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What is the Present Tense? (Forms of the Present Tense)

Want to make tense, sense? The present tense has 4 main forms: the present simple, present continuous, present perfect, and present perfect continuous. Learn more about them, here.

Last updated on February 14th, 2024 at 01:46 am



What are verb tenses?

When you think about it, language is a truly and deeply fascinating phenomenon: it’s syntactically structured to reflect our reality. While that’s obviously true, it is awe-inspiring nevertheless. Our experiences and reality are not straightforward, things are happening all across the world, at different points in time, to everyone, everywhere. Language, and tense (in particular), specify when actions took place, and at which point in time they did occur, or will occur. So when you think about it, that’s a pretty powerful thing.

A verb’s tense tells us when in time that action (or an event/state) took place. A verb’s tense describes the “form of a verb showing time of an action or state”. By ‘form of a verb’, this means spelling, and its proper syntax based on the verb’s appropriate tense.



What is the present tense?

1. I study rigorously for my school exams (simple present)

2. She studies rigorously for her school exams. (third-person singular simple present tense)

3. I am studying/she is studying rigorously for her school exams. (present continuous)

4. I have studied/she has studied rigorously for her school exams. (present perfect)

5. I have been studying/she has been studying rigorously for her school exams. (present perfect continuous)

The present tense has four forms, all of which are used differently, and carry a different meaning in the action’s relation to time. The simple present tense, also called the present tense, “is used for actions which are happening now”. We also use the simple present tense when we speak of things like general truths (e.g., ‘I love chocolate‘, or ‘she’s a therapist‘). Another context that uses the simple present is in describing something habitual, or events that occur on an ongoing basis (‘we play golf on the weekends‘; ‘I walk the dog in the mornings‘). The simple present tense uses the simplest/base form of the verb (it’s the spelling that shows up in the dictionary when you look up the word: play, eat, sleep, etc.).

What’s the present continuous tense?

1. The boys are playing in the park.

2. The baby is crying out loud.

3. It is raining outside.

4. I am cooking pasta for lunch.

5. Miss Singh is teaching the class.

From reading the sentence examples, see what each of the examples has in common both in the verb forms they use, and the broader meaning (in connection to time). The present continuous is a form of the present tense, but it uses the present participle form of the verb, which ends in –ing. Remember that participles are not whole verb forms, they are part-verb-part-adjective, and they require auxiliary verbs to make grammatical sense (and tense). This is why the present continuous tense is formed by combining the present tense form of ‘to be‘ (is/are/am) with the present participle form of the verb, ending in –ing (playing, writing, talking, walking).

Compare these sentences:

I cook pasta for lunch. (present simple)

I am cooking pasta for lunch. (present continuous)

The first sentence makes it sound like you have pasta for lunch every day. And that’s because the simple present tense perhaps doesn’t work in this context. If what you want to communicate is occurring in the present and immediate moment: this is when we use the present continuous tense. The present continuous is occurring right now, and is continuing to occur as we speak. For example: you are reading an article on the present continuous tense, while existing in the present continuous tense.

Broadly speaking, we use the  present participle to show actions as ongoing, or in-progress. Events or states that take place in the world, (and this is literal, as in specific actions, events, occurrences, and so on) might happen in an instant and then stop. But clearly this is not always the case with everything, some things continue to occur on an ongoing basis, whether frequent or infrequent. It is a verb’s tense, however, that contextualizes exactly when, and in what sequence or order, such things take place.

What’s the present perfect tense?

1. I have lived in Toronto since 1984.

2. We have shopped in this market before.

3. He has read all kinds of books.

4. My mom has cooked food.

5. I have planted some plants in my garden.

The present perfect tense shows an action that began in the past, but continues or relates to the present time (though it may have been recently completed or finished). We create the past perfect by joining the past tense auxiliary, had, with the past participle form of the verb (eaten, written, hidden, and so on). The past perfect shows events that began in the past though still are relevant and exist at present. (e.g. ‘I have lived in Toronto since 1984′ is present (have), though having commenced in the past.)

What’s the present perfect continuous?

1. I have been studying for three hours before I took a break.

2. She has been practicing the piano for weeks before the recital.

3. They have been waiting in line for two hours before the store opened.

4. He has been working on the project for months before it was canceled.

5. We have been hiking for hours before we reached the summit.

The present perfect continuous is formed by combining have/has + been + present participle. The present perfect continuous shows an action as beginning at a point in the past, but continuing into the present.

Keep on learning! It’s encouraged.



Sources

1. Harper Douglas, “Etymology of tense,” Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed March 8, 2023, https://www.etymonline.com/word/tense.

2. P.C. Wren and Martin’s English Grammar and Composition.

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