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How Do I Choose the Right Verb Tense?

Some languages, like English, mark their verbs to indicate the time at which events that are spoken about
took place. We use a sequence of tenses to indicate how close the action we’re speaking about is to the time
at which we speak.

The Tense Continuum
We can visualize the relationship between the time of action and the time of speaking more clearly if we use a
time line.
Past

Present

Future

Time of Speaking

On this time line, actions that take place at the time of speaking (now) are in present tense (“I write this
handout”), actions that precede the time of speaking (back then) are in past tense (“I looked at articles about
tense and aspect”), and actions that happen after the time of speaking (in the future) are in the future tense
(“I will go to lunch”).
If we put these three sentences written in different tenses together, we have a sequence of tenses. “I will go to
lunch after I write the handout, which I started after I looked at articles about tense and aspect.”

Adding Aspect
All three of these tenses are called “simple tenses”: they express information only about when the actions take
place, not whether or not they are finished or ongoing. Aspect tells us whether an action is ongoing,
completed, or describes a state.
Aspect has nothing to do with time, so we can’t use a time line to explain it. But we can use a diagram to
help explain aspect. There are three aspects: indefinite (simple), complete (perfect), and continuous
(progressive). The combination of tense and aspect in English creates what are often called “compound
tenses.”
Since aspect describes the nature of an action, English speakers use aspect to help mark actions that are
ongoing or complete. The combination of aspect and tense helps us to express when we’ve done something
and whether or not it is complete or continuing.

Present perfect: I have gone. we know which actions have been completed (past perfect). Future perfect progressive: I will have been going. or future.utexas.471. Present progressive: I am going. you have to identify two things: Tense: What is the relationship between the time of speaking and the time of the action. can also be combined to describe actions that were in progress but then ended. Past tense: I wrote the handout. tense and aspect.6222 Last revised by Tamara Smith. Simple present: I go. Progressive Aspect: used to indicate that an action is unfinished. Aspect: What is the condition of the action. Past perfect: I had gone. Undergraduate Writing Center | The University of Texas at Austin | http://uwc. and which actions will have been completed before we start something else (future perfect progressive). Past perfect progressive: I had been writing. The combination of the two concepts. Past progressive: I was going. Simple past: I went. allows us to express actions in sequence. or condition is over. is it simple. event. Past perfect: I had written. is it complete.The Aspect Continuum Simple Aspect: used to indicate the beginning or ending of an action or event. Perfect Aspect: used to indicate that an action.edu | FAC 211 | 512. be complete in the past. or is continuing. however. since they don’t represent unique time frames. The action may. or is it continuing. or when something is habitual or repeated. Future progressive: I will be going. The perfect aspect and the progressive. Past perfect progressive: I had been going. Future perfect: I will have gone. which are happening now (present progressive). Present perfect progressive: I have been going. present. Simple future: I will go. Putting Tense and Aspect Together When you’re trying to choose tenses to use when expressing a sequence of tenses. March 2009 . or when the condition (degree of completion) is not important to the meaning of the sentence.