12 Verb Tenses

12 Verb Tenses

Did you know that the English language has a total of 12 verb tenses?  How many verb tenses do you use when you speak English?


In our experience, many students only speak English with 3-6 verb tenses.  Being restricted in this way creates a great deal of confusion when the speaker attempts to communicate in English.  Not only is there a different way to translate each verb tense, but there is a specific “feel” for each tense.  There are subtle nuances being relayed in each tense.  So, using verbs incorrectly is not only confusing, but it makes your English “feel” very unnatural.



Many times native speakers will favor being polite over repeatedly correcting a non-native speaker. If native speakers understand what you are saying, most of the time we will not correct you.  This can lead to a false sense of the English language for many students.  Students are not made aware that they are making errors, and they start to think that their English is correct.  This is especially true with English verbs.


When it comes to English verbs, students must learn the correct construction for all 12 tenses.  They also must understand the meaning of each tense; the feeling, the nuances of each tense.  And for more advanced students, they must learn how to use each verb tense with other English components.


Consider the following situation:
QUESTION: I wanted to invite you to dinner.  Why didn’t you answer the phone when I called you earlier?


A common mistake: I went to sleep. / I went to the store. / I went to my friend’s house. (Using the simple past tense followed by a prepositional phrase is incorrect.)


A correct option #1: I was asleep. / I was busy. / I was tired. (Using the simple past tense followed by an adjective is correct.)


A correct option #2: I was sleeping. / I was resting. / I was watching television. / I was reading. (Using the past continuous tense here is a good option.)


A correct option #3: I had had a long day at work and I went to bed early. / I had turned my cell phone off during my meeting and I forgot to turn it back on, afterwards.  (The past perfect tense coupled with the simple past tense also works very well.)


The act of memorizing the 12 verb tenses does not automatically guarantee that the speaker uses those tenses correctly.  And using the tenses correctly does not necessarily mean that the speaker is using the tenses naturally.  We have found that it is necessary for students to repeat the verb constructions numerous times before they form the verb tenses correctly.  And it takes even more repetition before the speaker beings to use the tenses naturally.


Again, consider the following: It is quite common to hear a student attempting to utilize the present continuous tense in the following manner:


Incorrect: I am go to the store.
But, remember that the present continuous tense requires: the verb “to be” + a verb with “ing”


Correct: I am going to the store.


Here are our tips for mastering English verb tenses:

  1. Memorize a single verb tense and its construction.
  2. Learn the meaning that verbs take on when they are conjugated into the specific verb tense.
  3. Understand the nuances in meaning that are implied, or somehow understood by native speakers, with the specific verb tense.
  4. Understand the situations in which the specific verb tense should and should not be used.
  5. Understand the other components (adjectives, adverbs, prepositional phrases, etc.) that often accompany the specific verb tense in order to form sentences naturally in English. Please be aware that there can be a difference between “correct” English and “natural” English.
  6. Once you have a FULL understanding of a single verb tense, move on to the next verb tense.  Make sure you study and research a single verb tense at a time.
  7. Resist the urge to compare and contrast several verb tenses until you have a thorough understanding of each of the verb tenses that you want to compare and contrast.

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