* What tense do I need?... Why?

QCAL State Conference, Qld State Library, 6 November 2009


All these pesky verbs and their pesky tenses drive us and our students crazy.  Right from the lowest level courses in both Adult Literacy and ESL, refugees and Australian-born alike, our students need tenses to express what they mean and to understand what others are trying to communicate to them.  We readily teach tense formation: "You can’t say they going or they is going."  But we struggle to explain the meanings of the different tenses.  What is the difference between I go to work and I am going to work, between I lived in Sydney and I have lived in Sydney.  How does the system work?  How can I explain it when my students are having problems?  Here’s an opportunity to sort it all out so that you’re not reduced to the old "It just sounds right/wrong" lame answer to student questions.


Hazel has been an ESL teacher for some 25 years, with a long-term interest in learners with little or no print literacy in their first language.  She has produced with colleague, Dorothy Court, five packages of low level reading materials on Australian topics and two of beginner spelling materials.  They also co-edited with Margaret Hounslow a resource for teachers of newly arrived, unschooled refugees, A Whole New World, with an accompanying sound CD of language-learning songs for beginners.  Currently Hazel and Dorothy are working for TAFE English Language and Literacy Services on a set of bilingual picture dictionaries, which they hope will be ready for sale in English, English-Nuer (Thok Nath), English-Kirundi, English-S'gaw Karen and English-Ma'di by about the middle of 2010. 

 1. It sounds right

What sounds right is what I normally say:

·        For an ESL student, this means the home language and/or other languages in which the student has reached near native-speaker proficiency;

·        For long-term immigrants without early formal tuition, this generally means an habitualised "interlanguage" composed of what they thought they heard native speakers say when they first arrived and have practised for 20, 30, 40 yrs since then;

·        For native speakers, it can mean any of a multitude of dialects of English; e.g., , Indian English, one of the various forms of Aboriginal English, Hunter Valley coalfields English, which is what I spoke until my mid-teens, etc.

Thus saying, "It's wrong because it sounds wrong" or "It's right because it sounds right" is a useless copout on the part of teachers whose students wish to learn Standard Australian English.  We must have a better response to the question, "Why is this wrong?"

 2. Grammar is not a set of rules to follow

The question is not "What is right?" but rather "What idea is in my mind?  How can I best express this so that you understand my exact meaning?"

When he came, I ate my breakfast.

When he came, I was eating my breakfast.

When he came, I had eaten my breakfast.

These are all quite legitimate sentences but they have different meanings which depend on the tense of the verb to eat.


3. Meaning of English tenses

So let us look at some of the major English tenses and their common meanings.  I have not covered all the tenses, nor all the possible meanings of each tense.  I am merely setting out in the time allowed to provide a starting point towards understanding the remarkable complexity and versatility of our language's tense system. 

The best grammar book I have ever come across as a teacher reference for this sort of information is: Allsop, Jake: Cassell's Students' English Grammar, Cassell London1989, ISBN 0 304 305324.  This is not suitable for use by most students because, although it is written in a clear, readily understood style from the point of view of educated readers, it is overwhelming in its detail for people whose reading skills are low and it presupposes at least some prior knowledge of traditional grammar.  Its other drawback is that it is out of print now.  However, some teachers have told me they have managed to get copies from the internet.

 Individual tenses:

a) Present continuous

I am eating.

This is the real present tense, the now, not finished yet tense.

b) Simple present

I eat.

This tense is neither simple, nor present.  Its formation presents many difficulties: the apparently illogical s on the 3rd person singular (she eats) and the use of the auxiliary do/does in the negative and interrogative (I do not eat, Do I eat? Don't I eat?).  So it is far from simple.

Its meaning is also complex: it is the habitual tense, which I teach as sometimes, always, never.  It overarches time: it includes past, present and future. 

He smokes tells you nothing about what he is doing right now, only about his habit.  If you establish with a beginning ESL learner that someone smokes and then ask the question Is he smoking?, the response will almost invariably be Yes, even though you are in a classroom where smoking is prohibited.

c) Simple past

I ate.

This is the story tense.  It tells you of something which happened in the past and is finished.  With this tense we often specify the time of the action.  I ate my breakfast at 6am.  Then I …

d) Present perfect

I have eaten.

In English, unlike many other European languages, this tense is not just another straight past as, for example, in spoken French Je suis allée.  For us the present perfect links the past with the present.  The connection is often not actually stated but merely implied.

I have eaten my breakfast.

When a native speaker reads/hears this, s/he subconsciously understands that an action took place in the past which affects the present in some way; viz., I am not hungry at the moment.  It is not merely a statement about the past: I ate my breakfast.

This present + past meaning has the consequence that we cannot state the time with a present perfect verb because there are two different times involved.  We can, however, say:

I have eaten my breakfast at 6am for the past 20 years.

since this sentence covers the period from 20 years ago up till the present.

e) Past continuous

I was eating

This tense is also quite complex.  It implicitly or explicitly compares the length of two actions or situations in the past.  It denotes the longer time.

She ate lunch while he was taking her photo.

He took her photo while she was eating lunch.

For a native speaker, these two sentences create quite different pictures.  The first conjures up the image of an elaborate photo shoot with lights, fancy lenses etc. etc., which took more time than the mere eating of a sandwich.  The second probably represents a quick snap during a meal, which lasted longer than the few seconds of photo taking.

f) Past perfect

I had eaten.

We use this tense to indicate an action which took place further into the past than some other action, which may or may not be explicitly stated.  However, neither the action of the past perfect verb, not the other simple past, need be in the distant past.  They can both be mere minutes, or even seconds, into the past.  The tense change merely shows the order in which the two occurred.  Nor does the order of the verbs in the sentence affect this meaning.

He arrived at 6.30 and I had already eaten.

g) Future

We have two very common future forms:

I will eat.

I'm going to eat.

(In Australian English shall has all but completely disappeared.  I generally do not even mention it or, at most mention it in passing if students have learnt formal English in their home countries.)

There is a slight difference in meaning between the two examples above but, on the whole, we tend to use them interchangeably.  The will form can indicate prediction, whereas going to is more inclined to imply intention.

h) Future perfect

I will have eaten.

This tense speaks of the past from an imagined position in the future:

In 2010 I will have been a teacher for 45 years.

I am mentally projecting myself forward to 2010 and thinking back from there to when I became a teacher in 1965.

 This exposition gives only a brief summary of common meanings of the most frequently used tenses in Standard Australian English and I hope it has helped you get a handle on the problems they present for our students.  If anyone has any questions about all of this, you are welcome to email me: 

sugarbag@email.com  email

Here is my tense diagram: