Making Sense of Tenses

Learn more about grammar at Language Link VietnamUgh, grammar. Does anybody like grammar? I sure don’t. However, if you want to learn English properly, you can’t ignore the basics. And grammar is a BIG basic!

This is the first article in what we hope will be a series of monthly posts on grammar. We’re going to take one grammatical headache each month and shed a little light on how you can make it work.

Understanding Time
One of the key points about English is that for every verb we use, for every action we describe, we need to be clear about WHEN it happens. English language learners often say things like:

I go Lenin Park.

This drives listeners crazy. WHEN DOES THE ACTION OCCUR? Did you go in the past? Do you go every week? Are you planning to go next weekend? You must make the time clear: is it past, present, or future? Your listener NEEDS to know.

Confusing Tenses
The problem is, even when you know you want to describe the past, it’s not always clear HOW. English grammar makes even simple things like describing the past difficult. Some grammar rules are confusing.

For example, let’s look at the past simple and the present perfect.

I’m guessing I don’t have to remind you how the Past Simple works. You use it to describe a completed action in the past. It can be something you did once:

I went to Lenin Park last week.

Or something you did several times, or never:

I hated school dinners when I was a child.
I didn’t ride the subway when I went to Tokyo.

The form is simple:

Subject + past tense verb: I worked here last month.

The Present Perfect, by contrast, uses a more complicated form:

Subject + “have” + past participle: I’ve worked here since 2009.

Despite its confusing name, it also deals with past action. However, a couple of points are different:

  • The action started in the past and continues in the present
  • Present perfect stresses the RESULT. In other words, something started in the past…and it resulted in something NOW.

Key Words Are the Key!
Knowing the rules is fine, but how do you know which tense to use? The key is: listen for KEY WORDS.

Comparison of Past Simple and Present Perfect Key Words

Of course, there’s more to this grammar than what I’ve described, but this is ONE way you can become aware of the difference between these two tenses.

Making It Natural
Knowing these rules is good: you can think about key words when you want to say something, and this helps you to be aware of which tense you should use. But how do you make it natural?

The key is reading and listening. The more you expose yourself to natural language, the more you will begin to notice these key words and patterns, and the easier it will be for you to use them.

What Do You Think?
Are you aware of the importance of TIME when you describe actions in English? Do you use key words to help you figure out which tense to use? Do you have any other tips for making grammar natural? Let us know in the tips section below!

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