What Are the Indefinite Tenses? (with Examples)

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The Indefinite Tenses

"Indefinite tense" is a category of verb tense. It covers the simple past tense, the simple present tense, and the simple future tense.

The three indefinite tenses express facts or habitual activities. Unlike the other tenses, the indefinite tenses describe actions without specifically stating whether the actions are completed or ongoing. (Remember that the indefinite tenses are more commonly called the simple tenses. When talking about the individual indefinite tenses, the term "indefinite" is rarely used. Therefore, we have kept the term "simple" when referring to the three indefinite tenses.)

All 12 Tenses with the Indefinite Tenses Highlighted

The following slider shows all 12 tenses. The three indefinite tenses are highlighted with a yellow background.
Be aware that the "simple present tense" is an oddity. Despite its name, it is not always about activities in the present. The simple present tense can be used for activities that started in the past, and it can be used for future events.

The Role of the Indefinite Tenses

Here is an explanation of how the three indefinite tenses are used:

The Simple Past Tense. The simple past tense describes a completed activity that happened in the past. In other words, the activity started in the past and ended in the past. For example:
  • He went.
  • She played.
The Simple Present Tense. The simple present tense is a complex tense. It is used:
UseExamples
(1) To describe facts and habits
  • Mark loves cakes. (Fact)
  • She plays football on Wednesdays. (Habit)
  • (NB: These activities do not have to be happening right now.)
(2) To describe scheduled events in the future
  • The train arrives at 9 o'clock.
  • The sun rises at 0430 tomorrow.
(3) To tell stories (particularly jokes) to make your listener or reader feel more engaged with the story
  • A skeleton walks into a bar and says "Give me a beer and a mop."

The Simple Future Tense. The simple future tense is used for an action that will occur in the future. For example:
  • She will go.
  • They will understand.

Examples of Verbs in the Indefinite Tenses

Here are some more examples of verbs in the simple tenses.

In the Past Tense:
  • I played chess.
  • (simple past tense)
  • They played chess.
  • (simple past tense)
In the Present Tense:
  • I play chess.
  • (simple present tense)
  • They play chess.
  • (simple present tense)
In the Future Tense:
  • I will play chess.
  • (simple future tense)
  • They will play chess.
  • (simple future tense)

Forming Verbs in the Indefinite Tenses

Here is an overview on how to form the simple tenses:

Forming the Simple Past Tense (for most verbs)

[base form of the verb]
+
"ed"
  • They danced.
This is how the simple past tense is formed with most verbs. However, there are several spelling rules to consider.

Read more about forming the simple past tense.



Forming the Simple Present Tense (for most verbs)

[base form of the verb by itself]


or (if it's the third person singular (he, she, or it))

[base form of the verb]
+
"s"
  • We play.
  • He plays.
This is how the simple present tense is formed with most verbs. However, there are several spelling rules to consider.

Read more about forming the simple present tense.



Forming the Simple Future Tense

"will"
+
[base form of the verb]
  • He will play.

The Indefinite Tenses in the Past, Present, and Future

This table shows how the simple tenses (shaded in yellow) fit with the other tenses. There are 12 tenses in total.
The 4 Past Tenses Example
simple past tense I went
past progressive tense I was going
past perfect tense I had gone
past perfect progressive tense I had been going
The 4 Present Tenses Example
simple present tense I go
present progressive tense I am going
present perfect tense I have gone
present perfect progressive tense I have been going
The 4 Future Tenses Example
simple future tense I will go
future progressive tense I will be going
future perfect tense I will have gone
future perfect progressive tense I will have been going

The "Indefinite Aspect"

The term indefinite aspect is used to group all verbs (past, present, and future) in the indefinite tenses. (Remember that the aspect of a verb is determined by whether the verb expresses a fact, an ongoing action, or a completed action. Verbs in the indefinite aspect express facts.)

Verb Tense Widget

Use this widget to learn about the different tenses. How do you use this widget? Well, if there's a button, a drop-down menu, or a , then you can click it!

Why Should I Care about the Indefinite Tenses?

Native English speakers can use all twelve tenses without giving the grammar a second thought. However, if you're learning or teaching English, you must spend time learning the tenses because expressing when something occurs is a fundamental communication skill. The simple tenses are usually the first tenses taught, but, as we've covered, they're not simple at all, and they're not used too often during a natural conversation.

Remember that tenses do not just tell us whether something is a past, present, or future action. They also tell us whether the action is habitual, completed, or ongoing (called the aspects).

The trick to learning tenses is mastering the following:
  • The verb "to be" in all its forms (am, is, are, was, were, will be)
  • The verb "to have" in all its forms (has, have, had, will have)
  • Present participles, i.e., the "ing" form of verbs (e.g., playing, thinking, eating)
  • Past participles (e.g., played, thought, eaten)
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

Take a different test on the simple tense. What is verb tense? What is aspect? What is the simple aspect? What is the simple past tense? What is the simple present tense? What is the simple future tense? Glossary of grammatical terms