The basic tenses are past, present, and future, but English has a lot more than three tenses—by some counts, it has more than thirty. We do not have just I speak, I spoke, and / will speak, but the present perfect – I have spoken, the past perfect I had spoken, and the future perfect I will have spoken. These tenses also have progressive forms: I was speaking, I am speaking, I will be speaking, I have been speaking, I had been speaking, and I shall (or will) have been speaking.
Some tenses have a special emphatic form: I do speak English, I did speak to him. Needless to mention about various combinations with auxiliary verbs, such as I was going to speak, I would be speaking, I would have been going to speak, and so on.
Native speakers have little problem with the tenses, but English learners find them challenging, especially the progressive forms. They need to learn they their proper use and to be able to do so they need to make a distinction not only between the grammatical forms but meanings as well, i.e. they should learn that ‘She cried when he appeared’ and ‘She was crying when he appeared’ do not mean the same thing. They need to understand the function of auxiliary verbs—be, have, will, shall, do, and other common verbs in forming tenses. It is hardly surprising that English learners find it quite challenging when there is more than one tense required in a sentence and when a sentence includes a Participle, Infinitive, or Gerund.
In the following section I will elaborate on five rules which will help them minimize their confusion with Verb Tenses in English:
Rule # 1. Keep the tense of a verb in proper relation to the tenses of other verbs in the sentence or passage. In some sentences the tense of a given verb is strictly determined by the tense of another verb because there is a logical relationship between the times of the two verbs’ actions that must be reflected by the verbs’ tenses. In other sentences the tense of a given verb may be affected by the tense of another verb but not completely determined by it; we may have a choice of tenses, and the tense we choose may affect the meaning or may not.
Rule # 2. With enough practice they will enhance their awareness of the right tense and use the right tense without thinking, i.e. they will know by intuition if there is only one proper tense for a verb, or they have a choice of tense and should use the tense that seems right. Very often errors occur when they do think about it, perhaps feeling that they have lost themselves in a maze of relative times, and trying to apply rules which they can’t recall properly.
Rule # 3. In English we have the concept of ‘Relative Time’
When the main verb does not force its tense on the secondary verb. For example, we say He assumes she is single and He assumed she was single – the secondary verb follows the main verb into the past tense, this is called the normal sequence of tenses. However, we can also say He assumed she is single, or He assumes she was single.
When a subordinate verb that expresses something that is always true, not just true at the time of the main verb’s action, is in the present tense, as in The Czech philosopher Radovan Richta believed that technological evolution would result in intellectual labour becoming more important than physical labour. —here will result would not be wrong as well.
Rule # 4. The generalization that the tense of a main verb determines the tense of a subordinate verb is not always the case. In fact, sometimes the subordinate verb determines the tense of the main verb. For example, we say He had assumed she was single, not He had assumed she had been single, and we could even say He had assumed she is single, though there is a strong tendency for the secondary verb to follow the main verb as far as it can into the past.
When the actions of a main verb and a secondary verb take place at different times and this fact is evident because of some modifying word for the secondary verb, the verbs can often be either in the same tense or in the logically appropriate different tenses: e.g. We will go out after my husband comes home, or We will go out after my husband has come home.
Rule # 5. Just because we have a choice of tenses in many situations it does not mean that one is always as good as the other. Often each tense has a different implication. For example, when a secondary verb expresses continuing action rather than action that took place specifically at the time of a main verb which is in the past tense, the present progressive or past progressive is likely to be more appropriate than the past for the secondary verb. For example, I read in the news that that prices went up suggests that prices had already risen before I read about it, but I heard that prices were going up suggests a continuing process that may or may not be incomplete, and I heard that prices are going up suggests a continuing process that is incomplete.
Hence, fluency in English language means, among other things, learners’ ability to pick the right tense without skimming their mental rule book.