Verb Tense: how to say when we mean Part I


Today I’m going to continue my discussion of verbs—those wonderful little words of action—by discussing verb tense and the “expansion” of verb forms. Warning: at a point later on in this post, you will see things that look like math. Do not be alarmed. It is still writing—still grammar. If you *like* math, then you’re all set. If you don’t like math, just hold on. It’s worth it. Trust me.

So. In English, unlike in, say, romance languages (Spanish and French, for example), we have only 2 tenses: past and present.

“But wait!” you say. “I speak about the future all the time, too!”

Yes. We have the present, present progressive, past, past progressive, present perfect, past perfect, present perfect progressive, past perfect progressive, future, and future perfect.


But in terms of grammar, in terms of changing the spelling of a word to denote a change in tense, we only have 2 tenses. Everything else we want to say—all the other times we want to use—are created using helping verbs and what’s called “the verb expansion rule.”[1]


First, every verb has 5 verb forms—five different spellings:


Regular Irregular
Base form (present tense) Laugh Eat
-s form (present, 3rd person, singular) Laughs Eats
-ed form (past tense) Laughed Ate
-ing form (present participle) Laughing Eating
-en form (past participle) Laughed Eaten

From these 5 forms, we can make every tense we want in English, with a little help.

To make our verb tenses, we combine auxiliary verbs (helping verbs) with the main verb. The two helping verbs we use are “be” and “have.”

For example (and these are all ACTIVE VOICE; we’ll discuss passive later):

  1. The man has eaten.
  2. The students will be eating.
  3. I eat every day.
  4. He ate this morning.
  5. My cousin eats nothing but potatoes.
  6. We should eat more veggies.
  7. They are eating fewer sweets.
  8. We were eating when the phone call came.
  9. We may eat at Joe’s.
  10. He had eaten all my chocolate.
  11. I could have eaten all of it.
  12. We have been eating lunch together for weeks.

Whew! A lot of different ways to express when we eat! But grammarians represent all of these possibilities with a single rule:

 T (M) (have + -en) (be + -ing) MV

 Everything in parenthesis is optional. So there are two required parts of any verb, grammatically speaking: the Tense (T) and the Main Verb (MV).

In sentences 2, 3, and 4, we see these two components represented in one verb: “eat,” “ate,” and “eats.” In 2 and 4, the Tense is present, and in 3, the Tense is past.

In 1, 7, 8, 10, and 12, “have” and “be” are used. You’ll notice, every time a form of “have” is used, it is followed by the “-en” form of a verb. Every time a form of “be” is used, it is followed by the “-ing” form of a verb.

So the verb strings for 1, 7, 8, 10, and 12 would look like this:


1. Past + have + -en + eat: have eaten

7. Present + be + -ing + eat: am/is eating

8. Past + be + -ing + eat: was/were eating

10. Past + have + -en + eat: had eaten

12. Present + have + -en + be + -ing + eat: have been eating


But what about 2, 6, 9, and 11? The “will” and “should” and “may” and “could”? These are called “modals,” because they express the “mood” of the verb. (We’ll do a whole post on mood at some point. Simply put, it refers to the manner in which a verb is expressed: as a fact, desire, possibility, or command.) We use modals particularly to express what will or might happen in the future.

There are six modals in English. Four have both “present,” will, shall, can, and may, and “past,” would, should, could and might. Two have no past form: ought to and must.

So, now, the remaining sentences can be expressed as a verb string:


2. Present + will + be + -ing + eat: will be eating

6. Past+ shall + eat: should eat

9. Present + may + eat: may eat

11. Past + can + have + -en + eat: could have eaten.


So, there you have it. All of our ACTIVE VOICE verbs in our verb strings. From the formula above, you can make any active voice verb happen in any tense. This is why you can end up with a sentence like this: Julie had had this idea before! (Past + have + -en + have).

Feel free to try a few of your own in the comments and we’ll talk about them! Create the verb you want and then give its verb formula, or create a formula and see what verb you get out of it!

Two weeks from now I’ll discuss how we change this verb string to account for PASSIVE VOICE!


[1] I will be referring throughout to the very useful grammar textbook (NOT a grammar usage guide, but a textbook discussing the English language) Understanding English Grammar by Martha Kolln and Robert Funk, 9th edition, New York: Pearson, 2012. Chapters 4 and 5.


4 comments to Verb Tense: how to say when we mean Part I

  • quillet

    I love this stuff, thank you! The sad thing is, I learned much of what I know about grammar in foreign language classes, and very little of it in English classes. I might never have learned the names of the tenses if I hadn’t taken French, nor the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs if I hadn’t taken German. It’s rather sad. English grammar is so incredibly rich, yet so rarely taught. 🙁

    Anyway, when I saw that list of tenses (or verb expansions?) in your fourth paragraph, I couldn’t resist trying it out. Here goes…

    present: I eat
    present progressive: I am eating
    past: I ate
    past progressive: I was eating
    present perfect: I have eaten
    past perfect: I had eaten
    present perfect progressive: I have been eating
    past perfect progressive: I had been eating
    future: I will eat
    future perfect: I will have eaten

    Um, did I get those right? Some of them really had me scratching my head! 😀

  • Razziecat

    I must have absorbed a lot of this waaaay back in elementary school and high school, because I generally know which form of a verb I need. However, I can never remember the correct “names” such as present perfect, but I “knows it when I sees it!” ;D

  • Razzie, knowing language is not the same as knowing about language. Most people know what form of the verb they are after even if they may not have been taught the name for it. It’s because of how we learn language, organically from input and the environment rather than in a classroom.

    quillet, that looks correct.

    We don’t generally teach these things in standard English classes because you don’t have to know them to speak good English. They come up a lot in foreign language classes because we need a different l;earning method for those, and also because adults are actually better than kids at learning and applying abstract rules.

    It’s often said that English (among other languages), actually has past and non-past verb forms, because the future tense auxiliary verbs can’t be sensibly applied to the basic past tense form.

  • I now feel a perverse urge to use a phrase like “I would have been going to”. 😀