First, the basics
Before we look at the conversation, let’s see exactly what we mean by verb tenses. A verb tense tells us when an action or state of being takes place.
How many tenses are there in English? There are about 12 basic tenses (not including the use of the conditional e.g. If I could afford it, I would buy a new car). Some experts will say there are as many as 16 or more. As you will see, you don’t have to worry about all of them most of the time, especially when you’re first learning to hold (have) short conversations. Here they are:
Simple Present Tense: I eat a banana every day.
Present Continuous Tense: I’m eating a banana right now.
Present Perfect Tense: I’ve eaten a banana every morning for the past ten years.
Present Perfect Continuous: I’ve been eating bananas my whole life.
Simple Past Tense: Did you eat a banana again yesterday? Yes, I ate one yesterday.
Past Continuous Tense: I was eating a banana when my cat walked in the kitchen and tried to steal it.
Past Perfect Tense: I had just finished my banana when I saw another one that looked even more delicious.
Past Perfect Continuous Tense: I had been eating bananas, because I thought they helped your digestion.
Future (Structure)--Verbs do not change their endings for the future, so there isn’t a real future tense in English. We use other verbs to talk about the future
Simple Future: I will eat a banana again tomorrow for breakfast.
Future Continuous: I am eating a banana tomorrow for breakfast. I am going to eat a banana tomorrow.
Future Perfect: By this time tomorrow, I will have eaten a banana.
Future Perfect Continuous: By next year, I will have been eating bananas for 30 years.
Conditional: If I eat another banana, I will throw up.
Five-minute real conversation
Now let’s see how many verb tenses occur in this real conversation I had when I met a friend in a cafe. First, here’s the conversation just as it was:
Me: Hi! How are you?
Sally: (name changed): Not so great.
Me: Really? Why?
Sally: My computer isn’t working again. I was in the middle of an important email and I lost it. This is now the third time.
Me: Oh, I’m sorry. What happened exactly?
Sally: It just froze and I lost the email. I can’t take it anymore.
Me: So, what are you going to do?
Sally: So, I’m calling in a guy to fix it again. It’s the same guy. I’m sick of paying him to fix it.
Me: Have you thought of just going out and buying a new one? A new computer?
Sally: I’ve thought about it. I don’t know. Maybe it’s better to buy a new one instead of spending all that money to keep fixing that piece of junk.
Me: Listen, what are you doing Saturday?
Sally: I don’t know. Why?
Me: If you want, I can take you over to Best Buy and we can look at some new computers.
Sally: You sure? It would be great to go with someone.
Me: You know I like to look at computers. I’ll pick you up.
Sally: Really? Will you pay for it?
Me: No, good try. I won’t pay for it, but I’ll go with you.
Sally: I’ll buy you lunch.
Me: Sounds like a deal.
Sally: OK, what time?
Me: How about 11 am?
Sally: OK, good. Thanks a lot. I’ll meet you downstairs at 11:00 am.
Me: OK, I’ll see you then.
Sally: OK -- don’t be late.
Me: Shut up. I’m doing you a favor. (joking)
Sally: OK, see you then.
Five-minute real conversation with verb tenses counted
Me: Hi! How are you?--Simple Present
Sally: (name changed): Not so great.--Simple Present
Me: Really? Why?--Simple Present Question
Sally: My computer isn’t working again.--Present Continuous I was in the middle of an important email and I lost it.--Past Continuous This is now the third time.--Simple Present
Me: Oh, I’m sorry.--Simple Present What happened exactly?--Simple Past Question
Sally: It just froze and I lost the email.--Simple Past I can’t take it anymore.--Simple Present
Me: So, what are you going to do?--Future Continuous
Sally: So, I’m calling in a guy to fix it again.--Future Continuous It’s the same guy.--Simple Present I’m sick of paying him to fix it.--Simple Present
Me: Have you thought of just going out and buying a new one?--Present Perfect A new computer?
Sally: I’ve thought about it.--Present Perfect I don’t know.--Simple Present Maybe it’s better to buy a new one instead of spending all that money to keep fixing that piece of junk.--Simple Present; Present Continuous
Me: Listen, what are you doing Saturday?--Future Continuous
Sally: I don’t know. Simple Present Why?
Me: If you want, I can take you over to Best Buy and we can look at some new computers.-- Conditional and Simple Future
Sally: You sure? --Simple Present It would be great to go with someone-- Conditional
Me: You know I like to look at computers.--Simple Present I’ll pick you up.--Simple Future
Sally: Really? Will you pay for it?--Simple Future
Me: No, good try.--(Simple Past) I won’t pay for it, but I’ll go with you.--Simple Future
Sally: I’ll buy you lunch. Simple Future
Me: Sounds like a deal--Simple Present
Sally: OK, what time?--(Simple Future)
Me: How about 11 am?--Simple Present
Sally: OK, good. Thanks a lot. I’ll meet you downstairs at 11:00 am.--Simple Future
Me: OK, I’ll see you then.--Simple Future
Sally: OK--don’t be late.--(Imperative--telling someone what to do)
Me: Shut up.--(Imperative--telling someone what to do) I’m doing you a favor. (joking)--Present Continuous
Sally: OK, see you then.--(Simple Future)
And the winners are (listed from the most used to the least used):
1. Simple Present--14 times
2. Simple Future--7 times
3. Simple Past--3 times
4. Future Continuous--3 times
5. Present Continuous--2 times
6. Present Perfect--2 times
7. Imperative--2 times
8. Past Continuous--1 time
9. Past Perfect--1 time
Not so bad, is it?
As you can see, during a five-minute conversation, I used nine verb tenses/structures out of a possible 16 or so. However, I only really used a couple of them a lot: the Simple Present and the Simple Future. The rest, I used only one, two, or three times.
Conclusion: You don’t need to worry about all the tenses in English that you’ll learn. You won’t even use them all; native speakers don’t come close to using them all. Pay attention to the ones you use the most and learn to use them well.
Try this: Write down your own conversations and figure out the common tenses that you use.
Good Verb Resources:
Ilene Springer is an italki teacher from the US and may have counted the number of verb tenses wrong in the above conversation. Let her know if she did!