Do you speak?
I am speaking I'm not speaking Are you speaking?
I spoke * I didn't speak ** Did you speak ** ?
I have spoken I haven't spoken Have you spoken?
I will speak I won't speak Will you speak?
I am going to speak I'm not going to speak Are you going to speak?

* No auxiliary verb in affirmative sentences of present and past simple
** Past simple uses infinitive (first column of irregular verbs) for negative and questions

~S ending for the third person

Do not forget to add an S at the end of the third person of singular (he, she, it) of present tenses.

He speakSHe doeSn't speakDoeS he speak?
She haS spoken She haSn't spokenHaS she spoken?

When to use each tense?

Unlike many textbooks and academies that look deeply into the reasons why we use every tense, here I am going to provide you with some very quick tips on how to choose the right tense to use.

Collocations of verb tenses + time adverbs.

Each tense typically comes along certain time adverbs. Try to memorize every combination of verb tense + time expression.

Present Simple vs. Present Continuous

For example, the main difference between present simple and present continuous is that the present simple is used to describe habits and long-term actions, whereas present continuous looks at the immediate present, that is now, or things we're are doing temporarily. Therefore, the time expressions that come along will express that idea:

Time expressions for present simple:
- Frequency adverbs: always, never, usually, normally, sometimes, often, hardly ever.
 - Every + period of time: everyday, every morning/Friday/week/summer/year. 

Examples of present simple:
I always work from home.
Every morning I have a shower.
We visit our cousins every Christmas.
I sometimes watch football on the telly.

Time expressions for present continuous
- Immediate present: now, today, tonight, at the moment, these days, currently.
- This/these + period of time: this week, this weekend, this year, these days course, this summer.
- Immediate planned future (!): this evening, tomorrow, this weekend.

Examples of present continuous:
I'm meeting some friends for dinner tonight. Today Mr Terry is having lunch with a client. I'm writing this article on my small laptop (implicitly now). We're having many technical problems with the new website these days.

Notice that the time is often omitted, but you can easily figure it out:
I work as a teacher (WHEN? as a habit, long-term)
I'M workING on a new business (WHEN? temporarily)
I speak English and French (WHEN? as a habit, long-term)
What language IS she speakING (WHEN? now, immediate present)

Past Simple vs. Present Perfect

This is a very tricky one. You'll find it much easier if you learn the collocations, rather than by understanding the actual reasons governing their use. Past simple is commonly used when we specify when the action exactly happened, and once the time frame has been defined. Present perfect comes along time adverbs that give an answer to questions other than when:

Time expressions for past simple:
When? This morning, yesterday, last night/week/month/summer/year, ...
When? In + any period of time in the past: In January, in 2019, in the 90s, ... 

Examples of past simple:
I told you last time we met (WHEN?: last time we met).
She lived in India in the 2000s (WHEN?: in the 90s).

Time expressions for present perfect:
- How many times (in you life/career)? Never, twice, three times, many times, ...
- How long? For five minutes, for six months, since 2015, since January, ...
- Already, not yet, so far, until now, ...
- For making important announcements, breaking news (omitted time expression).

Examples of present perfect: 
I'VE told you many times (not saying exactly WHEN).
She HAS lived in India since the 2000s (saying HOW LONG but not WHEN).

Future with Will vs. Be Going To

Will is used for decisions made at the moment or for uncertain future situations, whereas be going to is used for planned future situations. In this case there are not many time expressions, we have to look at the context and other typical structures.

Examples of future with will:
You look tired. I'LL bring you a coffee (you're deciding it NOW).
I think I WON'T pass the exam (but you're NOT SURE).
Ok! I WILL stop calling you (you're deciding it NOW).

Examples of future with be going to:
I'M GOING TO drop these documents at the tax office (it's sure).
We'RE GOING TO hold the meeting in the main boardroom (for sure).
She'S GOING TO study an MBA in Harvard next year (sure).

Placing the adverb between the auxiliary and the main verbs

Notice how some common short adverbs are placed between the two verbs:
I don't USUALLY watch TV.
I have ALREADY arrived home.
I can ALSO translate it into Chinese.

If there is no auxiliary verb, the adverb comes before the main verb:
We NEVER use that printer.
She STILL lives in the US.

Finally, if there is only the verb to be, the adverb comes after it:
I am ALREADY at home.
He was OFTEN late to work.

This lesson was posted by Robert Pearce, creator of Internet English Classes Ltd.