How many tenses does English have?

How many tenses does English have? I’m sure you answered this correctly. But many people are surprised to learn that English has only two tenses. Many are also surprised that English has no future tense, unlike the romance languages (think of the song Que Sera, Sera or more recently Andrea Bocelli’s Con Te Partirò). OK, I’m getting technical on you, and we all know that English offers many ways to express time – past, present and future.

For a linguist, there are in fact only two tenses: the past simple and the present simple. All other “tenses” use additional verbs called auxiliaries. For example, “He had just opened the door to the darkened mansion, when from the shadowy depths …” and “I will be there for sure”.

These compound verb forms are called aspects. They have bedevilled second language learners from time immemorial, and we’ll have ample opportunity in future columns to explore their ins and outs.

The past perfect

For now though I’d like to focus on what is generally called the past perfect. This form is actually little used by native speakers and way overused by second language learners. The first thing to understand is that it has nothing to do with how far in the past the first action occurred. For example,

I had just finished the memo when the boss arrived this morning.

Your Wednesday Writer’s advice is to use the past perfect when

    1. it is important to show that an action took place and finished before something else occurred, and
    2. the sequence of events is not otherwise clear from the rest of the sentence. 

In most other situations the past simple is appropriate.


“She had finished eating when I arrived home.” (past perfect)

but: “She finished eating before I arrived home.”  (past simple with before)

“John lifted weights and Tim shot hoops.” (order is not important)

I’m very happy to reply to question and comments, so fire away if you have any.

See you next time!



Bill Lawrence worked in US law firms and multinational companies until 2001. For the past 15 years Bill has been a writing coach at the Polytechnic University’s Centre for Business and Professional English. He has also presented seminars to law firms on coaching lawyers on effective writing.

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