What Are the Simple Tenses? (with Examples)

by Craig Shrives

The Simple Tenses

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

The three simple tenses express facts or habitual activities. Unlike the other tenses, the simple tenses describe actions without specifically stating whether the actions are completed or ongoing.

All 12 Tenses with the Simple Tenses Highlighted

The following slider shows all 12 tenses. The three simple 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 are not currently happening, and it can be used for future events.

The Role of the Simple Tenses

Here is an explanation of how the three simple 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:
  • I went.
  • He saw.
The Simple Present Tense. The simple present tense is a complex tense. It is used:
UseExamples
(1) To describe facts and habits
  • Lee loves pies. (Fact)
  • I play chess on Tuesdays. (Habit)
  • (NB: These activities do not have to be happening right now.)
(2) To describe scheduled events in the future
  • The plane arrives at 7 o'clock.
  • The sun rises at 0530 tomorrow.
  • (I know! It's supposed to be the present tense!)
(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:
  • I will go.
  • He will see.

Examples of Verbs in the Simple Tenses

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

In the Past Tense:
  • I cleaned the window.
  • (simple past tense)
  • They cleaned the window.
  • (simple past tense)
In the Present Tense:
  • I clean the window.
  • (simple present tense)
  • They clean the window.
  • (simple present tense)
In the Future Tense:
  • I will clean the window.
  • (simple future tense)
  • They will clean the window.
  • (simple future tense)

Forming Verbs in the Simple 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 jumped.
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 jump.
  • He jumps.
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 jump.

The Simple 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 "Simple Aspect"

The term simple aspect is used to group all verbs (past, present, and future) in the simple 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 simple 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 Simple 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