Cheat sheet #2 – What do grammar words in tenses mean?

Have you ever wondered why it is present perfect and what changes between past perfect simple or continuous? These words are thrown around here and there and used all the time to describe the tenses we use in English but does anyone know what they mean, and is it important to know?

Grammaticians, linguists and some English teachers might know what each word individually means, and its specific meaning. However, honestly, most teachers do not. People say them all the time without knowing what each “aspect” really signifies. Is it important? Not really. In fact, trying to understand the grammatical significance of these words is for scholars and university students, and it is not at all useful for learning how to speak. Furthermore, it might even confuse you more.

So, we are going to look at these aspects in the way that they function with the English grammatical tenses, and what they mean in context. This way will be much easier to understand!


What does simple mean? It means not complicated, easy to understand, easy to quantify: discrete data. What is discrete data? Discrete data is counted, and finite, it’s closed and not extensive. It’s finished or always, every day or at a specific time.

Present simple – I am happy. Do they do karate twice a week? She doesn’t like spinach.

Past simple – I went to church on Sunday. We weren’t in bed at ten last night. Did you go?

Future simple – I will be there at six. I won’t finish my degree this year. Will you arrive on time?

Use the infinitive or past simple form of the verb.


What is continuous? It means that it doesn’t stop, it continues, it follows, it changes, it happens again, it’s temporal and it won’t be for ever. We also use the term progressive to signify the exact same thing. Do not be confused. Progressive maybe better describes the nature of the continuous aspect because it is usually one of a temporary state or a transition state.

Present continuous – I am eating. We are working on it. They aren’t running away.

Past continuous – I was looking at the sky. Were you listening to music? You weren’t lying.

Future continuous – I will be going out later. We won’t be sleeping. Will she be playing?

Use TO BE and the GERUND (Verb+ing) to form the continuous.


Use TO HAVE and the PAST PARTICIPLE to form the perfect.

The perfect aspect is probably the one that confuses people most. There is nothing perfect about it. In fact, it causes more problems than it solves. Far from perfect, it does have a meaning. Roughly speaking, it can be understood as having to do with two times that are connected; a Time A in the past, present or future, and a Time B before Time A. It could be that something in Time B finished before Time A but has some relevance to what is happening in Time A. It could also be that something started at Time B and is continuing up to Time A, when the verb may or may not be interrupted. This one might require some examples with explanation:

Present perfect simple – Have you been to Paris?

Why don’t we ask did you go to Paris? Well, that’s because, as we learnt, past simple is used for specific times, and in this example we don’t know when the ‘go to Paris’ occurred, so we are asking now if the person at any time in the past up until the moment of now has been to Paris. In this case Time A is now and Time B is ‘since you were born’.

Past perfect simple – I had already finished by the time you got started.

Here we can clearly see Time A being the time when the second person started whatever it was they were doing, and Time B is the time the first person finished their work; before Time A.

Past perfect continuous – We had been running for over an hour when Peter collapsed.

This time the continuous aspect comes into play and introduces an activity that was happening for a short period of time beginning at Time B and ending at Time A, which is when the activity stopped due to Peter collapsing. The perfect tenses are often used to explain what caused an event/events.

Future perfect simple – I will have been around the world by the next time we meet.

This person is clearly planning a round-the-world trip and is telling the person that they won’t see each other until the time they are back (Time A). Before Time A, the will have finished their journey travelling around the world (Time A).


Keep simple things in boxes, counted and tidy.

Continuous things go on for a while but come to an end without having a fixed value.

Perfect connects a time and a time before in some way.


Written by James R. McCance for Aston School


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