The Answer to Why there are so many Verb Tenses in English

Updated: Jul 22, 2020

The English language has an extreme number of twelve Verb Tenses. I don’t think there is a single learner who wouldn’t have questioned “WHY?” with a palm full of hair. And no, the answer is not to make your life miserable, or to awaken your desire to throw all English books on fire. On the contrary! Using the Verb Tenses makes your English colourful, and enables you to express yourself precisely.

The key to English Verb Tenses

Verb Tenses are used for expressing when the action happens – in the present, past or future. Different languages have different concept of time. The English verb tenses can give a lot of background information about the happenings. They show WHEN and HOW the described action happens. Let me give you some examples.

Let’s take two Present tenses, Simple Present and Present Continuous. Look at these simple sentences:

Simple Present:

He works at the hospital.

My friends live in Ireland.

Present Continuous:

He is working at the hospital.

My friends are living in Ireland.

What background information did you get simply from the Verb Tenses?

He works at the hospital.

WHEN: “always” This is his permanent job.

HOW: regularly. This is a “habit” which he repeats.

He is working at the hospital.

WHEN: depending on the context, either he is there right now or it is a temporary position and he is going to change job.

HOW: temporarily. He is not going to stay there forever.

My friends live in Ireland.

WHEN: “always” They are probably Irish.

HOW: permanently. They are not planning to move.

My friends are living in Ireland.

WHEN: in this period of time.

HOW: temporarily. Probably they were not born in Ireland and they are not going to stay there forever.

Do you see the differences in the background information I give just by changing the verb tenses?

Choosing the “correct” verb tense can help you express yourself more effectively, it makes your language more colourful and generally more enjoyable. For instance, if you told me that you lived on the moon, I’d believe you were from space and would ask you to tell me how it is to be an alien. But if you told me that you were living on the moon, I’d think you went on a trip and would ask you when you were coming back to Earth. Do you see how my approach to what you told me differs? My questions are different because the verb tense you chose gave me different background information.

How to use the English Verb Tenses successfully

Native speakers use the verb tenses “naturally”. They are not thinking about which one to pick for a certain situation. But as a learner of English, you have to think about many things when you speak: how to put this sentence together, what words to use, etc. These usually eat up your energy and the time you can spend mute.

So how could you also consider which verb tense to use? Well, like everything else, it takes practice. But firstly, you might want to try implementing the various verb tenses into your writing. When you write a short paragraph, nobody is waiting for you to finally finish your sentence, so you have the time to think and consider which tense would express what you want to say the best.

Another thing you can start doing today to improve your English grammar and usage of Verb Tenses is to learn about the background information each tense carries. For example, for successfully using Simple Present and Present Continuous, you need to keep only one thing in your mind: Am I talking about a habit or not. If it’s not a habit, then it doesn’t repeat, so you may use Present Continuous. Like in our examples: If he doesn’t work at the hospital “all the time” or my friends don’t live in Ireland “all the time”, then it’s not their “habit”. Hence you’d say: He is working at the hospital. My friends are living in Ireland.

Are you interested in improving the way you use the English Verb Tenses?

Check out our upcoming course Verb Tenses Explained, where you can learn all about how the English Verb Tenses work and how you can use them effectively.

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