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Expressing past, present, and future actions in English language

This article presents everything you have to know about expressing actions in English language using appropriate verb tenses for appropriate situations.

Expressing present actions in English language

Present actions (actions happening right now, at this moment) are usually expressed using Present Continuous (be + verb + ing) and sometimes using Present Simple.

Present Continuous (be + verb + ing)

Use Present Continuous for things happening now, at this time.

What are you doing?
I am writing an article.

It is also used for actions taking place around now.

I usually go to work by car, but this week I’m taking the bus. (At the moment, I’m in my office. I came to work by bus in the morning [and did the same yesterday] and will continue to do so until the end of the week)

In addition, the same tense is also used for future activities which have already been arranged.

I’m flying to Paris tomorrow. (I have already booked a taxi for the trip to the airport, bought my air tickets, booked a hotel, and made appointments for my visits in Paris)

I am (be) write (verb)-ing an article.
You are (be) write (verb)-ing an article.
He/She is (be) write (verb)-ing an article
We are (be) write (verb)-ing an article.
You are (be) write (verb)-ing an article.
They are (be) write (verb)-ing an article.

Add "not" after "be" to form the negation.

I am not writing an article.

Questions in Present Continuous are formed by inversion.

Are you writing an article? Yes, I am.

Some verbs are not normally used in the present continuous (like, want, have = possession, need). Nobody will say “I am needing to talk to you now”. You should say “I need to talk to you know”.

Here’s a list of the most common verbs that are not usually used in the present continuous: be, hate, like, love, belong, believe, cost, know, recognize, think (different meanings when used in simple and continuous form), and understand.

Simple Present

Use Simple Present for things you do every day, every week, every year etc, and for things that are always true.

I go to swimming pool every Sunday.
I study English every afternoon.
The Earth goes around the Sun.

Remember the spelling rules for 3rd person singular present simple.

Work – works (add -s)
Study – studies (if the word finished in consonant + y then -y becomes -i and -es is added). Note that when there is another vowel before y, the spelling of y is not changed to i.

Pay – pays

Add -es to words that finish in sh, s, ch, and x.

Finish – finishes

We often use the simple present with adverbs of frequency such as: always, often, sometimes, usually, hardly ever, never etc.

Use adverbs of frequency before the main verb but after be.

He never listens to me.
He is always late.

Present Simple is also used with expressions of frequency such as: every day, once a week, twice a month etc. Expressions of frequency usually go at the end of the sentence. It is common to move time/frequency adverbials to the beginning of the sentence when there are too many adverbials at the end.

He goes (1) there (2) at 5 o’clock (3) almost every single day (4) by bus.
Almost every single day, he goes there at 5 o’clock by bus.

This is also a good method to focus emphasis on the part that has been moved.

Present simple is also used for certain kind of future actions. If a future action is based on a calendar or timetabled event, we use present simple.

The film begins at 8.00 o’clock. (spoken at 2 o’clock)
The train arrives at 7.05 tomorrow.

Expressing past actions in English language

I have been taught that there are just two tenses in English language. They are Present Tense and Past Tense. Present Tense and Past Tense are just the root, from which other tenses derive.

Here you have a complete list of all the tenses used in English language for describing past actions.

Present Perfect
Present Perfect Continuous
Past Simple
Past Continuous
Past Perfect
Past Perfect Continuous

The sentence used in all examples is “I live in Vietnam”.

Past Simple

Form: add –ed at the end of regular verbs (Special case: if a verb ends in consonant + y then the y becomes i)
For irregular verbs, see the table for irregular verbs, and choose the verb form in the second column (simple past).

Use and meaning:
Past Simple is used to express a finished action in past but only when the time of the action is specified, that is, when the action happened (yesterday, one week ago, in 2003 etc). I try to avoid using complex sentences just because in this situation, grammar can be very tricky. For example, you can use Past Simple for an action taking place in the middle of another action.

I lived in Vietnam in 2003.
I did not live in Vietnam in 2003.
Did I live in Vietnam in 2003?

The action happened in the past and it is finished. Now I live in Europe.

Past Simple can also be used when no time is specified but the speaker and the person(s) he/she is talking to are both aware of the time of the action.

Speaker A: Hey, a new carpet, nice! Where did you find it?
Speaker B: It was on sale at Harvey’s.

The negative is formed with the auxiliary "do". The past form of "do" is "did", and the main verb remains unchanged (in its base form/V1). As "did" already denotes the past, it is unnecessary to change the main verb into its past form.

Past Continuous

Like any other continuous tenses, Past Continuous is formed using the auxiliary "be" (in its past form) and the –ing termination/ending for the verb.
Past continuous expresses past actions taking place at a particular moment in the past.

It does not say when the action started nor, usually, when it ended. It is also often used to give the background setting to a story.
I use this form when I talk about an action which took place in past and I want to emphasize what I was doing at a particularly moment in past. Usually there are two actions involved.

I was living in Vietnam when you got married. (That’s why I couldn’t come to the wedding party)

However, it can also express action which was interrupted or even terminated.

Example (for “interruption”):
I was driving at 90 miles an hour when I saw the police car in the distance. (90 mph down to the speed limit of 70 and then later back to 90)
I was watching TV when the phone rang. (answered the phone and then continued watching TV)

Example (for “termination”):
I was driving at 90 miles an hour when I crashed into the police car. (No more driving after that).
I was watching TV, when he shot me. (No more watching TV after that)

Present Perfect Simple

Present Perfect Simple is formed with "have/has" in front of the verb and the –ed termination/ending for the verb (or past participle with irregular verbs). For irregular verbs the –ed form is replaced by the past participle form.

speak – for present simple
spoke – for past simple
spoken – for past participle (used for present perfect)

Despite the name (which contains the word “present”) it refers to a past action. It is similar to Past Simple and its use is often misunderstood. The main difference between Past Simple and Present Perfect is the point we want to emphasize.

I have lived in Vietnam (it doesn’t matter when; important is that I have lived there in the past, I liked, and I would like to live there again).

In the Past Simple example “I lived in Vietnam in 2003” the important part is “2003”. The listener is interested in where I was in 2003. In the case of Present Perfect Simple the speaker does not mention any specific time, the reference being some time between past and now.

I have visited Japan many times.

Present Perfect Continuous

Use Present Perfect Continuous to express an action that started in past and is still going on. Because is a continuous tense that expresses the duration of an action we use "have/has" + "been" + "verb+ing".

Many times my students ask me “How long have you been living in Vietnam?”. That means I came here some time ago and I am still here now. The answer for this question is “I have been living in Vietnam since 2005”. Another good answer would be “I have been living here for 10 years”. In this case the emphasis is on duration, the listener wants to know "how long". The commonly word signs for Present Perfect Continuous are: how long, since, for 3 years, all day, all week etc.

Past Perfect Simple

Past Perfect Simple is used to express a past action that happened before another past action.
Past Perfect is formed in a similar way to Present Perfect but "have" has to be in its past form "had" so, we have the structure "had" + "V3 (verb in past participle form)".

I had lived in Vietnam before I moved in Singapore.

Past Perfect is often used to emphasize the duration of a past action that happened before another past action.

I had lived in Vietnam for 10 years before I moved in Singapore.

I had never seen (ACT.1) a palm tree before I moved (ACT.2) in Vietnam.
Before I moved (ACT.1) to Vietnam, I had never seen (ACT.2) a palm tree. [stronger emphasis]

The main idea is that Past Perfect is used to express a past action that happened before another past action.

Although Past Perfect is used to show chronological order between actions in the past, with words such as “before”, Past Perfect is often not used because these words make the chronological order clear.

I lived in Vietnam before I moved in Singapore.
I lived in Vietnam for 10 years before I moved in Singapore.
I never saw a palm tree before I moved to Vietnam.

Past Perfect Continuous

As a continuous tense, Past Perfect Continuous emphasizes the duration of a past action before another past action. Its structure is: had + been + V + ing.

It is important to remember that this tense ALWAYS needs a time phrase expressing "how long" before one action happened in relation to the other action.

I had been living in Vietnam for over a year before my friend moved here.

Expressing future actions in English

Expressing future actions in English language can be done in several ways. English learners tend to use “will” for any future action they want to express. Using “will” makes the listener understand that the action is about future although it is not always the correct way of expressing future. Here you have the seven ways you can use for expressing future actions in English.

Present Simple – Schedule times

The train leaves at 5 o’clock.
The meeting starts at 2.15.

Present Continuous – Arrangements

I‘m having dinner with my mother tonight.
We‘re leaving tomorrow.

Going to

I‘m going to watch TV tonight.
I‘m going to be a policeman when I grow up.

Predictions with present evidence.
It‘s going to rain.
She‘s going to have a baby.


Spontaneous decision
I‘ll give you my phone number.
It’s raining. I‘ll take an umbrella.

Predictions (expressing facts about the future, something we cannot control)
It will be cloudy and windy tomorrow.
My father will be in hospital for at least 3 weeks.

Willingness (offers, promises, expressing willingness to do something)
John will translate it for you. He speaks Italian.
I’ll give it to you tomorrow.

Future Continuous – Actions at or over a period of time.

I’ll be having dinner at 8 o’clock.
I’ll be wearing a hat. (So you can recognize me)

Future Perfect – Actions which take place at some point before a specific future time.

By the year 2000, the population of the world will have reached 6 billion.
I’ll have finished by the time you get here!

About to – Refers to the immediate future. It means that something will happen without delay.

Note: Not about to has a completely different meaning.
We‘re about to start.
I’m about to switch this off.

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