This article covers the meaning and use of the six most common verb tenses in informal English conversation, with example sentences.
English verbs change their form in at least 12 different ways to show different shades of meaning. That’s a lot to learn, and can seem overwhelming for learners of English. But the good news is that in in informal conversational English, only six tenses are very common. The others rare.
If your English learning goal is to be more confident speaking conversational English, you can focus on learning the six conversational English tenses. Practice them until you feel comfortable with them.
Being able to confidently use these most common English verb forms will cover most of the things you need to say in everyday English conversation.
Bonus tip: Start with the simple present. It is vastly more frequent
than any other tense in informal English conversation.
- permanent situations, states, and facts
- things that happen regularly
- if/then “always true” statements
- future “scheduled” events
- The sun rises in the east.
- I usually have eggs with hot sauce for breakfast.
- If you eat too much, you gain weight.
- My English class starts next Tuesday.
||finished actions or events in the past that are not (psychologically) connected to the present
- I studied English for two years. (I don’t study English anymore)
- She worked out six times last week.
- We saw a horrible car accident yesterday.
- temporary states, events, actions
- events happening at the moment of speaking
- anticipated future events
- used to add politeness through psychological distancing, which makes requests seem less direct
- John and Marcia are living in their car. (Temporary situation – at least, let’s hope so)
- Oh my god, that dog is eating its own poo! Gross!
- My parents are coming to visit
- I am hoping you can do me a favor. (The -ing form makes this request seem less direct, so it is more polite.)
- finished events (psychologically) connected to the present
- announcing news or recent events
- repeated/continued events up to now
- with time expressions meaning “at any time up to now”
- an unmentioned time up to now
- Steven King is an amazingly productive author; he has written more than 50 novels. (Finished novels up till now – possible for him to write more.)
- You’ll never believe this, but Trump has won the election. (Very fresh news)
- She has gone to the gym twice this week.
- We haven’t tried that new sushi place yet. Should we go there for lunch?
- Have you heard the new Rammstein album? It’s great!
- past actions/events not necessarily completed
- used with the simple past to show that something happened in the middle of something else
- used to add politeness through psychological “distancing”
- A: What were you doing between 3 and 4 p.m. yesterday? B: I think I was watching TV. (not necessarily completed)
- She was walking across the grass when she accidentally stepped in dog poo.
- I was hoping you could do me a favor. (Using the past continuous is even more “distant” than the present continuous, so it’s even more polite.)
|BE GOING TO (Future)
- to make predictions based on present evidence or likelihood
- decisions and intentions about the future
- You are never going to win the lottery. Why do you keep buying tickets?
- I haven’t eaten yet today. I am going to grab a quick sandwich.
Note: In spoken informal English, “I am going to” would frequently be reduced to “I’m gonna.” The full forms are shown here for clarity.