How many tenses do English speakers actually use? 

How many tenses do English speakers actually use? 

by Laura Jones
January 10, 2021

Studying English and wondering if you really need to learn all of those tenses? You’re not the only one. There’s no denying that English has a lot of grammar to learn. There are arguments about how many tenses there really are, but it certainly feels like learning them is an endless process for English learners. 

How many verb tenses are there in English? 

Two, actually. Past and present.

The rest of what you think of as tenses are actually aspects of a tense; the past perfect is an aspect of the past tense. And we talk about the future using different modal verbs, like will.

So do English speakers use all of the tenses in English? Yes, of course, if you’re convinced there are only two. However, most summaries of English tenses show that there are 12 tenses, and learners are instructed to study and use them all. 

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Table of the English tenses

SimpleI wentI goI will go
ContinuousI was goingI am goingI will be going
PerfectI had goneI have goneI will have gone
Perfect continuousI had been goingI have been goingI will have been going

Which tenses do native English speakers use most often?

Present simple

The most common tense used by native speakers is the present simple. You’re probably thinking: Hallelujah!

This is the first tense that learners are taught with phrases such as “My name is Tom and I am 7 years old.” And it is by far the most useful tense: in spoken language, over 50% of interactions are done in the present simple.

Things like arguing: “You always leave your dirty undies on the bathroom floor!” or complaining: “This blender doesn’t work.”  

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Past simple

The next most common tense used in spoken English is the past simple. Good news again! We use the past simple to tell stories about our past experiences. We talk about our holidays and our work, we gossip and we tell people the news. “went to Crete in July,” or “heard Jean got a boob job!”.

Next comes the future simple. Yes! Another easy tense, this is the future with will. Native speakers use this tense all the time: “I think I’ll have another cup of tea.” “Don’t worry Pat, I’ll pick you up on Friday.” This tense is often used for the spontaneous, unplanned future, which apparently we native speakers like a lot. 

If only I could stop writing there, you’d be a happy English learner right?

Unfortunately, there is one more tense which comes up a lot in spoken English. And it’s the present perfect. Noooooo! Most learners have real trouble mastering this tense. But native speakers? We love it.

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Present perfect

We use it to talk about things that have just happened: “have just seen your husband kissing another woman!”. Things which started in the past and continue to the present: “have lived in the UK all my life.” Things that have a bearing on the present: I’ve lost my keys so I can’t get in the house.” This happens more often than most of us want to admit. And experiences without being too specific: “have read three Jane Austen books.” This last one might sound a bit like bragging, but let’s be honest, we all do it.

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Which tenses don’t native speakers use?

Native speakers rarely use the future perfect, the future continuous or the future perfect continuous. This goes for both spoken and written English.

If you think about it, it’s rare in normal conversation to have to say: “By this time next week, I will have lived in Australia for 10 years.” You do need the future perfect to say this sentence correctly, but it’s a once in a blue moon statement. Similarly, “This time next month, I’ll be sitting on the beach in Italy,” is, sadly, a once a year statement for most of us.

We also rarely use the past perfect continuous. It’s not often in normal life that we say, “had been waiting 10 minutes before you showed up.” Native speakers are more likely to say, “I was waiting for 10 minutes…” or even, “I waited 10 minutes…”. 

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Which English tenses should I learn?

Well, all of them. Because when you need the future perfect, you need it.

However, knowing which tenses native speakers use most often can help you decide how much time to devote to learning each tense. In classes, teachers often focus attention on the rarer, seemingly more difficult tenses.

You should focus on studying the simple tenses and the present perfect, as over 95% of your interactions will be in these tenses.

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So, how many tenses do English speakers actually use?

12. How many do we use frequently? 4. Good news!