Language: Twelve English tenses and a Partridge…

Sounds like the end of that Christmas song; the one with the Partridge, yet English has twelve, yes 12 distinct tenses.

In essence they are quite simple, with 3 temporal periods (Past, Present and Future), doing a great job of lumping together 4 different temporal meanings.

However, there is some complexity! The ‘present’ particularly complicates things, since the present is so fleeting or arguable non-existent! The 4 temporal meanings in each period mostly allow us the opportunity to put events in chronological order in a continuous sentence, and without adding extra words.

There are over simplifications may not appear to fit with a particular tense, but with gentle massaging and some mental gymnastics, a round peg can be squeezed through a square hole; after all, language is the oral putty to sculpt ideas in others’ minds.

Using the immortal words of Lizzy Barrett- Browning;

O English,
How complicated is thee?
Let me count the ways…

I think that’s how it goes.

The Simple Tenses.

Past, Present and Future Simple tenses are rooted in a moment;

I walked I walk I will walk

They refer to a moment, describing neither a beginning nor end and are the bare minimal you need to know for communication. The present tense, I walk is particularly vague, and seldom used in this sense, more commonly referring to an habitual action.

The remaining tenses add depth, allowing us to temporally place events relative to each other, and whether an act is currently happening finished or on-going.

Continuous Tenses.

As suggested by the name, these are actions that started at some point, continued for a period of time, and do not define a finishing time.

I was walking I am walking I will be walking

They all contain a conjugated ‘to be’ with a present continuous verb, the ‘-ing’ form.

In the past tense, you began somewhere in the past, and may have finished in the past, but may also still be doing the action.

In the present tense, you must have begun at some point in the past, whether minutes or days ago, are doing the action, and will continue to do the action into the future – which may be seconds, minutes or years!

In the future tense, you may have started in the past, or have started in the present moment, or will start in the future, but you most definitely will be doing the action for a period of time in the future.

This tenses leaves many unanswered questions, which can be filled in with other contextual words like yesterday, this morning, and next year.

Perfect Tenses.

These are for completed actions. When the action began isn’t stated, but the action is 100% true.

I had walked I have walked I will have walked

They all use a conjugation of ‘to have’ followed by the past participle (-ed) of the action verb.

In the past tense, the action began and was completed in the past.

In the present, the action began in the past, and at the moment of speaking, is 100% true. I have walked 10 miles.

In the future, the action may begin in the past, the present, or also in the future, but at some point will become true and completed – isn’t that just perfect?

So we’re covered 9 tenses so far! Three SIMPLE tenses that encapsulate a moment; three CONTINUOUS, with ambiguous starts and ends; and three PERFECT, true tenses wherein the action is definitely ended.

‘Moment’ events; ‘Undefined start/finish’ events and ‘Finished’ events – that leaves only… ‘Started’ events. Events that definitely began in the past, and have an unclear end!

Perfect Continuous.

These are events that are both true, since they began in the past; and are continuous – they are still happening in the present moment or into the future

I had been walking I have been walking I will have been walking

They use a conjugated ‘to have’, the past participle of ‘to be’, “been”, combined with a present continuous verb, a perfect combination of the previous two tenses – has English ever been more simple?

Past: An action that began in the past, and ended at a point in the past.

Present: An action that began in the past, and is true at this moment, and will continue.

Future: An action will have begun in the ‘past’, and will be continuing in the future. (Here the past is relative to the ‘continuing in the future’, so may have start tomorrow morning, but will definitely at a certain point).


As mentioned at the start, with some mental gymnastics, nearly all sentences can be thought of in the aboves terms, by either thinking conceptually, or relativistically.

The inherent ambiguity in the tenses needs removing with time phrases, this morning, next week, last year. These deeper, compound tenses are normally only used in conjunction with other tenses – why complicate things unnecessarily? But together they give a far richer image, relating events to each other and relate the experience far more realistically.


All Simple Past

I walked for several days. That day I walked several miles. Then I saw it.

A monkey smoked a joint.

All Past Tenses

I had been walking for several days (Perfect Continuous) and that day had walked several miles (Perfect) when I saw it (Simple).

A monkey was smoking a joint (Continuous).

All Simple Present

I walk for days, and walk 3 miles more. Now my elbows shake!

All Present Tenses

I have been walking for days (Perfect Continuous), I have walked 3 miles today (Perfect), and now my elbows are shaking (Continuous)!

All Simple Future

Next month, I will hike some Aztec ruins. I will hike for 3 weeks, and I will climb 1708ft in order to find the brass monkey nuts. Then I will rest.

All Future Tenses

Next month I will be hiking some Aztec Ruins (Continuous). I will have been hiking for 3 weeks (Perfect Continuous), I will have climbed (Perfect) 1708 ft in order to find the brass monkey nuts. Then I will rest (Simple)!

By J.Molkenthin

James Molkenthin is an enthusiastic and energetic British Designer, with a background in Graphics, Website and Product Design.