Use of English


Read the text and do the exercise below:

In a broad valley at the foot of a sloping hillside, beside a clear bubbling stream, Tom was building a house.

The walls were already three feet high and rising fast. The two masons Tom had engaged were working steadily in the sunshine, their trowels going scrape, slap and then tap, tap while their labourer sweated under the weight of the big stone blocks. Tom’s son Alfred was mixing mortar, counting aloud as he scooped sand on to a board. There was also a carpenter, working at the bench beside Tom, carefully shaping a length of beech-wood with an adze.

Alfred was fourteen years old, and tall like Tom. Tom was a head higher than most men, and Alfred was only a couple of inches less, and still growing. They looked alike, too: both had light brown hair and greenish eyes with brown flecks. People said they were a handsome pair. The main difference between them was that Tom had a curly brown beard, whereas Alfred had only a fine blond fluff. The hair on Alfred’s head had been that colour once, Tom remembered fondly. Now that Alfred was becoming a man, Tom wished he would take a more intelligent interest in his work, for he had a lot to learn if he was to be a mason like his father; but so far Alfred remained bored and baffled by the principles of building.

The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett

Read the text above and find an instance of the following verb tenses:

Past simple:

Past continuous:

Past perfect:



English tenses have two elements of meaning: time and aspect.


Is the action present, past or future?

It is important to remember that time and tense are not always the same in English. Present tenses often refer to the present time, but not always; similarly, past tenses do not always refer to past time.


The train leaves at ten tomorrow

I wish I knew what to do, but I don’t.(past tense form referring to the present)


The three aspects add another layer of meaning to the action of the verb.

· Simple: The action is seen as a complete whole. Eg. I went skiing last weekend.

· Continuous: The action is seen as having duration. Eg. How long have you been waiting?

· Perfect: The action is seen as completed before another time. Eg. When we arrived, Peter had already had dinner.


The choice of verb form depends on many factors, and not on a set of rigid grammatical rules.

1. The nature of the action or event.

Because English can employ its various aspects, events can be viewed with a multiplicity of implications.

Eg. I have been phoning my son all morning. In some languages this verb form is in the present (Llevo toda la mañana llamando a mi hijo). But in English the perfect aspect emphasizes both past and present and the continuous aspect expresses the repetitive nature of the action. Neither of these two ideas are expressed by the present tense.

2. How the speaker sees the event.

Look at these sentences:

a. He always buys her flowers.

b. He’s always buying her flowers.

c. I’ll talk to Peter about it this afternoon.

d. I’ll be talking to Peter about it this afternoon.

In each pair of sentences, the actions are the same, but the speaker looks at them differently. In sentence a, the Present Simple expresses a simple fact. The Present Continuous in sentence b conveys the speaker’s attitude, one of mild surprise or irritation.

In sentence c, will expresses a promise or a decision made at the moment of speaking. In sentence d, the Future Continuous is interesting for what it doesn’t express. There is no element of intention, volition or plan. The speaker is saying that in the natural course of events, as life unfolds, he and Peter will cross paths and talk, independently of the will or intention of anyone concerned. It is a casual way of looking at the future, which is why we can find it in questions such us ‘will you be using the toilet for long?’, which is much less confrontational than ‘Are you going to be using the computer for long?

3. The meaning of the verb.

In some cases, the choice of verb form might be suggested by the meaning of the verb. A verb such as belong expresses a state or condition that remains unchanged over a period of time. Other such verbs are mean, understand, believe, adore, remember, etc. It would therefore be more likely to find them in simple verb forms.

This house belonged to my grandfather. Now it belongs to me.

Similarly, verbs such as wait and rain express the idea of an activity over a period of time, and so are often found in continuous verb forms.

Eg. I’ve been writing this report for hours

It’s raining again

More explanations on verb tenses:

Icono de IDevice de pregunta EXERCISE
Choose the correct verb forms in the following text. Then select the text to see the correct answers.

My husband and I 1decided/have decided to learn Spanish a year ago. We 2never went/’ve never been to Spain, but we 3want/’re wanting to go there next year. We 4advised/were advised to have lessons and we 5’re studying/’ve been studying with a private teacher for three months –we 6usually give/’re usually given some homework to do every week.

I 7was starting/started mine when I got back from work last night. I 8know/’m knowing that my grammar isn’t very good yet, but while I 9read/was reading my coursebook I recognised a lot of Spanish words so I 10think/’m thinking my vocabulary 11gets/is getting better. My husband often 12works/is working late so he can’t study much, but he 13has/’s having a few days’ holiday at the moment so he can do a bit more. Our teacher says that we 14’re learning/’v learned a lot since September. We 15’ve been/were pleased when she 16was telling/told us that! Before we 17started/had started having lessons we 18’ve never spoken/’d never spoken any Spanish at all!