Verb Tense Timelines

verb tense timelines

Verbs express an action or state and verb tense timelines help us understand how to use verbs correctly to indicate when the action took place.

As well as different tenses, verbs are categorised to indicate their form and uses. 

In English, verbs are made up of 2 parts:
tense + aspect

Tells the time period that the action happens in:
– happening now (present)
– happened already (past)
– will happen later (future)

Tells how the action of the verb unfolds in time, for example:
– some actions happen only once, some actions are repeated
– some actions last a short period of time, some actions extend for longer periods 

English has 3 main tenses
– present
– past
– future*

and each of these takes 4 aspects:
– simple 
– continuous (or progressive)
– perfect
– perfect continuous

so there are 12 major tenses

You may see more than one name for the same tense, for example:
Simple Present and Present Simple are the same
Progressive and Continuous are the same – Past Progressive, Past Continuous, Continuous Past are the same
* some consider that the future is not strictly a tense in English see Wikipedia 


Tense decides if the reference is to an action in the present or past or future. 

Lucy is eating her sandwich. (present)
Lucy was eating her sandwich. (past)
Lucy will be eating her sandwich. (future)


Aspect gives more detail on how the action takes place in relation to time.

single action 
habit or repeated actions

Continuous (Progressive)
ongoing or incomplete actions
one moment in time

to be + main verb ending +ing 

completed actions
connects two points in time – something happened before something else happened

to have + main verb ending +ed or irregular

Perfect Continuous (Perfect Progressive)
connects two points in time (like Perfect)
expresses that an action is incomplete (like Progressive/Continuous)

to have + been + main verb ending +ing


A transitive verb needs a noun to receive the action of the verb, known as a direct object, in order to express a complete thought.

She is bringing – this is incomplete 
She is bringing a cake.

If a direct object is not present, the meaning does not make sense, and the reader or listener will be left with questions like, what or who the information refers to.

Sam gave – this is incomplete – what did Sam give?
Sam gave a book to Sally.

He will sell – this is incomplete – what will he sell?
He will sell his car.

There are many transitive verbs. Some common transitive verbs include:


An intransitive verb does not need a direct object to make sense.

He ran.
She sat.


A linking verb don’t express action, as verbs usually do. They connect the subject and the rest of the sentence by describing the subject using an adjective or a noun.

She was sad.
He was hungry.
she/he are the subjects
/hungry are the adjectives
was is the linking verb 

The chefs are all masters.
chefs is the subject
masters is a noun
are is the linking verb


These are also known as helping verbs and are used with a main verb to form some of the different tenses in English.

The most common auxiliary verbs are to be, to have, to do.

Chris was eating his lunch.
Do you go to the cinema often?

More details on Auxiliary Verbs


Modal verbs are a form of auxiliary verbs.

They include can, could, will, would, shall, should, ought to, must, may might.

Modal verbs do not change form and are often used with the verb to have.

More details on Modal Verbs


Phrasal verbs are made up of:  
verb + preposition or adverb
This results in a new meaning that is different from that of the separate parts.
Examples include
to take off

to work out
to spell out
to break up
to set off
to pull through

The plane is taking off late.
She works out at the new gym every lunchtime.

There are hundreds of phrasal verbs in English.