How to choose the right tense in English
English has a lot of tenses, 12 to be precise.
Not only that, but certain tenses sound similar to each other (have done or have been doing? asked or have asked?), which makes it tricky to choose the right tense.
To help you out, we’ve compared and contrasted the most common tenses to help you avoid typical mistakes.
Click on the links below for a detailed tense comparison, key signal words and exercises where you can practise the difference.
Simple present expresses repeated actions; present progressive expresses actions that are currently in progress at the moment of speaking.
- I normally drive to work but today I’m taking the bus.
Simple present expresses facts and repeated actions in the present; present perfect progressive tells us how long an action has been ongoing up to now.
- I live in London. I have been living here for 3 years.
Present perfect simple tells us whether or not something happened up to now; present perfect progressive tells us how long an action has been ongoing up to now.
- I have already done my homework.
- I have been doing my homework for two hours.
Simple past introduces the action of a story; past progressive expresses the background situation that was already in progress.
- I was doing my homework when my friends came to see me.
Simple past tells us when an action happened and is used with specific time markers; present perfect simple only tells us whether or not an action occurred up to now.
- He travelled to New York last week.
- I have travelled to New York several times.
- we don’t know when
Simple past expresses sequential past actions that happened one after another; past perfect looks further back and indicates what happened before an action in the simple past.
- The teacher corrected the tests that we had written.
There are four present tenses in English each with a different function.
- I am studying for a test. I have been studying for an hour, but I don’t remember what I have learned.
There are four past tenses in English and each one has a different purpose.
- I was studying for a test when a friend I had met at the summer camp phoned me.
There are four future tenses in English grammar. Some are interchangeable and some aren’t.
- The train leaves in ten minutes. We will have to hurry up or we are going to miss the train.