Skip to main content

Grammar: The Meanings of Past and Present English Tenses

Past and Present Tenses

Today, we'll look at the differences in meaning between various past and present tense forms. Below, you'll have a pair of sentences to compare, and then answer the questions that follow. The answers are strictly 'yes' or 'no', and they are designed to illustrate the differences in meaning between the tenses and sentences.

Let's do a practice question first. I've given you two sentences below. Can you match the sentence to the tense? Try it, then click the "Answers!" button to see if you're right.

Present simple vs. Present continuous
I play the violin.
I am playing the violin.

?????????

Present simple vs. Present continuous

Okay, let's try for real now. Let's compare the two sentences below and then answer the questions for the bolded sentence.

I am playing the violin. (present continuous)
  1. Do I normally play the violin?

  2. Am I playing it right now?

  3. Will I stop sometime?

?????????



I play the violin. (present simple)
  1. Did I play violin sometime in the past?

  2. Will I play the violin sometime in the future?

  3. Do I normally play the violin?

  4. Am I currently in the middle of playing the violin?

?????????



By comparing the two sentences above, what is the major difference in meaning between them?

.



Present continuous vs. Present perfect

Okay, let's discover the differences in meaning by comparing the sentences below.

They are spending a lot of money on improving their house. (present continuous)
  1. Did they spend money on their house sometime in the past?

  2. What about right now?

  3. And in the near future?

  4. Did they spend money just once?

  5. Are they finished with spending money?


?????????



They have spent a lot of money on improving their house. (present perfect)
  1. Did they spend money on their house sometime in the past?

  2. Did they spend money just once?

  3. Do we know exactly when they spent money on their house?

  4. Are they finished spending money on the house?



?????????



By comparing the two sentences above, what is the major difference in meaning between them?

.



Present perfect vs. Past simple

These two forms are commonly confused for non-native speakers. Again, let's discover their differences by comparing the sentences below.

I have lived in Oakland for three years. (present perfect)
  1. Did I live in Oakland in the past?

  2. Do we know for how long?

  3. Do we know when?

  4. Do I live in Oakland now?

?????????



I lived in Oakland for three years. (past simple)
  1. Did I live in Oakland in the past?

  2. Do we know for how long?

  3. Do we know when?

  4. Do I live in Oakland now?

?????????



By comparing the two sentences above, what is the major difference in meaning between them?

.



Present perfect vs. Present perfect continuous

You know the drill by now.

I have written the contract. (present perfect)
  1. Did I start writing the contract sometime in the past?

  2. Is the contract finished?

  3. Do we know when it was finished?

?????????



I have been writing the contract. (present perfect continuous)
  1. Did I start writing the contract sometime in the past?

  2. Is the contract finished?

?????????



By comparing the two sentences above, what is the major difference in meaning between them?

.



Past perfect continuous vs. Past perfect

When I got home, I found that Jill had been painting her room. (past perfect continuous)
  1. Was Jill finished with painting when I got home?

  2. Was Jill in the middle of painting when I got home?

  3. Do we know if Jill is done with painting the room now?

?????????



When I got home, I found that Jill had painted her room. (past perfect)
  1. Was Jill finished with painting when I got home?

  2. Was Jill in the middle of painting when I got home?

  3. Do we know if Jill is done with painting the room now?

?????????



By comparing the two sentences above, what is the major difference in meaning between them?

.



Past simple vs. Past continuous vs. Past perfect

Let's try three sentences.

I made lunch when they arrived. (past simple)
  1. Did I make lunch sometime in the past?

  2. Do we know when I made lunch?

  3. Did I start lunch before they arrived?

  4. Was lunch finished when they arrived?

  5. Did I finish making lunch?

?????????



I was making lunch when they arrived. (past continuous)
  1. Did I make lunch sometime in the past?

  2. Was lunch finished when they arrived?

  3. Did I start lunch before they arrived?

  4. Do we know if I finished making lunch?


?????????



I had made lunch when they arrived. (past perfect)
  1. Did I make lunch sometime in the past?

  2. Was lunch finished when they arrived?

  3. Did I start lunch before they arrived?


?????????



By comparing the three sentences above, what is the major difference in meaning between them?

.



Test your knowledge

What am I communicating if I say the following sentences?

  • I am living in Oakland.
  • I am writing the essay.
  • I live in Oakland.
  • I had lived in Europe before I lived in Oakland.


.



Final Remarks

In total, we covered six English tenses and their meanings.

  • present simple
  • present perfect
  • present perfect continuous

  • past simple
  • past perfect
  • past perfect continuous

However, we only covered their meanings. Stay tuned for a future post where we'll discover how to form each tense.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Blog: My Experience with Global Game Jam 2018: Transmissions

This year's Global Game Jam (GGJ) was my first and the theme was Transmissions and boy was it enlightening.

For those of you unfamiliar with Global Game Jam, it's a yearly international event that asks people from all walks of life to join together to make a game in 48 hours. If you're interested in what goes into making games, then jams like GGJ provide an opportunity to lend your skills to the development of the game, whatever your skills may be: artist, audio, writing, coding, designing, and so on.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) provided a location so people in the area could meet like-minded individuals and have a collaborative working space for these 48 hours.  I went as a volunteer for Tech Valley Game Space and also participated in the event by teaming up with mostly RPI students, and in many ways it was an enlightening experience to be reminded why undergraduate students are hesitant to work in groups.

As I mentioned earlier, the theme for this year's G…