Sorted – The English tenses and aspects you should learn

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I tend to emphasise a lexical approach to language learning. In other words, I prefer my students to learn words, collocations and create personalised sentences using newly-learned words and phrases. However, certain conversations with my students occasionally remind me that I shouldn’t totally overlook grammar and the most important tenses. Hence, this post highlights the English tenses and aspects you should learn due to their frequency of use in everyday speech. I’ll go through what aspects are later, but in a few words, they are different versions, or reflections, of a tense. For example, when we say the “present simple”, the “simple” part is an aspect of the “present” tense …

"Uff, so many tenses’" a student exclaimed at the end of a lesson yesterday. I quickly nipped the situation in the bud by informing her that many of the tenses she learned at school are rarely used in everyday conversation. In my opinion, teachers waste their own time and the time of their students when they create fancy lesson plans which revolve around uncommonly used aspects, such as the future perfect continuous and future perfect.


HOW MANY VERB TENSES ARE THERE IN THE ENGLISH?

There are arguments about how many tenses there really are in English, and I find it all rather pointless. There are how many there are. Your job is to focus on the English tenses and aspects you should learn to get by in the language and have conversations with other people. Nevertheless, for the sake of clarity, I’ll try to settle the debate on how many English tenses there are.

In this post on Lingoda, I believe that Ms Laura Jones hits the nail on the head when she writes that there are only two main VERB English tenses - past and present. 

The majority of ESL websites state that there are twelve English tenses. Some grammar-hungry maniacs claim that there are thirteen because the future may be expressed with going and an infinitive. 

Where does the number twelve come from? According to some misguided linguists and teachers, there are three main verb tenses: present, past and future. They divide the present, past and future verb tenses into four aspects: the simple, continuous, perfect and perfect continuous. Hence, three (verb tenses) multiplied by (four aspects) equals twelve “tenses”. 

Back to reality, you may also be asking yourself why there are present and past verb tenses - but no future verb tense. The answer is because references to the future require a helping modal verb, such as will and might. Technically, then, the will in “I will play a few songs for you” does not promote a separate tense in itself because will is only a reflection or aspect of the present tense.


IS THERE SUCH A THING AS A COMMON TENSE AND ASPECT?

I would argue that there are four tense aspects which you really need to work on and personalise because around 95% of your interactions will be in them. These tense aspects are:

  • present simple
  • present perfect
  • present perfect continuous
  • past simple

This is just my opinion, but my experience and logic tell me that focusing on the past continuous, the future perfect, the future continuous and the future perfect continuous is a huge waste of time. It’s mind-boggling just how many teachers get their students to study such obscure and pointless aspects of the English grammar system. 

When you think about it, it’s very rare in normal conversation to have to say: “By this time next month, I will have lived in Poland for two years.” You’re far more likely to use the present perfect continuous to emphasise how long you’ve been living in a place: "I've been living in Poland for two years." 

It’s the same old nonsense with the future continuous aspect: “This time next month, I’ll be travelling around Italy.” Ok, it might be said when you’re really looking forward to something or are in a dreamy kind of mood, but the nature of a two-way conversation usually doesn’t allow for such eccentric statements.

I’d like to return to the issue of the present continuous, which I wrote about in an earlier post. The present continuous is certainly not one of the most common aspects that might be heard in a normal conversation. After all, while having a beer with a friend in a pub, you’re not very likely to start talking about what you’re doing in the present moment, are you?: “Oh, John, I’m drinking a beer at the moment! And you?” 

When it comes to the present continuous for things that are happening around the time of speaking, this time aspect may come in handy: “I’m working on a big project at the moment”. But even then, we’re more likely to use the present perfect continuous to link what’s been going on recently, with situations that are still current ("going on") in the present time.


PERSONALISE THE MOST COMMON TENSES AND ASPECTS

I’ve banged on about personalising words, phrases and grammar items a lot on this site. When it comes to mastering aspects such as the present perfect, the answer is not to complete countless gap-fill exercises in grammar manuals. You should focus on creating as many personalised sentences which contain a target grammar structure as you can in order to make an emotional connection with that grammar item. 

My personalised sentences for the present perfect:

  • I’ve never been to Switzerland but I’d like to go
  • I’ve been to Berlin three times
  • I’ve never seen the Eagles in concert. It’s one of my ambitions to see the band play

Alternatively, you could write true stories to practise the most common English tenses and aspects. This would allow you to combine aspects such as the present perfect and past simple:

Question: Have you been to America?

Answer: Yes, I have. I went there in 2008 - on a six-week camping tour around the entire country. I visited cities like New Orleans, Chicago and Los Angeles and many of the most famous National Parks such as the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. 


SUMMING UP - THE ENGLISH TENSES AND ASPECTS YOU SHOULD LEARN

My advice to students of English is not to panic about the English grammar system. In reality, there are not many English tenses and aspects you should learn. Throw the future perfect aspect out of the window and start writing stories using the present perfect and past simple. Write stories about your daily habits using the present simple. 

All in all, focus on the essentials and never forget to personalise. 

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