Verb Tenses: All Tensed Up: Using Verb Tense Correctly

All Tensed Up: Using Verb Tense Correctly

Okay, so now you know that verbs form different tenses to show different times. Now you have to learn how to use the tenses correctly to show the timing of one event in relation to another. And we all know that in life, timing is everything.

Get your bearings with the following table. It shows how the tenses are related.

Verb Tense and Time
Simple pastSimple presentSimple future
Present perfect Future perfect
Past perfect
Past progressivePresent progressiveFuture progressive
Present perfect progressive Future perfect
Past perfect progressive
  • Use the two present forms (simple present and present progressive) to show events that take place now.
  • Use the six past forms (simple past, present perfect, past perfect, past progressive, present perfect progressive, and past perfect progressive) to show events that took place before the present.
  • Use the four future forms (simple future, future perfect, future progressive, and future perfect progressive) to show events that take place in the future.

Get the inside skinny in the following sections.

Past Tense

What's past may be past, but only if you get your past tenses straight. Use the following table to leave the past in the past.

Past Tenses
Simple pastCompleted actionWe finished the tofu.
 Completed conditionWe were sad; no more tofu.
Present perfectCompleted actionWe have finished the tofu.
 Completed conditionWe have been sad.
 Continuing actionWe have burped for hours.
 Continuing conditionI have been here for days.
Past perfectAction completed before anotherI had eaten all the tofu before you returned.
 Condition completed before anotherI had been sad before the new tofu arrived.
Past progressiveContinuous completed actionI was snoring that week.
Present perfect progressiveAction going into presentI have been snoring all week. 
Past perfect progressiveContinuing action interrupted by anotherI had been snoring when the

Back to the Future

This table explains the future tenses.

Future Tenses
Simple futureFuture actionThe sponge will dry.
 Future conditionI will be happy when it does.
Future perfectFuture action done before anotherBy the time you read this, the sponge will be dry.
 Future condition done before anotherThe sponge will have been on the window for a week.
Future progressiveContinuing future actionThey will be buying sponges this week.
Future perfect progressiveContinuing future action done before anotherWhen we lunch next week, I will have been pumping iron for at least a week.

A Note on Verbs for Non-Native Speakers

Verbs present special problems for people whose first language is not English. Here are some guidelines to make your life easier (at least as it relates to verbs).

  1. Use the correct form of verbs.
    • The following chart can help you remember how to use verbs correctly.
    Nonstandard and Standard English
    Nonstandard English
    Present Tense Standard English
    we walkswe walk
    he, she, it walkhe, she, it walks
    Past Tense
    we walkwe walked
    he, she, it walkhe, she, it walked
  2. When used as a helping verb, be, do, and have change form to agree with a third-person singular subject. The main verb does not add -s.
    • Incorrect: Does the store opens at 10?
    • Correct: Does the store open at 10?
  3. Can and could
    • Can means am/is/are able. It may be used to show the present tense.
    • Today, I can sleep late.
    • I can clean the house—but I won't.
    • Could means was/were able when used to show the past tense of can. Could also means “might be able, a possibility or wish.”
    • In the past, I could touch my toes.
    • I wish I could touch my toes now.
    • Can and could (along with might, must, shall, should, will, would) never change form.
  4. Idiomatic expressions with can, could, might, must, shall, should, will, would
    • These words are called “modals.” Here's a list of the most common expressions.
    Idiomatic Expressions with Modals
    I would rather walk than ride.I prefer to walk.
    I would sleep during foreign films.I always sleep in foreign movies.
    Shall we meet again?I'm inviting you to meet again.
    Would you mind turning off the radio? Would you be against doing this?
    Do you mind turning it off?Please turn it off.
  5. Invert the subject and all or part of the verb to form questions.
    • The subject and verb change places to form questions. The following examples show this.
    Question Forms
     He is absent today.Is he absent today?
     Mara can help us.Can Mara help us?
     They are working here.Are they working here?
     It has made this noise before.Has it made this sound before?

    It's All in the Timing

    Here's the rule: Pick a tense and stick with it. Avoid shifting tenses in the middle of a sentence or paragraph. This confuses readers and makes them battier than they are already. Study this example:

    • Wrong: I was walking to lunch when a huge dog jumps up and attacks me.
    • Right: I was walking to lunch when a huge dog jumped up and attacked me.

The following recipe for chocolate cake (1040 version) contains many errors in tense. Rewrite the paragraph to correct the tenses. Don't make the cake.

  • Chocolate Cake 1040
  • Line 1: Butter, a minimum of half a pound, but not to be exceeding 1 cup (see Line 4).
  • Line 2: Sugar, light brown or white, unless you or your spouse will be having a financial account in a foreign account in 2004, in which case do not substitute molasses or honey.
  • Line 3: Eggs, six or a half-dozen, whichever was greater.
  • Line 4: Semisweet chocolate. Nonfarm families may chosen the optional method of using cocoa powder. Multiplying by .9897 per ounce of substitution. For additional details on cocoa conversion, seen Form 234a.
  • Line 5: Salt, 1/3 teaspoon (optional). If you was a head of household with dependents and be born during a leap year, you must add salt. Now cream the mixture.
  • Line 6: Incorporate eggs, one at a time, into creamed mixture. If the eggs will be from a farm of which you are the sole owner, you may have been eligible for a Fowl Credit. See Form 9871m, “For the Birds.”
  • Note: If you weighed 20 percent more (or higher) than your ideal weight (see chart on page 56), ignore this recipe and complete Schedule F, “Fresh Fruit Desserts.”


  • Line 1: to exceed
  • Line 2: had
  • Line 3: is
  • Line 4: choose, multiply, add, see
  • Line 5: were, were
  • Line 6: are from a farm, be eligible
  • Note: weigh
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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Grammar and Style © 2003 by Laurie E. Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website or call 1-800-253-6476. You can also purchase this book at and Barnes & Noble.