How to Past, Present, and Future Tense at the Right Times

By Geraldine Woods

Verbs tell time with a quality known as tense. Before you reach for a tranquilizer, here’s the lowdown on the basic tenses. The three basic tenses are past, present, and future, and each has two forms — low-carb and gluten-free. Sorry, plain (its basic time designation — present, past, or future) and progressive (the -ing form of a verb).

Progressive places a little more emphasis on process or on action that spans a time period, and the present progressive may reach into the future. In many sentences either plain or progressive verbs may be used interchangeably. Here’s a taste of each:

  • Past tense tells what happened at a specific, previous time or describes a pattern of behavior in the past. In the sentence Diane tattooed a skull on her bulging arm, tattooed is a past-tense verb. In During the Motorcycle Festival, Diane was flexing her bicep, was flexing is a verb in past progressive tense.
  • Present tense tells you what’s going on now at the present moment, or more generally speaking, what action is recurring. In the sentence Grace rides her bike, rides is a present-tense verb. In Grace is always polishing her bike and Grace is riding to Florida, the verbs is polishing and is riding are in present progressive tense.
  • Future tense moves into fortune-teller land. The verb in Grace will give Diane a ride around the block is will give, which is in future tense. In Grace will be bragging about her new motorcycle for months, will be bragging is in future progressive tense.

Practice questions

Following the sentence, you see the infinitive (the grandpappy of each verb family, the verb’s original form preceded by to). Stay in that family when you fill in the blank, choosing the correct tense.

  1. David hopes that the next fashion fad __________________ a more mature, oval figure like his own. (to flatter)
  2. Two days after Diane’s shopping spree, Grace __________________ about show-offs who “spend more time on their wardrobes than on their spark plugs.” (to mutter)

Answers to practice questions

  1. will flatter. The key here is next, which puts the sentence in the future.
  2. muttered or was muttering. The clue to the past is two days after. The second answer gives more of a “you are there” feel, but either is correct.