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!
to base form

( verb)

Select the tenses.

Present Tenses

Simple Present Tense The simple present tense is mostly used to describe facts and habits. More...(opens new tab) I base form you base form he/she/it 3rd pers sing present we base form you base form they base form Present Progressive Tense The present progressive tense is used for an ongoing action in the present. More...(opens new tab) I am present participle you are present participle he/she/it is present participle we are present participle you are present participle they are present participle Present Perfect Tense The present perfect tense is used for actions that began in the past. (Often, the actions continue into the present.) More...(opens new tab) I have past participle you have past participle he/she/it has past participle we have past participle you have past participle they have past participle Present Perfect Progressive Tense The present perfect progressive tense is used for a continuous activity that began in the past and continues into the present, or a continuous activity that began in past but has now finished (usually very recently). More...(opens new tab) I have been present participle you have been present participle he/she/it has been present participle we have been present participle you have been present participle they have been present participle

Past Tenses

Simple Past The simple past tense is used to describe a completed activity that happened in the past. More...(opens new tab) I past tense you past tense he/she/it past tense we past tense you past tense they past tense Past Progressive Tense The past progressive tense is used to describe an ongoing activity in the past. Often, it is used to set the scene for another action. More...(opens new tab) I was present participle you were present participle he/she/it was present participle we were present participle you were present participle they were present participle Past Perfect Tense The past perfect tense is used to emphasize that an action was completed before another took place. More...(opens new tab) I had past participle you had past participle he/she/it had past participle we had past participle you had past participle they had past participle Past Perfect Progressive Tense The past perfect progressive tense is used to show that an ongoing action in the past has ended. More...(opens new tab) I had been present participle you had been present participle he/she/it had been present participle we had been present participle you had been present participle they had been present participle

Future Tenses

Simple Future The simple future tense is used for an action that will occur in the future. More...(opens new tab) I will base form you will base form he/she/it will base form we will base form you will base form they will base form Future Progressive Tense The future progressive tense is used for an ongoing action that will occur in the future. More...(opens new tab) I will be present participle you will be present participle he/she/it will be present participle we will be present participle you will be present participle they will be present participle Future Perfect Tense The future perfect tense is used to describe an action that will have been completed at some point in the future. More...(opens new tab) I will have past participle you will have past participle he/she/it will have past participle we will have past participle you will have past participle they will have past participle Future Perfect Progressive Tense The future perfect progressive tense is used for an ongoing action that will be completed at some specified time in the future. More...(opens new tab) I will have been present participle you will have been present participle he/she/it will have been present participle we will have been present participle you will have been present participle they will have been present participle

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