Back to basics: all the English tenses

English tenses

Pursuing one of my other ventures, tutoring English, I’ve decided to combine my copywriting and teaching experience to produce a few simple English grammar guides. These guides are designed for foreign learners of English, but I wanted to share the first thing I produced, a tenses infographic, to discuss how the different English tenses work. The tenses are basic, instinctive stuff for native English speakers, but ours is a complex language.English rarely sticks to its own rules, and is full of contradictions. This makes it interesting to manipulate for writing, even more interesting to teach, and worthy of continual study even as a native speaker.

We can strictly say that English only has two tenses, past and non-past. The future tense in English is, essentially, manipulated out of the present. This makes the grammar for the tenses ultimately more complex than a language with three distinct tenses, past, present and future (such as Russian).

Though we only have the past and non-past to deal with, we’ve ended up with 12 basic ways of expressing points of time, which can be placed on a timeline as follows (here’s the infographic!):

English tenses

Click the image to see it full size.

In case that’s not clear, the dark areas represent an event occurring within the tense. So the Present Perfect concerns an event that started in the past, but finished or has relevance in the present. The Future Perfect Continuous highlights a point during an event that is still happening in the future (emphasising duration). For more detailed explanations and examples, see the original post on my teaching site.

English speakers should be able to use all these effectively, often without knowing the rules for each tense. And you may look at the timeline and think of a few exceptions (for instance, it’s often perfectly acceptable to use the past simple at the point where the past perfect is most appropriate). But the reason I’ve posted this here is to draw attention to the fact that English is complicated, and we have rules to express different specific meanings.

In business, clear language is always desirable. Going back to the basics of English grammar to fully understand why the rules exist is a good way to get a grasp on simpler, more effective English.

Also I wanted to show off my pretty picture. If you’re after more similar pictures, keep an eye on my teaching site for the upcoming book, or check out my copywriting infographics post.

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