Any person who is embarking on the journey of learning English will notice something fairly quickly: that its tense system is quite unique. Specifically, there seem to be a lot more tenses in English, and many of these tenses are used in ways that differ substantially from their counterparts in other languages.
For this reason, let’s take a look at how tenses are used differently in English, and learn how we can avoid making common mistakes.
Note: In the following article, an asterix (*) denotes an incorrect form.
I’m doing something right now
Many people know, of course, that we should use the present continuous tense when talking about the here and now.
Right now, for example, I could simply say “I’m typing an article.” This is happening in the present moment… but what is the present moment? Is it this second, this minute, this month or this year?
In fact, all of these time periods are correct. The time period could even be this lifetime or something much, much longer.
We equally could say, for example:
- I’m travelling around Spain this week.
- I’m flying a lot this year.
- People are spending a lot of time online this decade.
However, it is always easy to understand that something is happening right now when we use additional words that indicate such, like now, this week and currently. On the other hand, if we remove these extra words, we can focus more specifically on the grammatical structure itself. For example:
- Are you eating on the floor? vs. Do you eat on the floor?
In some languages, there would be no difference between the meaning of these two sentences. Instead, you would have to use context to deduce whether or not the action is taking place in the present moment. The great thing about the present continuous tense in English is that it removes the need for context. In other words, the sentence “I’m typing an article” can only be happening now.
It is vital to always use the correct form of the verb to be and the -ing form of the verb. It is also important to omit the verb to do when asking a question. Furthermore, it is incorrect to only use one of these rules without employing the other.
This is especially important for speakers of languages that lack to be in the present, such as Arabic or Russian. The following English sentences, for example, are incorrect.
- Are you go home?*
- Do you eating tasty food?*
- I driving a fast car.*
I usually do something
This role is performed by the present simple, the basic form of the verb in the present tense. This form also exists in many other languages.
We use this when we talk about things we do again and again; the key word here is repetition. Since we already know that we use the present continuous for actions happening now, we don’t need to say when the action happens (we assume that it always happens).
The following sentences, for example, both mean more or less the same thing:
- The students do their homework.
- The students do their homework all the time.
If we want to, of course, we can be more specific about when we do something.
- I celebrate my birthday every year on the 28th of February.
Nevertheless, it is entirely possible that you usually do something and that you’re also doing it right now. This occurs especially frequently with the verbs to live and to work. Think, for example, about which sentence is more correct:
- I live in Australia (usually).
- I’m living in Australia (right now).
They are, in fact, both correct for different reasons; it depends on what you want to emphasise.
By far the most common mistake here is not adding the -s to the verb in the third person (he, she, it). In my personal experience, this is one of the most widespread mistakes amongst learners of English and can be found even amongst advanced learners.
With the exception of modal verbs and future forms (will and shall), every verb takes -s or -es after he, she and it. By remembering this, you can sound much better when you speak English. It is, after all, only a small thing to remember compared to the large changes other languages make when conjugating verbs.
If you simply remember this one little thing, then you’ll be able to avoid the following incorrect forms.
- He go home.*
- She like chocolate.*
Another important point to remember is that it is incorrect to add the verb to be in this tense, which may be an issue for speakers of languages that do not use to be in the present tense, for example:
- I am watch TV every day.*
- She is always go to school.*
I started something in the past and I’m still doing it now
Out of all of the uses of the present that we’ve looked at so far, this one creates the most confusion. There is a very good reason for this. In many languages, if we began an action in the past and continue to do it into the present, then we use a basic present tense. This is not the case in English, however.
These two forms, for example, are both incorrect.
- I live in the same flat for three years.*
- I’m living in the same flat for three years.*
In English, we use the present perfect continuous:
- I’ve been living in the same flat for three years
More often than not, the biggest error here is using either the present simple or present continuous. We should also remember to use the correct forms of to have and the -ing verb.
Actions in the near future
Although not strictly the present, many languages use the present tense to refer to actions which will happen in the near future. This could be for actions that take place during the same day or the same week, for example.
English is no different. It also uses the present tense… but which one? If you think about what you have learned above regarding the present simple and present continuous tenses, then you should be able to guess the correct answer:
Being that this is a future action that only happens once, we use the present continuous.
In many cases, simply not being aware of this rule and using the present simple is the biggest mistake. In English, the following sentence is not grammatically correct.
- We see each other later.*
Instead, the correct option is:
- We’re seeing each other later.
If you remember these simple guidelines for using the present tense in English, you will save yourself a lot of time thinking about complicated grammar rules. Don’t worry about making small mistakes in English; work on getting the confidence you need to speak English like a natural!
Hero Image by Hernán Piñera (CC BY-SA 2.0)