"How to Study Verb Tenses?"

Verb tenses is a topic we all have learned in school or college year after year; yet very few have confidence in using it.

This page will show you an approach to the study of tenses, so that...

  • you can have an intimate understanding of the topic, and
  • be able even to guide others to a better understanding.

What is Tense?

In English, tense and aspect are two things which are intertwined. When people speak of tense, they usually include the aspect as well, without making a special mention of it.

  • Tense refers to the time of an event - it could be:
    • present,
    • past or
    • future.

  • Aspect refers to the state of the event - the event could be...
    • in progess (progressive or continuous aspect), or
    • completed (perfect aspect)

The Best Way to Study Tenses

There are three distinct elements in the study of verb tenses. They are:

  1. Forms of tenses - A form refers to the spelling and combination of words used for a particular tense. It is the word-symbol (or phrase-symbol).

  2. Names of tenses - A name refers to the label by which a particular tense form is spoken of or indicated.

  3. Uses of tenses - A use refers to the meaning(s) associated with a particular form.

The best way to study tenses, therefore, is...

  1. firstly, to study all the forms and be able to identify them by their names;
  2. secondly, to learn the meaning(s) associated with each tense form.

Symbols are part of our lives

In our daily lives too, we can find these three facets (form, name, and meaning) in our use of symbols...

  1. We use pictures, gestures, sounds, words, as symbols (forms)
  2. We give each symbol a name to distinguish it from other symbols, and
  3. we use the symbol to convey some message (meaning) to other people.

An Example: This is How We Use Picture Symbols

(i.e. the form)
Name of the Symbol The Intended Message or
Meaning of the Symbol
(i.e. its Use)
symbol red flag "red flag" "Stop"
symbol black flag "black flag" "We protest"

The symbol, which we call "red flag," may be of cloth or paper and may come in any number of sizes; but all of them are called "red flags" and can carry the intended message.

Verb Tenses and Phrase Symbols

In the table below, as symbols we have phrases (word-combinations) instead of pictures.

Name of the Phrase-Symbol Meaning of the Phrase-Symbol
(i.e. its Use)
  • am/is/are singing
  • am/is/are writing
  • am/is/are playing
"Present Continuous tense"
  • An action or event in progress at the time the words of the tense are spoken.

  • Sometimes, also used for announcing certain types of future events.
  • sang
  • wrote
  • played
"Simple Past tense" An action or event which happened at a particular point of time before the time called "now."
Exactly when it happened (a little before or long before) needs to be separately indicated.

Just as there could be varieties of red flags, we can have many similar word-combinations, all of which deserve the name "Present Continuous Tense." All the combinations, which deserve that name, have a particular set of meanings associated with them.

What's the Problem in Learning or Teaching Verb Tenses

Let's suppose, someone asked you, "What is a brick?"

Your answer shouldn't be:
"Something that is used for building a house".

That is not the answer to the question asked. It is an answer to some other question: "What is the use of a brick?"

The answer to "What is a brick?" will be something like the following:

A brick is a rectangular block of clay, 8"x4"x3" (or something similar), which is usually baked in a kiln or sometimes dried in the sun.

'Being' is different from 'Doing'. What something IS is different from what something DOES or is used for.

I think, the inability or carelessness or refusal to distinguish between the two is the problem.

Similarly, in English Language Learning...

When learning or teaching grammar, the teacher-student dialogue should go something like this:

  • Question: What is the present continuous tense?

  • Answer:   am/is/are eating; am/is/are studying; am/is/are working; etc.

  • Question: What do we use these forms for?

  • Answer:   To convey the meaning that the action of eating or studying or working is in progress....

What to Do?

To learn tenses systematically and effectively...

  1. first, identify a tense by its form
  2. then learn which meanings are conveyed by that particular form.

That, I think, is the best way to master verb tenses.

For Further Reading and Study...

Related Pages

The Study of Verbs

What is a Verb?

List of Verbs

Principal Parts of Verbs

Types of Verbs

Finite Verbs

Non-Finites (Verbals)

Transitive Verbs

Helping Verbs

Verb Tenses

Subject-Verb Agreement