I’ve seen a couple of interesting posts on social media recently about the most important tenses in English. Also, in the past, learners have asked me which tenses are the most commonly used and which they should learn first. That’s what we’re going to talk about today.
First of all, you need to understand that the answer depends on how you’re going to use your English. Is it for conversation, academic writing, stories, or other reasons? For example, if you look at novels and biographies, you won’t be surprised that the most common tense is the past simple. In conversation, the present simple is used more than half of the time.
To a smaller extent, it also depends on whether you’re looking at British, American or other varieties of English. For example, Americans use the present perfect less often than British people.
In general, I think it’s safe to say that the most commonly used tenses are the present simple and past simple so these are the first two tenses for you to learn. I think you will use these two tenses about 75% of the time.
After that, the next most frequently used tenses are the present perfect, present continuous and the future forms “will” and “going to”.
This doesn’t mean that the other tenses aren’t important. There are some situations which are difficult to express without the past perfect or present perfect continuous, for example. Eventually, you should try to learn them all but at least you now know the best ones to start with.
Now let’s look at the most important tenses in more detail and their most common uses.
Paris is the capital of France.
2. Habits and routines:
She goes shopping every Wednesday.
3. With adverbs of frequency (always, often, never, every day, twice a week etc):
I usually drink coffee in the morning.
4. Future timetabled events:
Our train leaves at 7.30 tomorrow.
5. Permanent and long-term situations:
He works for an international company.
1. The action is finished and the time is past:
I left school in 1988.
2. To describe repeated actions in the past:
She went to the cinema every weekend.
3. To say how long something continued when it is no longer true:
I studied German at school for five years. I can’t remember it now!
4. To tell a story or describe a past sequence of events:
I had a shower, cleaned my teeth and then went to bed.
5. To describe past states and situations:
When I was a child, I didn’t like pizza!
1. Actions and situations which started in the past and are still true now:
I've lived in this house since I was a child.
2. Life experiences (at no specific time):
I’ve been to Japan but I’ve never been to China.
3. When the time period isn’t finished:
I’ve been on the phone a lot this morning. (It’s still morning.)
4. Past actions with a present result:
She’s lost her glasses. (Present result = now she can’t find them)
5. News and recent events:
The Prime Minister has announced plans for a new high-speed railway.
They’ve just had a baby!
1. Unfinished actions happening now:
I'm waiting for the bus.
2. Unfinished actions happening around now but not at this moment:
I’m reading “The Lord of the Rings”. I’m about halfway through.
3. Temporary situations:
She’s working in a different office this week.
4. To describe trends:
The number of sales is increasing.
5. Future arrangements:
I'm seeing the doctor at 4 tomorrow.
1. Decisions (made at the moment of speaking):
He's in hospital?! Oh no! I'll go and see him tomorrow.
I'll help you with your homework if you like.
I'll have my report on your desk by lunch time.
I think he'll probably pass the exam.
5. Future facts:
The sun will rise at 5.32 tomorrow morning.
Be going to
1. Plans and intentions (decisions made before the moment of speaking):
I'm going to clean the kitchen today.
2. Predictions (based on signs or evidence):
Look at those black clouds! It's going to rain.
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