Category Archives:Grammar

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.

The 5 W’s (and How)

Learning how to use the 5 W’s (Who, What, When, Where, Why) and How is crucial to learning to speak English naturally.


Question: Who is speaking?
Long Answer: Kim is speaking.
Short Answer: Kim is.
Notice the word order: Subject + Verb


Question: Who moved my books?
Long Answer: Kim moved your books.
Short Answer: Kim did.
Notice the word order: Subject + Verb + Object


Question: Who moved my books over there?
Long Answer: Kim moved your books over there.
Short Answer: Kim did.
Notice the word order: Subject + Verb + Object + Additional Information (over there)


Question:  What is that?
Long Answer:  It is a cup. (It’s a cup.)
Long Answer: That is a cup. (That’s a cup.)
Short Answer: A cup.


Question:  What are those?
Long Answer: Those are my car keys.
Short Answer: My car keys.


Question:  When did you graduate?
Long Answer: I graduated two years ago.
Short Answer: Two years ago.


Question:  Where did you buy your bookbag?
Long Answer: I bought it at the mall.
Short Answer: At the mall.


Question:  Why did you buy this house?
Long Answer: I bought it because it is beautiful.
Short Answer: Because it is beautiful.


Question: How was the movie?
Long Answer: It was a lot of fun.
Short Answer: Fun.
(Please note that giving a short answer to a “how” question can be perceived as rude in some circumstances.)

A Word About Articles

To non-native speakers, words like “a,” “an,” and “the” may seem largely insignificant.  However, these words are extremely important in the English language.  They serve two main purposes.  1) They help us to express whether a noun is singular or plural and 2) They give indications as to whether or not the specified noun is one that has been previously identified between the speakers.


Native English speakers “feel” articles.  We do not think about them. For us, articles are an inherent part of many nouns.  Consider the following.  If you ask the same question to a native English speaker and a non-native English speaker, there is a very strong chance that the outcome could be something like this:


What is this?
Native speaker: a watch
Non-native speaker: watch


What is this?
Native speaker: That is a watch.
Non-native speaker: This watch.


When the non-native speaker responds by saying only “watch,” the word automatically feels like a verb rather than a noun.  For instance, “Watch the dog play with his ball.  (He is very funny.)” Using the short word “a” automatically lets the listener know that the speaker is referring to a noun.


For native speakers, the notion of measurement is built into each noun.  We absolutely feel whether or not a noun is singular or plural.  A very young child of about 2 or 3 years of age will already have a feel for the differences between a piece of candy, some candy, and candy (which would be considered incorrect in most contexts.)


And so, by the time that child goes to school at age 5 or 6, he will already have a feel for using articles (a, an, and the) and his sentences, though short, will have already started to feel natural. Articles are not officially taught to native English speakers.  Instead, we are indirectly taught to feel articles with each new noun that we learn.


Native English speakers will go on to learn things like spelling and reading in their first years of school. And non-native English speakers mimic the way we learn.  So, the non-native speakers also go on to learn spelling, reading, and vocabulary in their first years of study.  But, the differences between the two types of language learners will have already begun.


Non-native speakers in these situations will go on to learn to speak English without the foundation of articles.  This leads to numerous problems in grammar and with sentence structure that cannot be detailed briefly in this article.  The problems become compounded until the speaker has developed his/her own way of speaking English.


And because native English speakers understand the non-native speakers, we often times will not correct a learner who makes mistakes.  The longer the speaker uses their individualized version of English, the more it feels natural to them; and the more they grow to accept their individualized version of English as natural.


The speaker goes on to build vocabulary and to memorize more grammatical points, building on a fragmented language foundation. The more advanced the individual’s knowledge of English grammar becomes, the more pronounced the unnatural aspects of the speaker’s language skills become.


Learning articles does not solve all problems for English language learners.  But it does give language learners the foundation that they need to build natural and native-like language skills.  Memorizing English grammar does not, alone, make one a good English speaker.  To truly hone one’s skills, one should begin to develop a “feel” for the language as soon as possible. And for English this means mastering articles.


Memorizing articles is not nearly enough.  If your native language does not use articles, you will need to dedicate yourself to absolutely mastering English articles in order to develop a natural feel with your own English language skills.  To give you an idea of what to expect, our students generally spend about 3 months building their skills in this area. They build other grammar skills, simultaneously. But we have seen the best results when students who are unfamiliar with articles dedicate a minimum of 12 weeks to learning them.

Answering Questions In English

This is an important topic.


Knowing how to answer questions is a crucial part of communicating in any language.  And yet, many students come to us with extensive vocabulary and advanced knowledge of English grammar, but with very little knowledge of how to use these things effectively when communicating. And so, we find that many of our newer clients have difficulty answering basic questions in English.


Instead of answering questions, they provide excessive information about a topic, but they often will never get around to actually answering the question.  In these instances, the student is often times attempting to demonstrative his ability in the English language.  He is trying to let the other person know “I speak your language – I speak English.”


But in a healthy 2-sided conversation, the objective is normally to participate in a “give and take” of information.  One person speaks, the other person responds.  And many times the person responding is expected to, at least in some way, address the first speaker’s contribution to the conversation.


Healthy 2-sided conversations require participation from both individuals.  So, if you are speaking for the primary purpose of demonstrating your personal knowledge of English, you could be missing out on a great opportunity to connect with other speakers.  Conversations can easily come to an end when one participant feels that his contribution to the conversation is not appreciated by the other party.


And what of formal situations?  In the workplace and on formal exams, a great deal of communication takes place for the purpose of extracting information.  In other words, if you are learning English for educational purposes or for work, you will have to be able to communicate clearly in order to be effective. Simply sharing random details with your boss when he asks you a specific question, will not suffice.  Neither will it be acceptable to ramble on about the knowledge in your head when your professor asks you a specific exam question.  Your boss, or your professor will want you to answer their specific questions.


At the beginning of your English learning journey, communicating in a way that informs the listener that “you speak the language” is wonderful.  Doing so opens the door for friendships, language partners, networking opportunities, opportunities to socialize, and more.  The beginning of your language journey is a great time to practice using anything and everything that you have learned in a conversation.  Whether you answer the question or not is not so important in these stages.  What is most important at these times is that you are communicating.


But, as your journey progresses, it will be beneficial to begin refining your skills.  Knowing how to answer basic questions in English will make you a much more effective English communicator.  And remember that communicating involves listening as well as speaking.  If you want to communicate effectively, especially when it comes to answering questions, you have to be able to address the actual question that is being asked.


To learn more, read our article on The 5 W’s (and How).