Navigating the Maze of Tenses: Understanding Usage and Meaning

Posted On March 31,2019

A common concern most of us encounter while communicating in an alien language is the accurate usage of tenses. Often, the simple tenses may be easy to figure out. It is the advanced tense forms that induce the heart-stopping stress attacks. However, once you’ve figured out what tense serves what purpose, it is then easy to pick the right tense.

An easy trick to ace tenses is to ask yourself the question – ‘When did the action occur?’

The answer should be such that it directs you to the tense in use.

Let’s look at a few simple examples –
I eat.
I ate.
I will eat.
In the above sentences, the examples are easy enough for you to instantly identify the Simple Tense.
Now, let’s look at the other extreme, where the complexity in sentence construction is enough to make one get lost in the maze of tenses. 


• She has won two medals.
  In this case, the subject is in possession of two medals but, hopefully, may go on to win more. The outcome is not yet over (for we don’t know whether she indeed will win or won’t) but the action is not continuing in the present moment. Hence, the tense is present perfect (note the usage of has) simple.
  If, on the other hand, the sentence was : She has been winning medals this year, then the tense changes to present perfect continuous (also called progressive).


• She had won two medals.
  The action is clearly over (or maybe she started losing then and hence, no more medals come her way). Hence, you instantly know that this is in past tense. The usage of had denotes the perfect aspect. So, the tense in use here is, past perfect simple.
  Had the sentence been: She had been winning medals last year, the tense would be past perfect progressive.
The major difference between the two tenses – perfect simple and perfect continuous, whether present or past – is whether the sentence refers to the outcome or the duration.

If the outcome is what is referred to, then the tense is Perfect Simple.
If the duration of the action is what is spoken out, then the tense is Perfect Continuous. It is important to note here that the time or duration may not necessarily be stated, but implied.

Examples –
• She had been eating when I called. (Past Perfect Continuous, because the action continued for some time (and was interrupted by another action), even though duration is not known)
• She has been calling you! (we don’t know for how long, although it is implied that the action of calling was repetitive and continued for some time, Hence, Present Perfect Continuous.)

Tenses are the biggest tool of effective communication. If used correctly, they put across the message very efficiently. Once you understand them they may even become your best friends!

Here at Skill Prodigy, we’ll keep sharing more tips and tricks to communicate better and improve your language skills.

What are the biggest challenges you face while understanding and using Tenses? Do you have any tricks you use to understand tenses better? Send us your comments, queries, and feedback at contact@skillprodigy.com.

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