The “Quick and Dirty” Explanation of the English Tenses

How do I Recognize Which Tense to Use?

It happens quite often that someone will come to me and say: “We’re taking a test on the English tenses.”  “Oh, yeah? Okay, when are you taking it?”


Of course, its really difficult to learn all the tenses within a 24-hour period.  This is similar to when the student has to learn reported speech or the passive voice, and they don’t know how to tell the different tenses apart.  For such emergencies I am usually wonderfully prepared. For those who have to learn all the tenses “by tomorrow”, I have my  “quick and dirtyexplanation! Actually there’s nothing dirty about it. The explanation serves a purpose, but it doesn’t replace regular learning. Despite that, if you go through the following power pack of information, you’ll be on the right track.

Recognize the Tenses by their Key Words

I give students in the 9–10th year tasks highlighting the tenses separately, then I give them tasks highlighting the tenses in pairs.  These pairs are seen together quite frequently.  In the years 9-10, the students start to realize that the time is getting short until graduation.  In the classroom, the work is with mixed tenses.  If the student has deficites, then I would tell them to stay away from the mixed tenses.  Learn the tenses in pairs first!

  • Simple Past together with Present Perfect
  • Simple Past together with Simple Past Progressive
  • Simple Present together with Simple Present Progressive
  • Futur mit Will  / Futur with Going-To  (Plus: Simple Present Progressive)
  • Simple Past together with Past Perfect

The tenses are listed here together with their key words:

  • Simple Past key words: last (night, week, month, year), ago, (Datum wie “1999”), when, yesterday.
  • Present Perfect key words: since/for, ever, never*, already, not yet, just, up to now, so far
  • Simple Past Progressive key words: when, while, suddenly
  • Simple Present Signalwörter: often, every day, never*, sometimes, usually, normally, seldom (selten)
  • Simple Present Progressive key words: right now, at the moment, now, Look!, Listen!, next*, this coming (year, afternoon, week)*
  • Future mit “will” Signalwörter: maybe, perhaps, suppose, think, hope
  • Future mit “going to”: I plan to
  • Simple Present Progressive with future meaning: (accompanied with some specific point in time)
  • Past Perfect key words: before, after


Present Perfect and Simple Past:

As opposed to present perfect, simple past verbs are accompanied with a specific indication of past time.  You use present perfect for actions that started in the past and that reach into present time.  You can use the present perfect form when you’re talking about your experiences: “I have never been to China”.  The adverb of frequence “never” is placed between the helping verb (auxiliary) and the past participle.  That includes the other adverbs,  ever, just, already, always.

Simple Past and Simple Past Progressive

First I’ll explain the sentence pattern.  Compared to present perfect and simple past, the following pair isn’t explained as often in the (German) classroom. The pattern looks like this:

  • I was walking to school when, suddenly, it started to rain.

You have here simple past progressive and simple past together in one sentence. That means two actions in the past, “past action 1” and “past action 2”. The first action was already happening by the time the second action occurred.

Ich war auf dem Weg zur Schule (H1),  als es plötzlich zu regnen anfing (H2).  Die Bildung von Simple Past Progressive: was/were + Verb + ing

It’s important to understand what the sentence is telling you. You have to determine which action was happening first. It won’t be possible to determine by the sentence order alone. Sometimes the main clause and subordinate clause are switched.

Simple Present and Simple Present Progressive

Mr Meyer lives in Switzerland, but he is staying in Hessen at the moment.  He usually makes money on the sale of his books, but he is is making additional money as a speaker at the moment.

At the moment signals the simple present progressive tense.  Key words like usually, often, sometimes, always, every, never indicate that the action takes place regulary.  To conjugate simple present, make sure you stick an -S at the end of the verb for the third person singular.  The word “but” is a conjunction that denotes a change.  Normally Mr. Meyer earns money by the sale of his books, but he’s doing something else at the moment.  The progressive is used to indicate that what he’s doing is of a temporary nature.


Simple Past und Past Perfect

After I had come home, I realized that I had left my German book in the school.

Nachdem ich heim kam, ist mir aufgefallen, dass ich mein Deutsch-Schulbuch in der Schule vergessen habe.

Past Perfect is with the helping verb had and the past participle.  “After” tells about the past that happened before the simple past action.  Past Perfect is very similar to the German Plusquamperfekt.


Future with “will” and Future with “going to”

There’s actions over which you have no influence.  For that you use the future form with “will”.  For instance, since we don’t really have any influence over the weather, we use “will” to talk about future actions.  We “assume” that the weather will be nice.  If you want to make that clear, you can use the key words  “I think”, “probably”, “maybe”, and so on.  The future form with “going to” is for plans and intentions.  These actions have already been thought out and preconceived in advance of them happening.

The simple present progressive form is also used for plans in the future. The key word is an specific indication of future time, otherwise you would think that it’s happening now.   “I’m going to the store” (means I’m going right now). “I’m going to the store tomorrow”(means I’m going tomorrow, not now).


Bonus: Simple Present and Future Perfect

The future perfect form is not really talked about in the (German) classroom, and if it is, it’s done in the upper levels of the preparatory school.  You want to express that something will have happened in the future.  You can use it for travel plans in the future or anniversaries, for example.

By the time the plane arrives in Atlanta, Georgia, we will have been sitting in the plane 10 hours.

By the time April comes, my husband and I will have been marrried 30 years.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

* The confirmation to GDPR is mandatory.

I confirm