As I’ve told you in my last newsletter, English speakers find tenses very important. If you know you make lots of mistakes with tenses, or you don’t know when to use them at all, you definitely need to fix this. It would be one of the first things you’d need to fix about your English.
The great thing is, you can learn a lot about tenses on your own: from my website, or from other teachers’ websites, whatever you prefer.
Now I’ll give you a guide which tenses to learn first, and which ones you can leave for later. I’ll also recommend the order of learning. This is to make it easier for you.
The good news is that you can get quite far with the basic tenses.
The Really Basic Stuff
As you know, we humans divide time into past, present and future.
It really helps if you understand the difference between them.
So when you talk about yesterday, which tense do you need?
Right, the past.
And if you talk about today, which tense do you need?
Right, the present.
If you talk about tomorrow, which tense do you need?
You’re right, the future.
So that’s really easy, isn’t it?
Okay, now what we’ll do now is assign a tense to each of these times we want to talk about.
I’m going to show you this in a table.
|Past (yesterday, two days ago, last night, last week, last year)||They went to a movie last night.||Past Simple|
|Present (now)||I’m reading an English lesson about tenses.||Present Progressive (Continuous)|
|Future (tomorrow, the coming weekend, next week, next year, later this afternoon)||I’ll do a quiz to learn English grammar.||Future Simple|
You’d usually want to say a lot about yesterday, about now and about tomorrow, so you need to learn these tenses first: Past Simple, Present Progressive (Continuous) and Future Simple.
In addition, there is one more basic tense used in English that describes facts and things in general. This is Present Simple. So you need to learn that too.
The Four Basic Tenses You Should Know First
To sum up, when you start to learn tenses, there are four basic tenses that you need to study first. Do not continue studying other tenses before you know these well:
The Two Formats of Future Simple
Note: For Future Simple there are two formats that you need to know: Simple Future with Will, and Simple Future with Going To. You need to study both, but if you’re a beginner, don’t worry too much about the differences.
Which of These Four Tenses Should You Learn First?
In my opinion, and I have lots of experience teaching all kinds of different students, it doesn’t matter which of the four you start learning first. If you get confused about whether or not to use an s at the end of the verb, I don’t recommend you start with Present Simple. Past Simple or Future Simple may be easier for you to learn first.
A good way to start is also with Present Simple and the verb Be. This verb is different from other verbs in Present Simple, so you need to learn it separately. It is used in lots of simple sentences, such as: I’m at the supermarket, He’s my brother, and Are they from France?
Present Progressive (or Continuous) for the Future
Once you’ve mastered these, then there is one additional bit of knowledge that you need to learn, and that is that Present Progressive (or Continuous) can be used for the future. Everything stays the same, but you can use this tense also to talk about tomorrow or next month.
Don’t forget to learn Past Simple for the verb Be as well. It’s different from other verbs in past simple. You don’t need to use did, for example. It is used a lot in simple sentences such as these: Where were you yesterday?, Elsa was my best friend in school, and They were in Paris last summer.
After Basic Tenses, what do I do now?
The next step is to master tenses that are more advanced.
Let’s start with a little table again:
|Past when you are in the middle of something||I was ice skating yesterday afternoon at 2 pm.||Past Progressive (Continuous)|
|Future when you are certain something will happen||The plane will be landing in an hour.||Future Progressive (Continuous)|
|Talk about the past with a connection to now||I haven’t had breakfast yet.||Present Perfect|
Which Should You Learn First?
Again, between these three more “intermediate” tenses, does it matter which one you learn first?
No, in my opinion it doesn’t matter. You can start with any of the three, and the order in which you learn them is not important.
So to sum up, here are the three tenses you should learn at this stage:
Again, make sure you know how to use these really well before you proceed to advanced tenses.
Now we’ll just dot the i’s and cross the t’s to make your tenses perfect.
What other complications can we think of?
The tenses that are left are:
Past Perfect Progressive (Continuous)
Future Perfect Progressive (Continuous)
Future with Going To in the Past
Here is a table that shows you when to use them:
|Past before the past||Jan had worked as a waiter before college.||Past Perfect|
|Talk about the past with a connection to now and it’s still in the middle of the action or with visible result||Have you been crying?||Present Perfect Progressive (Continuous)|
|Past before the past when someone was in the middle of doing something||Cynthia had been running for an hour when it started to rain.||Past Perfect Progressive (Continuous)|
|Future after you have done something||By tonight I will have worked eight hours.||Future Perfect|
|Future after you have been doing something (and are still in the middle of it)||Counting from next summer, Sasha will have been studying English for three years.||Future Perfect Progressive (Continuous)|
|Talks about when someone intended to do something in the past (things should have been done already)||I was going to write those emails soon.||Future with Going To in the Past|
Which Advanced Tense should you start with?
I think that Past Perfect is important and not too difficult, so I suggest you learn that first.
The rest of the table is also in a convenient order for you to learn, so you could just follow the order of the table.
Future with Going to in the Past is not very essential for you to be able to use, so you can leave that for last. (It’s not difficult to learn.)
Ooops, I don’t have a lesson for Future with going to in the past, so I’ll have to write that soon!
Quizzes with Mixed Tenses
If you’d like to test your knowledge by doing some quizzes, here are a few with mixed tenses:
And many more on Englishwithasmile.net.
So now you know all the tenses. What now?
And now for the bad news:
If you’ve mastered these tenses, big applause! That’s great. You’re on your way to getting perfect English.
Now you can make a new to-do list.
Here are some more things that you really need to study too.
Yup, there’s no smoke without a fire. Where there is an active there is also a passive.
Not everything is certain in life, so that’s why we have can, may, able to, could, might, should, need, must and have to.
If I give you three kilos for ten, will you take six pounds for twenty? Will you? Would you?
Best of luck learning your tenses. If you have any questions, I’m here to try to answer them.