How many tenses do I really need to learn?

by Aug 24, 20210 comments

basic english tenses

In the English language, verbs come in three tenses: past, present, and future. Learners wanting to improve their English need to be able to use the past tense to describe things that have already happened. The present tense is used to describe things that are happening right now or things that are continuous. The future tense describes things that have not happened yet.

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We’ll start with the simple tenses. These are the first tenses you will have learned on your English course. Simple tenses usually refer to a single action. In general, simple tenses express facts and situations that existed in the past, exist in the present, or will exist in the future.

  • Simple present: I cook dinner every day.
  • Simple past: I cooked spaghetti yesterday.
  • Simple future: I will cook dinner later.

The table below summaries the correct use of verb tenses which most English courses will teach:

Simple Present Simple Past Simple Future
cook nearly every day. Last night, I cooked a meal. will cook as much as I can this week.
Present Continuous Past Continuous Future Continuous
am cooking at the moment. I was cooking turkey last night. I will be cooking dinner soon.
Present Perfect Past Perfect Future Perfect

have cooked so much I can’t eat any more.

had cooked at least 50 different dishes by the time I was fifteen.

I will have cooked at least 300 dishes by the end of the year.
Present Perfect Continuous Past Perfect Continuous Future Perfect Continuous
have been cooking since I was ten years old. I had been cooking for at least a year before my sister learned to cook. will have been cooking for at least four hours before dinner tonight.


The above table will help English language students ranging from beginners to advanced learners, even more specialist students taking Business English courses or English for academic purposes such as TOIEC, TOEFL and IELTS.

For English language learners who simply wish to communicate confidently in English, there is no good reason to master every possible verb tense in English. In fact, for the purposes of academic writing, 3 tenses — present simple, past simple, and present perfect — are sufficient.

Although a lot of English courses will try to teach you all of the above, three tenses account for around 98% of tensed verbs in published texts. To improve your English, you will also need to learn the present continuous and you will be ready to communicate in a wide range of everyday situations, including Business English.

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