PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT: Advanced English Grammar for ESL Learners (2011)
5 Verb forms and tenses
In this chapter we will examine the six basic verb forms of English and then explore the three rules that govern how these six verb forms are combined to create twelve verb constructions.
All verbs in English (with the important exception of the modal auxiliary verbs, which are discussed later in this chapter) have six forms: base form, present tense, past tense, infinitive, present participle, and past participle. The six forms are illustrated below using the regular verb talk and the irregular verb sing.
Note that two forms of the verb sing, the past tense form sang and the past participle form sung, are in boxes. The past tense and the past participle forms of irregular verbs are unique in that they cannot be predicted by knowing the base form. All of the other forms are completely predictable from the base form.
The six forms of base, present tense, past tense, infinitive, present participle, and past participle are the building blocks that we use to make up all the verb constructions in English. These verb constructions are traditionally characterized as having nine different tenses. (We will see later why there are actually twelve different tenses.) These nine tenses are at the intersections of three time divisions (present, past, and future) and three aspect categories (simple, perfect, and progressive). The nine tenses arranged by time and aspect are given in the chart below, illustrated by the regular verb talk and the irregular verb sing:
The traditional nine tense constructions
Note: Will is a member of a special group of five helping verbs called the modal auxiliary verbs. The five modal auxiliary verbs (along with their present and past tense forms) are given below:
The string of up to three verbs in a row looks quite complicated, but the entire verb system in English is governed by three rules:
Rule #1: The first verb, and only the first verb, is tensed
A tensed verb is a verb inflected for either present tense or past tense. Only a tensed verb can enter into a subject-verb relationship with the subject. This means, of course, that only the first verb exhibits subject-verb agreement. At first glance, the future tense would seem to be an exception, but it is not. For example, in the sequence he will talk, will is the present tense of the modal auxiliary verb will.
Look at the following sentence:
It might rain tomorrow.
Might is the past-tense form of may. Note that the terms present tense and past tense when applied to modal verbs refer only to the form of the verb, not the meaning. In general, the past-tense form models express a greater degree of doubt, uncertainty, or tentativeness than the present tense forms. For example, compare the following:
The sentence with the past-tense modal is much more tentative than the sentence with the present-tense modal. The meanings of the modal forms are discussed in detail in Chapter 8.
Rule #2: All verb constructions except for the simple present and simple past consist of two verb components
The first component is a specific helping verb, and the second component is a particular verb form. Both components are fixed according to the following formula:
Here are examples that illustrate each of these three verb constructions:
Future tense (present or past tense modal + base form)
Harry will be late.
She might have a test tomorrow in economics.
We can do that.
You shouldn’t worry about it.
Perfect aspect (have in some form + past participle)
I have been sick lately. (present perfect)
He had run all the way from the train station. (past perfect)
I will have worked here for ten years. (future perfect)
Progressive aspect (be in some form + present participle)
We are working late tonight. (present progressive)
I was wondering about that. (past progressive)
John will be returning from Los Angeles tomorrow. (future progressive)
Add either the perfect or progressive aspects to the following sentences as directed. Remember to keep the tense the same: a simple past will become a past perfect, and so forth. The first question is done as an example.
Bob slept all through the program. (perfect)
Bob had slept all through the program.
1. We will clean the rooms tomorrow. (progressive)
2. We stay with the Joneses often. (perfect)
3. We attracted a crowd. (progressive)
4. They will expand the plant in Malaysia. (progressive)
5. We adopted a new policy. (perfect)
6. They will emerge from bankruptcy later this year. (progressive)
7. FedEx should deliver a package to you this morning. (progressive)
8. You might hear about a problem we’ve been having. (perfect)
9. They threaten to go to court. (progressive)
10. The spectators could n’t see what actually happened. (perfect)
The traditional chart on page 52 is very misleading in one respect: the chart implies that the perfect and progressive aspects are mutually exclusive. In fact, sentences can be BOTH perfect AND progressive. (This accounts for the extra three verb constructions.) The perfect and progressive aspects are combined according to the following rule:
Rule #3: If both the perfect and the progressive aspects are used in the same verb sequence, the perfect always comes first
When this happens, the helping verb have (in whatever form it occurs) must be followed by the past participle been, which is the required helping verb for the progressive. At the same time, been functions as the helping verb for the progressive. In other words, the perfect and progressive overlap: the second element of the perfect (the verb be in the past participle form) is also the first element of the progressive. In all cases, the helping verb been must be followed by the main verb in the present participle form. For example:
This representation shows how been plays a double role: it is the second verb in the perfect construction and the first verb in the progressive construction at the same time. In this example the helping verb have is in the present tense, so the entire construction is a present perfect progressive.
Here are three more examples of sentences that include both the perfect and the progressive:
I had been leaving the mail on his desk while he was on vacation.
Comment: had been is in the perfect aspect; been leaving is in the progressive aspect.
Since the first verb had is in the past tense, the entire construction is thus a past perfect progressive.
She has been advising the new students all afternoon.
Comment: has been is in the perfect aspect; been advising is in the progressive aspect.
Since the first verb has is in the present tense, the entire construction is thus a present perfect progressive.
They will have been traveling for two weeks now.
Comment: will have been is in the perfect aspect; been traveling is in the progressive aspect.
Since the first verb will have is in the future tense, the entire construction is thus a future perfect progressive.
The main verb in a verb sequence can also be have, resulting in two uses of the verb have, the first as a helping verb and the second as a main verb. For example:
Be can also be used as a main verb with the perfect and progressive. The result is a somewhat awkward combination of two uses of the verb be back to back. For example:
You will hear this construction in casual conversation, but it is usually avoided in writing and formal conversation.
Add both the perfect and the progressive to the following sentences with simple verbs. Be sure to keep the tense the same. The first question is done as an example.
They should keep us informed.
They should have been keeping us informed.
1. They proposed some important changes to the city charter.
2. The drought aff ects local agriculture.
3. They will claim damages resulting from the accident.
4. We repaired the deck all afternoon.
5. The company issued new stock recently.
6. They have a lot of visitors lately.
7. Everyone hoped to go on a picnic.
8. They should prepare better.
9. His parents might stay with them.
10. We have too many false alarms lately.
To summarize: the left-to-right order of even the most complicated verb construction is completely determined by a set of three rules that produce the following result:
1. The tensed verb comes first.
2. All verb constructions except for the simple present and simple past consist of two verb components. The first component is a specific helping verb, and the second component is a particular verb form. All helping verbs control the form of the immediately following verb:
Modals must be followed by a base form, creating the future tenses.
Have must be followed by a past participle, creating the perfect tenses.
Be must be followed by a present participle, creating the progressive tenses.
3. The perfect always comes before the progressive.
These rules will enable you to correctly identify the name of any verb construction in English (except for passives, which we will deal with later). Here is a set of examples showing the names for all twelve possible constructions:
Using the twelve names given above, write the name of each construction in the space provided under the sentence. The first question is done as an example.
Harry was returning from work when he got the message. past progressive
1. Are you expecting anyone?
2. We have spoken before.
3. Should they be parking on the grass?
4. They had already been rewriting the contract all week .
5. Will you be staying long?
6. It l ooks good to me.
7. We will have been walking for hours by the time we get home.
8. I’ve had it!
9. Have you been listening to anything I’ve said?
10. She will be taking the late flight.
The rules that govern the left-to-right order of English verb constructions is so deterministic that you can actually scramble the word order of the verbs and still figure out what the order must be. For example:
X You suggested have should that they start sooner.
First, look at each of the verbs in their existing left-to-right order:
Suggested can be either a past tense or a past participle.
Have is an infinitive.
Should is a past-tense modal.
We know that the modal must come first (since a modal is ALWAYS a tense-carrying verb) (Rule #1) and that the modal must be followed immediately by a base-form verb (Rule #2), and the only base-form verb is have. That means the first two verbs are should have. Since the modal should is a tensed verb (and there can only be one tensed verb in any verb construction), we know that suggested cannot be a past tense; suggested must therefore be a past participle following the helping verb have (Rule #2). The only possible sequence is the following:
should have suggested
This construction is a future perfect.
The verbs in bold have been scrambled. Write the verbs in the only possible correct order and give the name of the tense in parentheses. The first question is done as an example.