Simple and continuous tenses; perfect tenses; present perfect continuous and past perfect continuous
1. Simple and continuous tenses
- I’m working at home while our office block is being renovated. (= temporary state)
- I’m phoning from the train. (= action in progress)
- Public transport has a number of advantages over driving. (= permanent state)
- I catch the train at 7.05 at the station near my home every morning. (= habit or regular event)
- I was traveling home when the train broke down. (= action in progress at past point)
- I sold my car last week. (= completed past action)
- I drove to work for a couple of years. (= past situation that doesn’t exist now)
- I caught the train every morning at 7.15. (= repeated past action)
We usually use simple tenses with verbs that describe an unchanging state rather than an action:
e.g. I love trains.
We can use continuous tenses with state verbs to suggest that a situation is temporary or untypical:
vs. Now that I work at home I appreciate being able to get up late. (= suggests a more permanent arrangement)
e.g. I’m appreciating being able to get up later than usual (= suggests a temporary arrangement)
With some verbs that describe mental states (e.g. consider, understand) and attitudes (e.g. hope, regret), continuous tenses suggest a process going on at the time of speaking, or emphasize that the process continues to develop:
e.g. I’m regretting selling my car already. (= suggests that I have started to regret it and that this regret may grow)
vs. I regret selling my car. (= describes an attitude that is unlikely to change)
Some verbs have different meanings when talking about states and describing actions:
e.g. I’m now thinking of buying a motorbike. (think of (action) = consider)
vs. Do you think that’s a good idea? (think (state) = asking about an opinion)
We usually use the present simple with verbs that describe what we are doing as we speak:
e.g. I admit that it can be frustrating at times. (= I agree that it is true when I say ‘I admit’)
e.g. I predict that increasing numbers of people will start working at home.
We often use the past simple in a narrative (e.g. a report or a story) to talk about a single completed past action, and the past continuous to describe the situation that existed at the time:
e.g. I dropped my purse while I was getting off the train.
When we talk about two or more past completed actions that followed one another, we use the past simple for both:
e.g. She woke me up and offered me a lift.
When we talk about two actions that went on over the same period of past time, we can often use the past continuous or the past simple for both:
e.g. I was listening to music while I was driving here.
Or I listened to music while I drove here.
We can use continuous tenses with the adverbs always, constantly, continually, and forever to emphasize that something is typical of a person, group or thing because they do it so often:
e.g. I was forever arriving late for work
We can use either the present continuous or present simple to describe something we regularly do at a certain time.
e.g. At 8 o’clock p.m, I am usually having a leisurely breakfast.
Or At 8 o’clock I usually have …
We often use the present continuous or past continuous:
(1) to make an inquiry or a statement less certain because we don’t know if we’re right:
e.g. I’m hoping we’ve got Dave Jones on the line. (= suggests that the speaker is not sure whether Dave Jones is there)
(2) to make a request or an offer more polite:
e.g. Karen, were you wanting to say something?
2. Perfect tenses
- I’ve lived in Spain, and the trains are so much more reliable there. (past situation relevant to the present)
- I’ve just sold my car and so now Igo to work by bus. (recent action with consequences for the present)
- I’ve enjoyed traveling by train ever since I was young. (situation continuing until the present)
- This morning I’d read a couple of reports before I got off the train. (past event before another past event)
We use the present perfect to talk about a situation that existed in the past and still exists now, and the past simple when the situation no longer exists:
e.g. I’ve commuted to London every weekday for over ten years, and I actually enjoy it.
vs. I commuted to London every weekday for over ten years before I started working at home.
We use the present perfect to talk about a repeated action that might happen again:
e.g. I’ve arrived late for work twice this week so far
and the past simple for a repeated action that won’t happen again:
e.g. I arrived late for work twice this week. (= the working week is over; I won’t arrive late again this week)
When we give news or information, we often introduce a topic with the present perfect and then give details with other past tenses:
e.g. The new high-speed rail link between the north of England and the Channel Tunnel has opened. It took 15 years to build and cost nearly ten billion pounds.
When we use a time expression (e.g. after, as soon as, before, when) to say that one event happened after another, we can use either the past simple or past perfect for the first event:
e.g. I’d read a couple of reports before I even got to work or I read a couple of reports before I even got to work
3. Present perfect continuous and past perfect continuous
We use the present perfect continuous (have been + -ing) to talk about an action in progress in the past for a period until now, and which is either still in progress or recently finished:
e.g. I’ve been working at home for the last five years. (= action still in progress)
e.g. Sorry I’m late. I’ve been trying to find a parking place. (= action recently finished)
We often prefer the present perfect continuous to say how long an action has been in progress:
e.g. I’ve been trying to phone into your program for the last half hour.
We use the present perfect to talk about a completed action or series of actions when we are interested in the result:
e.g. I’ve called the bus company a number of times to complain.
e.g. They’ve bought new trains and have really improved the service.
We use the past perfect continuous (had been + -ing) to talk about an action in progress over a period up to a particular past point in time:
e.g. I’d been waiting over an hour when they announced that the train had been canceled.
If we are not interested in how long the action went on, we often use the past continuous rather than the past perfect continuous:
e.g. I was waiting on the platform when they announced that the train had been canceled, rather than I’d been waiting on the platform when … (= there is no mention of how long the person was waiting.)
We use the past perfect when we say how many times something happened in a period up to a particular past time:
e.g. I’d spoken to her only a couple of times before then.
We don’t usually use the present perfect continuous or the past perfect continuous to describe states:
e.g. I’d owned a car ever since I left college. (not
I’d been owning )
II. The future
Will, be going to + infinitive, shall; present tenses for the future; future continuous, future perfect and future perfect continuous; be to + infinitte; future in the past
1. Will, be going to + infinitive and shall
- I think I’ll fly directly to Los Angeles. (= a decision made without planning)
- I’m sure you’ll have a fantastic time. (= a prediction based on opinion or experience)
- I’ll be 21 on 2nd January. (= a fact about the future)
- I’ll meet you at the airport. (= willingness)
Be going to + infinitive
- First I’m going to stay with Daniel and Susanna. (= a decision already made)
- The clouds building up. It’s going to rain this afternoon. (= a prediction based on outside evidence)
We can sometimes use will instead of be going to to make a prediction based on evidence, but when we do, we usually include an adverb:
e.g. The cloud’s building up. It’ll definitely rain / It’s definitely going to rain this afternoon.
We can use will or be going to in the main clause of an if-sentence with little difference in meaning when we say that something is conditional on something else:
e.g. If I don’t go now, I’ll be / I’m going to be late for my next lecture.
We use will, not be going to, when the main clause refers to offers, requests, promises, and ability:
e.g. If my plans change, I’ll let you know, of course. (= promise)
e.g. If you bring your tent, we’ll camp on the coast for a few days. (= ability; ‘we will be able to camp’)
In formal contexts, we can use shall instead of will with I or we:
➊ in questions that ask about intentions:
e.g. Shall I/we see you before you leave? (= Will Uwe have the opportunity to see you?)
➋ in statements about the future, although will is more usual:
e.g. When I finish my course I shall/will have some time to travel around America.
2. Present continuous and present simple for the future
- I’m spending a few days sightseeing (= event intended or arranged)
- Lectures start on nth July. (= event as part of an official schedule)
Compare the use of the present continuous for the future and be going to:
e.g. I’m flying on 15th July at ten in the evening. (= already arranged)
vs. I’m going to fly up there if it’s not too expensive. (= the speaker intends to fly but has not made the arrangements yet)
We tend to avoid be going to go and use the present continuous (be going to) instead:
e.g. Then I’m going to San Francisco. rather than Then I’m going to go to San Francisco.
We can’t use the present continuous for future events which are not controlled by people:
e.g. It’s going to rain this afternoon. (not
It’s raining this afternoon)
We can use either the present simple or will to talk about formal arrangements made by, for example, a university or company:
e.g. The semester begins on 7th December. or The semester will begin on 7th December.
The present continuous is used in informal arrangements:
e.g. You’re not staying with them the whole time, then? (= informal arrangement) (not
You don’t stay with them the whole time)
We use the present simple, or sometimes other present tenses, to refer to the future in time clauses with a conjunction (e.g. after, as soon as, before, by the time, when, while, until); in conditional clauses with if, in case, provided and unless; and in clauses beginning with suppose, supposing and what if:
e.g. As soon as I book my tickets, I’ll let you know. (not
As soon as I’ll book …)
e.g. It’ll be good to know I can contact them in case I have any problems. (not …
in case I’ll have …)
e.g. What if I don’t like it? (not
What if I won’t like it)
3. Future continuous, future perfect, and future perfect continuous
We use the future continuous (will + be + present participle) to talk about something predicted to happen at a particular time or over a particular period in the future:
e.g. I’ll be studying really hard during the semesters.
We use the future perfect (will + have + past participle) to make a prediction about an action we expect to be completed by a particular time in the future:
e.g. By the time you come, I’m sure I’ll have got to know the city really well.
We use the future perfect continuous (will + have been + present participle) to emphasize the duration of an activity in progress at a particular point in the future:
e.g. When I come to see you, you’ll have been living in California for nearly six months.
We can also use the future continuous, future perfect, and future perfect continuous to say what we believe or imagine to be true:
e.g. Dad won’t be using his car, so I’m sure it’s okay to borrow it. (= an activity happening now or at a particular point in the future)
e.g. They’ll have forgotten what I look like. (= an event that took place before now or before a particular point in the future)
e.g. My plane’s been delayed. Daniel and Susanna will have been waiting for me at the airport for hours. (= an activity continuing to now)
4. Be to + infinitive
Be to + infinitive is commonly used:
➊ in news reports:
e.g. Extra lifeguards are to be posted at the beach after a shark was seen close to the shore.
➋ to talk about formal plans, and rules or instructions:
e.g. Students are to hand in project reports at the end of semester two. (active)
e.g. Project reports are to be handed in at the end of semester two. (passive)
We only use am/is/are to + infinitive to talk about future events that people can control:
e.g. The weather will still be warm even in winter. (not
The weather is still to be warm)
We often use be to + infinitive in if-clauses when we mean ‘In order to’:
e.g. If she is to get a good grade in her project report, she needs to work on her statistics. (= in order to get a good grade she needs to work on her statistics)
5. Future in the past
A number of forms can be used to talk about a past activity or event that was still in the future from the point of view of the speaker:
e.g. I was going to see an aunt in Seattle a couple of years ago, huts canceled the trip because she got ill. (= a plan that didn’t happen)
e.g. I knew I would be feeling awful by the end of the flight. (= a prediction made in the past)