Indefinite Tenses

by Craig Shrives

What Are the Indefinite Tenses? (with Examples)

"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.)

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.) The tables below show all 12 tenses so you can see the past progressive tense among the other tenses. (You can change the verb by clicking one of the green buttons.)

Top 10 Regular Verbs

Top 10 Irregular Verbs

All 4 Past Tenses

PersonSimple PastPast Progressive TensePast Perfect TensePast Perfect Progressive Tense
  • I
  • you
  • he/she/it
  • we
  • you
  • they
  • past tense
  • past tense
  • past tense
  • past tense
  • past tense
  • past tense
The simple past tense is for a completed activity that happened in the past.
  • was present participle
  • were present participle
  • was present participle
  • were present participle
  • were present participle
  • were present participle
The past progressive tense is for an ongoing activity in the past. Often, it is used to set the scene for another action.
  • had past participle
  • had past participle
  • had past participle
  • had past participle
  • had past participle
  • had past participle
The past perfect tense is for emphasizing that an action was completed before another took place.
  • had been present participle
  • had been present participle
  • had been present participle
  • had been present participle
  • had been present participle
  • had been present participle
The past perfect progressive tense is for showing that an ongoing action in the past has ended.

All 4 Present Tenses

PersonSimple PresentPresent Progressive TensePresent Perfect TensePresent Perfect Progressive Tense
  • I
  • you
  • he/she/it
  • we
  • you
  • they
  • base form
  • base form
  • 3rd pers sing present
  • base form
  • base form
  • base form
The simple present tense is mostly for a fact or a habit.
  • am present participle
  • are present participle
  • is present participle
  • are present participle
  • are present participle
  • are present participle
The present progressive tense is for an ongoing action in the present.
  • have past participle
  • have past participle
  • has past participle
  • have past participle
  • have past participle
  • have past participle
The present perfect tense is for an action that began in the past. (Often, the action continues into the present.)
  • have been present participle
  • have been present participle
  • has been present participle
  • have been present participle
  • have been present participle
  • have been present participle
The present perfect progressive tense is for a continuous activity that began in the past and continues into the present (or finished very recently).

All 4 Future Tenses

PersonSimple FutureFuture Progressive TenseFuture Perfect TenseFuture Perfect Progressive Tense
  • I
  • you
  • he/she/it
  • we
  • you
  • they
  • will base form
  • will base form
  • will base form
  • will base form
  • will base form
  • will base form
The simple future tense is for an action that will occur in the future.
  • will be present participle
  • will be present participle
  • will be present participle
  • will be present participle
  • will be present participle
  • will be present participle
The future progressive tense is for an ongoing action that will occur in the future.
  • will have past participle
  • will have past participle
  • will have past participle
  • will have past participle
  • will have past participle
  • will have past participle
The future perfect tense is for an action that will have been completed at some point in the future.
  • will have been present participle
  • will have been present participle
  • will have been present participle
  • will have been present participle
  • will have been present participle
  • will have been present participle
The future perfect progressive tense is for an ongoing action that will be completed at some specified time in the future.
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)

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See Also

See all the tenses What is a verb phrase? Take a different test on the simple tense. Try our drag-and-drop test on verb tenses 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

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