How to learn English verb tenses

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English Verb Tenses: An informal but extensive reference for ESL students, the good folks who teach them, the idly curious, and the linguistically perplexed by Kent Uchiyama copyright 20066 How to Use (and Not to Use) This Guide meantime, you can find pretty good discussions of them in many grammar texts. I’ve listed a few texts I like on p171 in Books and Websites You Might Find Useful. 3. If you have a question about verb tenses that isn’t answered in this guide Please e-mail me your question. My e-mail address is kuchiyamachabotcollege.edu. I’ll try to include the answer in future versions of this guide, and if I have time I’ll try to send you an answer to your question. (If you’re a student at Chabot, please drop by my office with your question. Most grammar questions are much easier to explain in person than by e-mail, so it can save me a lot of time if we speak in person.) 4. What this book can and can’t do for you. This book can (I hope) • answer many of your questions about verb tenses, and • explain some points about verb tenses that you won’t find in other grammar books. This book CANNOT take the place of a good ESL class. Learning a language is a lot like learning how to dance; it’s almost impossible to learn just by reading a book. When we learn to dance, nearly all of us need to practice, interact with many different people, make mistakes, observe what other people are doing, and learn to move easily without really thinking about it. The same things are true when we learn a language. A well-taught ESL class can give you all these things, but a book can’t. A book can give you a clear understanding, but almost everyone needs more to learn how to use a language. 5. This guide probably won’t be helpful for everyone. As I mentioned earlier, learning a language is a lot like learning to dance. No one can learn to dance without actually dancing, and no one can learn a language without actually using it (a lot). However, different people learn best in different ways. When some people 7 How to Use (and Not to Use) This Guide learn to dance, they learn more quickly and easily if someone explains the movements to them step by step before they get on the dance floor. For other people, explanation isn’t helpful at all. These people often learn more easily if they just watch the dance steps for a while and then start trying them. Similarly, some students really like detailed explanations of grammar; they find that a clear explanation helps them learn more easily. Other students might find that detailed explanations are frustrating or even confusing. If you try using this guide and it isn’t helpful, it doesn’t mean that you have a problem. You may learn better by just “jumping in” and using the language. You might want to come back to the guide after a year or two to see if it seems more helpful after some time has passed. Maybe it will, or maybe it won’t. The important thing is that you find out what most helps you learn English. 6. A note for other teachers In this guide, I’m trying to stake out some new territory, so if you • see something that seems inaccurate, • find an important omission, or • have a better way to explain something, I’d deeply appreciate hearing from you. My e-mail here at stately Chabot College is kuchiyamachabotcollege.edu. (I’d also appreciate a heads up if you find any typos; I’m sure there are still some lurking about.) If you’d like to use any of the material here in your classes, feel free to do so, but give an attribution of the source. While we’re on the subject of using this guide, I want to stress that it’s not written to be used as the sole ESL textbook for a grammar class. It was meant to be a reference, so there are no exercises. Also, the sheer amount of material could be overwhelming for many students, especially if a teacher tried to teach the book cover-to-cover. I’ve used parts of this guide in many of my classes, supplementing it with exercises from other sources and ones I wrote myself, and that’s worked well. See what works for you. If you come up with a great idea for using this guide, please let me know8 How to Use (and Not to Use) This Guide 7. A note for grammatical purists In the following pages, I’ve split infinitives, ended clauses with prepositions, used their with a singular antecedent, began sentences with conjunctions, and used adjective clauses to modify other clauses. These practices are not born of ignorance or a desire to annoy you; I just don’t hold much truck with the outlook that underlies the rules I’m disregarding. However, if you are convinced of the intellectual (or moral) superiority of schoolhouse grammar, I doubt that I can convince you otherwise. (Years of effort have not succeeded with my mom.) I can only extend my sincere (but more or less unrepentant) apologies in advance, along with my honest hope that you’ll still find the following information helpful in some way. And if you do see something that seems to arise from my ignorance or negligence rather than my attitude, I would deeply appreciate your correction. 11 The Tenses and Their Main Meanings The Tenses and Their Main Meanings (These are only the main meanings; for more complete information, see the section on each tense.) Past Tenses Simple Past Main Meaning This action ended in the past. John did his homework last night. Note: Simple past is correct for most actions in the past. There are only a few times when we absolutely need to use other past tenses. Past Progressive Main Meaning This action happened over time in the past. Most common use: to show this action was happening over time when something happened. John was doing his homework when the earthquake started. Past Perfect Main Meaning We use past perfect when we want to make it clear that this action happened before something in the past. Norton had eaten breakfast when he left for work. (This means Norton ate breakfast before he went to work.) Past Perfect Progressive Main Meaning We use past perfect progressive when we want to make it clear that this action was happening over time before something in the past. The kitchen smelled wonderful because Norton had been cooking dinner.12 The Tenses and Their Main Meanings Present Tenses Simple Present Main Meanings This action is a habit or repeated now. I usually drive to school. This is a fact that’s always (or almost always) true. Wood floats in water. Present Progressive Main Meanings This action is happening right now. You are reading this sentence. This action isn’t finished, but might not be happening right now. John is studying English this semester, but he isn’t studying right now; he’s eating dinner. Note: Don’t use present progressive with stative verbs. Present Perfect Main Meanings With a length of time, present perfect usually means this action started in the past and has continued until now. Ralph’s a bus driver. He has worked as a bus driver for 10 years. Note: Present Perfect Progressive can often be used to say the same thing (but not with stative verbs). With no time phrase, present perfect usually means the action ended in the past, but the time is not clear. Ralph isn’t hungry because he has eaten dinner. Note: In American English, simple past can usually be used to say the same thing. Present Perfect Progressive Main Meaning This action started in the past and has continued until now. Ralph’s a bus driver. He has been working as a bus driver for 10 years. Note: Don’t use present perfect progressive with stative verbs. 13 The Tenses and Their Main Meanings Future Tenses Future Main Meaning This action will happen in the future. Ralph and Norton will play cards tomorrow night. Note: Future is correct for most actions in the future. There are only a few times when I absolutely need to use other future tenses. Future Progressive Main Meaning This action will happen over time in the future. Most common use: to show this action will be happening over time when something happens. I’ll start to study at 7:00, so I’ll be studying when you arrive at 7:`10. Future Perfect Main Meaning We use future perfect when we want to make it clear that this action will happen before something in the future. Martha will have finished her homework when she comes to class tomorrow. Note: If it’s already clear which action will happen first, future is also okay. Future Perfect Progressive Main Meaning This action will happen over time before something in the future When I retire, I will have been teaching for over forty years. Note: Future perfect progressive is a pretty rare tense; we don’t use it very much. 15 Which Verb Tense Should I Use? Which Verb Tense Should I Use? A Very Rough Guide Actions in the Past For most actions in the past: simple past I ate breakfast at 7:00 this morning before I went to work. I’m a little tired today because I went to bed late. When I need to make it clear that this action was in progress when something happened: past progressive I was taking a bath when you called, so I couldn’t answer the phone. When I want to show that an action started in the past and has continued until now: present perfect progressive (for most verbs) I have been teaching at Chabot for fourteen years. John has been thinking about buying a new car. OR present perfect + a length of time (for stative verbs) George Bush Sr. has hated broccoli since he was a child. When I want to show that an action happened before something in the past: past perfect At 5:00, Fred had finished work for the day. (This means that Fred finished work before 5:00.) (NOTE: We can say, At 5:00, Fred finished work for the day, but this sentence has a different meaning. It means that Fred finished work at 5:00, not before.)16 Which Verb Tense Should I Use? When I need to make it clear that this action was happening over time before another action (or a time) in the past: past perfect progressive (for most verbs) Barney had been studying for six hours when he fell asleep at his desk. OR past perfect + a length of time (for stative verbs) Ralph had loved Alice for many years before he asked her to marry him. For actions that have never happened in someone’s life: present perfect I’ve never seen a flying elephant. For questions asking if someone has ever done something in their life: present perfect Have you seen the Grand Canyon? For repeated actions that might happen again: present perfect Hoku has seen that movie eight times.17 Which Verb Tense Should I Use? Actions in the Present For a present habit: simple present I don’t drive to work; I usually take BART. For something that is always or usually true: simple present Wood floats on water. Rocks don’t float. They sink. For an action happening right now: present progressive (for most verbs) Norton isn’t home now. He’s studying at the library. OR simple present (for stative verbs only) Right now, I understand my calculus homework, but tomorrow I may be confused again. For an action that isn’t finished yet: present progressive (for most verbs) Martin is working at the library this semester, but he isn’t there now because today’s Sunday and library’s closed. 18 Which Verb Tense Should I Use? Actions in the Future For predictions (things we think will happen): future Fred’s plane will arrive at 8:00. Fred’s plane is going to arrive at 8:00. For actions that will be happening over time when something happens: future progressive When Lucy’s plane arrives tomorrow, Ricky will be waiting for her at the airport. For future plans: be going to Ralph and Alice are going to visit Yosemite National Park next month. For time clauses and if-clauses in the future: simple present (almost always) When Ralph gets home tomorrow night, he’s going to take Alice out to dinner. If Yoko buys a car next Friday, she’ll drive it to school on Monday. When I need to make it clear that this action will be finished before something in the future: future perfect The train always leaves at 12:00. If you get to the station at 12:05, the train will have already left. When I need to make it clear that this action will happen over time before something in the future: future perfect progressive (for most verbs) Next September, I will have been working at Chabot for 10 years. OR future perfect + a length of time (for stative verbs) At its anniversary in 2011, Chabot College will have existed for fifty years.20 Simple PresentThe Basics Simple Present Part 1: The Basics 1. What does simple present tense mean? Usually, simple present tense means 1) that the action is a habit (or another type of repeated action) in the present or 2) that the action is always or usually true. Examples: I usually eat lunch at the school cafeteria. (This is a habit in the present.) What time do you usually feed your pet dinosaur? (I’m asking about a habit in the present.) Ralph and Norton sometimes go bowling on Thursday nights. (This is a habit in the present.) George usually doesn’t buy bananas at Albertson’s. (This is a habit in the present.) Wally never comes late to class. (This is a habit in the present.) The moon travels around the earth. (This is always or usually true.) Wilma makes good gravelberry pies. (This is always or usually true.) Does the sun rise in the east or in the west? (I want to know if this is always or usually true.) Government officials often don’t tell the truth. (This statement is usually true.) Simple present can also have other uses. You can find these in the points “Stative verbs use simple present, not present progressive” on p24, “Simple present in future time clauses and if-clauses” p25, “Scheduled events in the future” p25, and “Simple present when discussing literature” p26.”21 Simple PresentThe Basics 2. How do I make simple present? Statements 1. If the subject is I, you, we, or they, use the simple form of the verb. Examples: I go to bed at 11:00. You go to bed at 11:00. We go to bed at 11:00. George and Gracie (they) go to bed at 11:00. I usually walk to the store. 2. If the subject is he, she, or it, add -s or -es to the simple form of the verb. Examples: Ralph (he) goes to bed at 11:00. Alice (she) goes to bed at 11:00. Carmen’s pet elephant (it) goes to bed at 11:00. Ahmed usually walks to the store. Negative Statements do/does + not + simple form. Examples: Americans usually do not eat soup for breakfast. I usually don’t buy lunch on Thursdays. John does not play tennis. Ralph often doesn’t drive to work. 1 Questions (Question word) + do + subject + simple form Examples: Does your pet gorilla bite? Do you buy your groceries at Alberstons? What do Norton and Trixie usually do on weekends? Where does Alice buy her groceries? 1 Remember : Questions that ask who did something or what did something don't follow the normal question patterns. See “Appendix: Questions about the Subject” on p167.23 More...about Simple Present Part 2: More That You Should Know about Simple Present 1. The verb be The verb be in English is just plain weird. It almost never follows the same rules as other verbs. For the verb be, • simple present statements, • negative statements, and • questions are all formed in unusual ways. Although you probably learned the information below in one of your very first English lessons, here it is again for the sake of completeness. Simple Present Statements with Be If the subject is I, use am. Examples: I am a teacher. I’m often absent-minded. I am in class every Wednesday at 10:00. If the subject is you, we, or they, use are Examples: You are my sunshine, my only sunshine (from an old song). We’re so happy that you didn’t eat our cat Fred and Ethyl are in the kitchen with Lucy and Ricky. If the subject is a he, she, or it, use is. Examples: Arnold Schwarzenegger (he) is the governor of California. (This sentence was true in 2005, when this guide was written. California may have a new governor by the time you read this.) Paris Hilton’s rich. She isn’t an English teacher.24 More...about Simple Present My car (it) is in the parking lot at beautiful Chabot College. Simple Present Negative Statements with Be Add not after be. Examples: I am not a millionaire or a rock star. I’m not rich or famous. I’m probably not in Paris Hilton’s address book. You are not my boss, so stop telling me what to do. Bats aren’t birds. We’re not in Kansas any more. George W. Bush is not my uncle. A wet cat isn’t very happy. It’s not cold; you don’t need to wear a coat. 2 Simple present questions with Be Put be in front of the subject Examples: Am I taller than your cousin in Utah? Are George and Gracie married? Where are my car keys? Why is the sky blue? 2. Stative verbs use simple present, not present progressive. Some verbs, such as want, understand, and know, don’t use present progressive; instead, they usually use simple present even if the action is happening right now. This point is explained more in “Stative verbs usually don’t use present progressive” on p34. 2 Remember : Questions that ask who did something or what did something don't follow the normal question patterns. See “Appendix I: Questions about the Subject” on p167.25 More...about Simple Present 3. Simple present in future time clauses and if-clauses Future time clauses and future if-clauses (with one exceptionsee p73) do not use future; instead, they use one of the present tenses, usually simple present. Examples: After I will go go to the store tomorrow, I’ll give you a call. Before Trixie will leave leaves for school next Tuesday, she’s going to do her English homework. When Mohammed will get gets home tonight, he will cook dinner and then help his kids with their homework. If John will find finds a new job, he’s going to have a party. I’ll be at the library tonight if you will need need to find me. This point is explained a little more in the points “Don’t use future in time clauses” on pp71 and “Don’t use future in (most) future if-clauses” on p72. We can use some other present tenses, like present progressive or present perfect in future time clauses and if-clauses; however, these usually aren’t necessary. You can find them explained in the points “Present progressive in future if-clauses” p73, “Present progressive in future time clauses” p79, “Present perfect in future time clauses” p80, and “Present perfect in future if-clauses” p80 4. We can use simple present for scheduled events in the future If you want to, you can use simple present for future scheduled events such as plane arrivals & departures, classes, and so on. You can’t do this for most future actions; you can only do it for actions that are scheduled. It’s not necessary to use simple present for scheduled events; the future is also okay. Examples: My class will start tomorrow morning at 9:00. My class starts tomorrow morning at 9:00. (Both sentences mean the same thing.)26 More...about Simple Present John’s plane is going to arrive tonight at 10:00. John’s plane arrives tonight at 10:00. (Both sentences mean the same thing.) The BART train to Richmond will arrive in five minutes. The BART train to Richmond arrives in five minutes. (Both sentences mean the same thing.) My brother calls will call me sometime tomorrow. (I can’t use simple present in this sentence because this action isn’t scheduled.) 5. Simple present when discussing literature In academic situations, especially when writing papers, it’s traditional to use simple present as the main tense to tell the story of a work of fiction like a novel, a play, or a short story, even if the work itself is written in the past tense. Example: Romeo and Juliet tells the tragic story of two young lovers. Two families in the town of Verona, the Capulets and the Montagues, hate one another. Romeo is the son of the Montague family and Juliet is the daughter of the Capulets. Romeo and Juliet meet at a party, fall in love, and secretly make plans to get married. Soon after the young couple marry, Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt, kills Romeo’s closest friend. Romeo, in a blind rage, kills Tybalt. This starts a series of events that ends in the two lovers’ deaths. There are also other tenses that we can use together with simple present to make the order of events clearer. You can read more about these in “More about simple present when discussing literature” on p27.27 Extra Stuff about Simple Present Part 3: Extra Stuff about Simple Present (You May Not Need to Know This) 1. More about simple present when discussing literature Normally, we use simple present to summarize a work of fiction, but there are other tenses that we can use together with simple present to make the order of events clearer. We can use present perfect tenses to show that an action began before the time we’re discussing and future tenses to show that an action will happen after the time we’re discussing. Examples: In the fairy tale “The Little Mermaid,” a handsome prince falls in love with a mermaid who has given her voice to a witch for a pair of legs. (Present perfect makes it clear that the mermaid traded her voice before the prince fell in love with her.) When Romeo and Juliet meet, their families have hated one another for many years, and recently they have been openly fighting in the streets of the city. (Both these actions start before the time we’re discussing and have continued until that time. We can show this by using present perfect + a length of time or present perfect progressive. For more about using these tenses see More Stuff...about Meaning 1 on p98. Tybalt’s death starts a series of events that will end in the two lovers’ deaths. (The events will end later in the story, and we can emphasize this by using future.) If we tell the events of a story in the order they happen, from beginning to end, then present perfect or future tenses aren’t necessary; simple present will work. However, if the order of events isn’t already clear, we can use the other tenses so show the reader which actions happened earlier and which actions will happen later. 28 Extra Stuff about Simple Present 2. Simple present when telling a story When Americans are telling a story about something that happened in the past, you’ll often hear them start to use simple present as the basic tense. This is very similar to the way we use simple present to discuss literature, and other tenses can be used in the same way as we use them to discuss literature. (“More about simple present when discussing literature” on p27). However, because it’s informal and because Americans don’t do this consciously, Americans will often switch back and forth between simple present and past tenses when they use simple present this way. Here’s an example of how Americans use simple present in this way: Ralph: Hey, Norton How did you get that dent in your fender? Norton: Well, I was driving to the store to get some bananas, okay? (Notice that Norton starts his story in the past.) I get off the freeway (Here Norton switches to simple present.) and I’m coming down Hesperian when this guy in red SUV pulls into my lane without looking and dents my fender. We both pull over and he’s very apologetic. He tells me that he was talking (Here Norton has switched back to past tenses.) on his cell phone and wasn’t paying attention to the road. Americans talk like this when they’re speaking informally, but it’s not standard English. You never need to use simple present this way; in fact, if you’re speaking in a formal situation or if you’re writing, you should probably avoid it. Still, you’ll hear Americans do this a lot. 3. Time clauses used with simple present main clauses If the main clause of a sentence uses simple present tense, then a time clause in that sentence will usually use simple present too. Example: After George brushes his teeth each morning, he goes to the kitchen and starts the coffee. However, if the action in the time clause happens first, we can also use present perfect:29 Extra Stuff about Simple Present Example: After George has brushed his teeth each morning, he goes to the kitchen and starts the coffee. (This means the same thing as the first sentence.) Here’s another example: Every evening after he cooks dinner, Ralph washes the pots and pans. Every evening after he has cooked dinner, Ralph washes the pots and pans. (These two sentences mean the same thing.) So far as I can tell, in this type of time clause (present habit / the action in the time clause happens first), both simple present and present perfect are always correct, so you never really need to use present perfect here. If you’d like to read more about present perfect in time clauses, check out Some Final Points about the Present Perfect on p132.