Expressions for time in English: talking about the past, present, and future

Expressions for time in English: talking about the past, present, and future

by Laura Jones

Updated November 10, 2022

There are lots of expressions for time in English. Talking about time is more than simply using the correct tense –past, present, or future– it’s also about using the correct vocabulary. A time expression helps us to be more specific about when something happened, is happening, or will happen. You can use time expressions to talk about the distant or near past and futures, and about what is happening right now. Let’s learn how to express time in English in some advanced ways.

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Time expressions in English

Here is a table of some of the expressions about time in English and the time they refer to. 

a long time agonowadayssoon
a little while agoat presentin the near future
in the pastat the momentin the distant future
at one timethese dayslater on
the day/week beforeat this timein an hour
back thenas I/we speaklater today/this week
in those daysfor the time beingeventually
last week/month/yearthis week/month/yearnext week/month/year

Now let’s look at some examples of these expressions for time in sentences. 

Past time expressions

Here are two example texts using past time expressions in English. 

“I was born in 1950. Back then, a lot of people didn’t have running water in their houses. In those days, people had a toilet in the backyard. That was a long time ago though, and now almost everyone in the UK has running water.”

“A little while ago, John’s tooth started hurting, so last week, he booked an appointment to see the dentist. He went yesterday and it was a surprisingly pleasant experience. At one time, the dentist was a place to be feared, but not anymore.” 

Present time expressions

Let’s look at a dialogue and a text using present time expressions in English.

  • Where are you living at the moment?
  • My apartment is being renovated so I’m staying with my parents for the time being. It’s being painted as we speak
  • I used to hate eating vegetables, but nowadays, they’re one of my favorite foods. In fact, these days, I eat vegetables with every meal – even breakfast! 

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Future time expressions 

Now here is a text and a dialogue using future time expressions. 

“I hope that I will be promoted to department head in the near future. I work really hard so I think it will happen soon. Eventually, I want to be the CEO, but that will be in the distant future.” 

  • What are you doing later today?
  • I’m leaving work soon and I am catching the bus home in an hour. Later on, I’m going to see my sister. 

Mixed time expressions

Finally, here is a text using several different time expressions in English.

“At one time, hardly anyone went on vacation abroad. In the past, most people stayed in the UK and tried to enjoy the weather! In those days, only really rich people went to places like Spain or Greece. Nowadays, most people have been abroad at least once. Just last week, my husband and I booked a vacation to Italy. We’re going next month. These days, getting on a plane and crossing the sea is nothing special. And who knows what vacations will be like in the distant future? I think eventually, we will be able to vacation on the Moon or even on Mars. But that won’t happen anytime soon.” 

Can you use these time expressions in English?

You’re probably familiar with the time expressions yesterday, today, and tomorrow, but can you use some of the more advanced ones, like a little while ago, as we speak, and in the distant future? Use these time expressions to talk about what life was like a long time ago, what you’re doing for the time being, and what plans you have for the near future. 

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Laura is a freelance writer and was an ESL teacher for eight years. She was born in the UK and has lived in Australia and Poland, where she writes blogs for Lingoda about everything from grammar to dating English speakers. She’s definitely better at the first one. She loves travelling and that’s the other major topic that she writes on. Laura likes pilates and cycling, but when she’s feeling lazy she can be found curled up watching Netflix. She’s currently learning Polish, and her battle with that mystifying language has given her huge empathy for anyone struggling to learn English. Find out more about her work in her portfolio.

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