Explanation – How To Understand English Tenses

What English Tenses Are

The word “tense” is used to talk about the ways that people change “verbs forms” and “add other verbs” to them to “mean” things about:

1) when they happen, and
2) who or what does them (their subject) or who or what they are done to (their objects)

speak” in the sentence Julia “speaks” English, for example, we “mean” that:

1) this is now (present tense), and
2) the who or what is only one and is someone or something besides you or me (third person singular).

How English tenses work

The most important things to understand about tenses in English are:

1) that they each have one eternal, universal meaning, and
2) we can add them together to mean lots of things at once.

There are six base tenses:

1) the present
2) the past
3) the future
4) the perfect
5) the continuous
6) the passive

The only two of these that we can’t add together with one other are the present and the past. We can combine the rest to mean as many of the things that each of them mean individually as we want at once.

How to use English tenses correctly

The best way to understand how to use English tenses right is to:

1) understand what the tenses really mean always,
2) use them when you want to mean what they mean, and
3) not use them when you don’t want to mean what they mean.

It helps to think of verbs as salads with different overall flavors depending on what ingredients you put in them, and think of the ingredients in verbs as verb meanings and tenses. When you add ingredients to a salad, they stay what they were – tomato stays a tomato, an olive stays an olive , but the overall combinations of tastes in the salad is changed each time we add something new.

In the same way, tense meaning always stay the same, but whatever tenses are included in a verb add a different meaning and change the overall combined meaning of the verb. If we include the continuous in a verb, we ADD that flavor to whatever mix of meanings would be there without it. This doesn’t change the other meanings, and the meaning of the continuous doesn’t change either. It’s just added.

Example I

“I live in Europe.”
“I am living in Europe.”

Verb in the 1st sentence: live
– time meaning: now
– who: any person other than the 3rd person singular (there’s no “s” at the end of the word – it could be the 1st or 2nd singular or plural or 3rd person plural)

Verb in the 2nd sentence: am living
– time meaning 1: now
– time meaning 2: temporary/coming to an end (the true meaning of the continuous)
– who: 1st person singular (am)

The important difference between these two is time meaning 2 in the second verb construction: that the activity of the verb is temporary. I can tell you as a native speaker that this is exactly the difference a native speaker would hear and understand. Both sentences are now but the second sentence has that added layer of time meaning. The lettuce doesn’t disappear when we add the tomatoes.

Example II

“Traditional English learning models had been being used for centuries before better alternatives to them were discovered in the second decade of the 21st century.”

Here we have a much more complex verb, which combines the past, the perfect, the continuous, and the passive to mean everything at once meant by each of them individually. This gives us the past perfect continuous passive, which means that:

1) we are talking about some period in the past (past),
2) the activity of the verb had a result at the moment being talked about (perfect),
3) the activity of the verb was temporary and had an ending sometime after the period being talked about (continuous), and
4) the noun that comes before our verb construction was the object of the action of the verb – it didn’t do the verb in other words, but the verb was done to it (passive).

It is more complex, but the same principle applies. We have added exactly as many tense forms as meaning that we wanted to include in our verb just as you add as many ingredients you want to flavor your salad. Try to do the same in your sentences and in how you understand what other speakers mean by theirs.