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Verb Tenses


Unfortunately, this is a trick question, because the term "tense" as it's used in the discussion of verbs has a specific meaning and a general one.

Technically speaking, "tense" specifically refers to the way that time inflects the verb's action:  past, present, and future.

However, "tense" is commonly used instead of the word "conjugation." "Conjugate" means, "to join together," and verbs are actually grouped together by virtue of sharing a sense of duration, condition and/or mood.  Within most of those groupings, specific tense of time—past, present and future—can be added.

The answer to the question above, then, depends on whether you mean this specific idea of tense, or the general idea of conjugation.  For the purposes of this lesson, though, "tense" will be used in the most general sense to discuss conjugation and the elements of time and duration, all together.


Choosing the right verb tense depends upon two factors: time and duration.

"Time" refers to when an action occurs: in the present; in the past; or, in the future.

"Duration" refers to how an action is perceived: as completed; in progress; or, as a recurrent phenomenon or habit.

Time and duration, together, create six different "coordinates," and the different combinations of these coordinates create the variety in verb tense (that is, the different verb conjugations). Some combinations are simple and straightforward, while other combinations create subtle distinctions.

Special conditions and moods can also add other factors to the equation (for example, "fantasy versus reality"). Every writer needs to master these distinctions in order to write clearly and to avoid grammatical errors. The four main verb tenses are:

Continuous (a.k.a. Progressive)
Continuous Perfect


The simple verb tense is the most straightforward and obvious conveyance of action because it does not factor duration; it describes simple occurrence. The simple present tense, however, can be used to suggest a tendency or habit (we live; we breathe; we eat; we work; etc.) Because it does not factor duration, simple present tense uses no specially auxiliary verb other than what's needed to indicate time.

Simple Present

What occurs?
[base verb form]

I record my thoughts in my journal each day.
It rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again.
It takes a village to raise a child.

Simple Past

What occurred?
[verb + ed, or irregular verb past-tense form]

Last month, I scribbled in my journal each day to record my thoughts.
It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw.
Charles Wells broke the bank at Montecarlo in 1891.

Simple Future

What will occur? / What's going to occur?
1. informal [am / is / are] + [going to] + [verb]*;
2. formal [will] + [verb]

When this course is over, I promise I will write in my journal each day, and I am going to keep a separate journal just for my writing ideas.
What will gamma rays do to Man-In-the-Moon Marigolds?
Are you going to publish the results of your experiments?




This verb tense suggests an action that is ongoing or in progress, whether in the now, in the past, or in the future; it uses the auxiliary verb "be" and a present participle form of the verb.

Continuous Present

What is occurring?
[am / is / are] + [verb + ing]

I am reading an article right now about cloning.
Why are you being so nice to him?
The U.S. Congress is convening in Washington for its new term.

Continuous Past

What was occurring?
[was / were] + [verb + ing]

When she called me, I was finishing my report for History class.
The workers on strike were not expecting an actual settlement.
What was troubling you so much at last night's party?

Continuous Future

What will be occurring? / What's going to be occurring?
[will / is going to] + [be] + [verb + ing]

Next summer, I will be enrolling in an Advanced Calculus course.
We're going to be traveling in Croatia this summer.
Food prices in the coming years will be slowly increasing because of this year's drought.


The perfect tense suggests an action completed (i.e., perfected), whether in the now, in the past, or in the future; it uses the auxiliary verb "have" and a past participle form of the verb.

Perfect Present

What has occurred until now?
[has / have] + [past participle]

I have completed the first draft of the assignment.
It has taken years to rebuild the economy.
This company has staked its reputation on its customer service.

Perfect Past

What had occurred by then or at that time?
[had] + [past participle]

I had finished the major portion of the assignment by the end of week.
This year, autumn ended just as mild as it had begun.
Why had you even bothered inviting them to the wedding?

Perfect Future

What is going to have occurred when time's up?
[will / is going to] + [have] + [past participle]

By this time next week, I am going to have finished at least two more rewrites of the assignment in hopes of perfecting it.
When I finish, I will have proven myself to all those who said I couldn't do it.
I fantasize that, in ten years time, I'm going to have won the lottery, traveled the world, and cured cancer.

Perfect Continuous

The perfect continuous tense suggests a continuous action completed (i.e., perfected), up until now, up to a time in the past, or up until a time in the future; it uses the auxiliary verb "have been" and a present participle form of the verb.

Perfect Continuous Present

What has been occurring till now?
[has / have] + [been] + [verb + ing]

Ms. Foster has been serving as a substitute teacher for eleven months.
For millennia, sailors have been navigating by charting the stars.
My enthusiasm has been waning for a long time now.

Perfect Continuous Past

What had been occurring at or during that time?
[had been] + [verb + ing]

Professor Milton had been taking maternity leave during that year.
As long as they could remember, Miss Elizabeth Bennet had always been behaving pridefully.
Although my tax return this year was helpful, I had been hoping for a lot more.

Perfect Continuous Future

What is going to have been occurring when time is up?
[will / is going to] + [have been] + [verb + ing];

By the time Professor Milton returns, the students will have been studying with Ms. Foster long enough to imagine her as their regular teacher.
By the time she retires, she is going to have been working for the company thirty-five years.
How long will you have been pursuing your degree when you graduate this spring?

A Note About “Going To” (The Informal Future Helping Verb)

In the interest of total transparency, you should understand why the informal future tense auxiliary verb phrase, “is going to,” is inappropriate for formal writing. Note how “going” ends with “-ing,” which means this is actually in the progressive “continuous” tense. (See below.) “Going to” suggests an intention or destination, which is perhaps why it is associated with the idea of “future.” Nevertheless, for the strict demands of academic and formal writing, “going to” is far too grammatically sloppy in anything but the progressive tenses, which is why you should instead strive to use the auxiliary verb “will” when you are writing formal or academic prose.

The other concern about “going to” is purely rhetorical: “will” can sometimes express intentionality more forcefully, while “going to” connotes straightforward observation. Note the difference in the following examples:

Harriet is going to take a leave of absence at the end of the week.
Harriet will take a leave of absence at the end of the week.

In the first sentence, “is going to take a leave of absence” sounds as if it's an “FYI” remark: “Hey, everyone, just so you know, Harriet's going to be gone next week.” The second example, however, draws focus to Harriet's intention to take a leave of absence and invites a more serious response, including questions about Harriet's motives: “Attention, everyone: Harriet must take a leave of absence at the end of this week, owing to urgent circumstances.” (If we were living in the last century, we might have used the modal "shall" to achieve the same effect of intention or resolve, but, alas, in the twenty-first century, "shall" and its charming contraction, "shalln't," are only ever heard in period performance works like Downton Abbey or Jane Austin adaptations. Pity!)

Because “will” and “go” are ordinary verbs, too, you might also wish to choose one auxiliary form over the other to avoid the appearance of repetition in a verb string:

He [is going to be going / will be going] to a conference this summer.
If I have to, I [will will / am going to will] myself to stay up all night and finish this project.

Last Updated: 02/23/2015


Karl J Sherlock
Associate Professor, English
Phone: 619-644-7871

  • Grossmont
  • Cuyamaca
A Member of the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District