Time travelling with the tenses

It’s all about time.

Things can happen in the past, the present, or the future. It’s all about time.  With tenses, we can verbally time travel to an event, and share it with others. Let’s take a trip.

There are twelve basic tenses.  Have a look at the table so you can see their use in action.

Simple Present Simple Past Simple Future
The spa opens every day. Last night, the restaurant opened late. The new gift shop will open later this year.
Present Continuous Past Continuous Future Continuous
We are serving grilled salmon as our special fish entree. We were serving roast beef last night. We will be serving prime rib soon.
Present Perfect Past Perfect Future Perfect
I have worked in the hospitality industry for twenty years. I had worked at The Four Seasons hotel during my university co-op. I will have worked over 70 hours by the end of the week!
Present Perfect Continuous Past Perfect Continuous Future Perfect Continuous
The hotel has been open since 1901. The hotel had been closed for three years because of a fire. In September, I will have been working at the hotel for three years.

While all tenses have specific purposes, you don’t necessarily need to get too “tense” about the tenses.  In English, you can get away with focusing on a few of the key tenses while you are still learning the language, and revisit the others when you become a little more fluent.

Here are the top five to master:

  1. Past tense
  2. Present tense
  3. Present Continuous tense
  4. Future tense
  5. Present Perfect tense

Most of our communication with each other is centred around the past, which is why it is in the number one position.  During small talk, when describing an experience, or when talking about a movie, the simple past is enough to bring the listener with you on your voyage through time.

When I was training IELTS students, they had a hard time believing me when I said “focus on the simple past” because they felt they needed to use more complex language during their oral testing.  This level is simply not necessary as the way to talk about something that happened is by using the simple past!  Most questions on IELTS tests are open ended and ask you to “describe where you lived” or “tell me about…”  and so on.

The same could be said in a professional hotel environment.  Although it will sound more “fancy” to say, ‘The hotel has been open since 1901′, it is quite acceptable (and shares the same information) to say, ‘The hotel opened in 1901.’

It’s my opinion that learners should focus on mastering the simple tenses while they are starting out to ensure their messages are being properly received.  This will aid in clear communication, and make them sound more fluent.  Quite honestly, an ESL learner will probably have better understanding of the tenses than a native speaker because a native speaker uses them without thinking, it comes naturally through exposure and practice.  Most won’t even know what the “Future Perfect Continuous” is!

Can you remember which tenses end with -ed and which end with -ing?  Make a guess and then click on the “+” hot spot to get the answer.

By James

I'm the creator of the 3A Hospitality English Program and Co-Founder of 3Aenglish.com. I lived and taught in China for a few years and am currently back in BC, Canada. Thanks for joining us here, I hope we can learn some cool new things together!