Much like the three Christmas spirits from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, verbs come in three tenses: past, present, and future. These are called the simple tenses, and they’re fairly straight forward.
What’s past is past.
Past tense verbs show action that happened, obviously, in the past.
My daughter played football last spring.
We skated on the frozen pond last weekend.
The time is now.
Present tense verbs tell us what’s happening now.
My daughter plays football.
We skate on the frozen pond.
Tomorrow is another day.
Future tense verbs show us what is going to happen in the future.
My daughter will play football.
We will skate on the frozen pond.
Where things start to get dicey.
There’s something called “perfect tenses,” and they come in present perfect, past perfect, and future perfect tense. They are all formed with helping verbs (e.g., have, has, had, will, shall) and the past participles of the verb. Past participles are simply one of four principal parts of a verb, which is discussed in another article.
Past perfect tense
These verbs show an action that came directly before another action in the past. For example:
My daughter had played football.
We had skated on the frozen pond before they came.
Present perfect tense
Present perfect tense tells us what happened recently or some indefinite time in the past.
My daughter has played football.
We have skated on the frozen pond.
Future perfect tense
These show us what will happen before some other future action takes place. Future perfect tense uses “will have” and “shall have.”
By noon today, my daughter will have played football.
By tomorrow evening, we will have skated on the frozen pond.
Progressive forms show actions in progress.
Simple and perfect verb tenses are also used in forming a progressive verb form that shows us what’s taking place at the moment or is continuing. Simply add one of the forms of “to be” with the present participle that ends in –ing.
My daughter is playing football. (present progressive)
My daughter was playing football. (past progressive)
We are skating on the frozen pond. (present progressive)
We have been skating on the frozen pond. (past progressive)
Simple, perfect, and progressive. Clear as mud.
Interested in other posts from our "What is..." series?
- What is a Cliché? And Why Should You Avoid Them?
- What are the Different Types of Verbs?
- What are Overused Words?
- What is POV? And How Do You Choose the Best POV for Your Story
- What is a Clause?