By the time our students reach Level 3 or Level 4, they realise that English has a lot of tenses.
So: how many tenses are there in English?The answer can be a bit complicated, because you need to understand 3 things: moods, tenses and aspects. In our classes we don’t usually explain all these things, because you don’t need it to speak English fluently and confidently. Most English speakers have never heard of them! But some students find it interesting, so here it is. And to make it easier, we made a little chart you can download and use as a reference.
MoodsA mood describes how a verb is used. There are several, but the ones that have to do with tenses are 3:
- Indicative mood: talks about real events
- Conditional mood: talks about imaginary events (wishes or possibilities)
- Imperative mood: gives orders
TensesTenses refer to the time when an action happens. In English there are 3 tenses, but not all moods have all tenses!
- Indicative mood: present (current action), past (past action), future (future action)
- Conditional mood: present
- Imperative mood: present. The imperative mood is a bit strange because it can only be used in two ways:
- telling someone else to do something (one or more people): study!
- telling yourself (and maybe also others) to do something: let’s study!
AspectThe aspect refers to how the verbs relates to other time frames.
- Simple: an action that has a clear beginning and end
- Continuous: an action that has a clear beginning and is ongoing
- Perfect (or perfect simple): an action that relates to a time before it
- Perfect continuous: an action that relates to a time before it and is ongoing
So, how many tenses are there?If we use ‘grammar talk’, there are only 3: past, present, future. But if we talk about tenses the way the appear in a grammar book or your Callan Method books, then there are 19. [one_half]
- Present simple
- Present continuous
- Present perfect
- Present perfect continuous
- Simple past
- Past continuous
- Past perfect
- Past perfect continuous
- Future (or ‘will’ future)
- Future continuous
- Future perfect
- Future perfect continuous
- Conditional (or ‘would’)
- Continuous conditional
- Perfect conditional
- Continuous perfect conditional
- ‘going to’ future (not really a tense, but usually taught as one)
- ‘was going to’ past (also, not really a tense)
- Simple present: a current action with a clear beginning and end (or as it’s usually explained: states and habits)
- Past perfect: a past action that relates to a time before it (or as it’s usually explained: a past that came before the simple past)
Impersonal formsEverything described above are personal forms: someone doing something. But English also has 3 impersonal forms, those are just verbs that don’t relate to any person at all. We don’t usually use them on their own but as part of a sentence or expression. They are extremely common, so we added them to our tenses chart. Don’t confuse them with the impersonal it, that is mostly used to talk about the weather. The 3 impersonal forms are:
- Infinitive: the verb in its basic form
- Gerund: the verb in its continuous form (they can sometimes be used as nous)
- Participle: the verb in its perfect form (they can sometimes be used as adjectives)