All the Tenses in Three Courts


A wise teacher once laid out all of the English tenses in a way that made sense to me. I am sorry to say that I don’t remember her name. She was a guest lecturer in a class I took through Seattle University. I remember, for some reason, that we were at Seattle Pacific University. Anyway, she compared the tenses to tennis courts. She wrote out the three courts and filled them in with tenses in the place of the four players as though it were a doubles game.

To start, here’s a picture of those tennis courts:




The three larger boxes here look something like a doubles match of tennis. In the future box a game of tennis would play Simple Future and Future Continuous against Future Perfect and Perfect Continuous. The teacher explained to our class that writers must be ware of changing tenses. Just like you wouldn’t move from one tennis court to the other, writers need to be careful about moving their game from one tense to the other. This isn’t to say the writer (or tennis player) can’t ever change courts. I just requires more notice. In tennis, you’d tell your friends that the court over on the other side looks better, pick up your balls and march over with your rackets. In writing, you use clues to let the reader know. You’d say ‘in the past’ or some other phrase to let the reader know the game has changed.

I also like this way of laying out the verbs to remember the forms of verbs. If I know one box, then I know all three. I change the words future, present and past and I can easily see the pattern. This helps to remember the forms if English is my second language. It helps to understand what we already do when English is my first.

The Verb that Keeps Going


When I was in Germany, I interviewed to teach English as a second language long before I had credentials. This was in (pause for effect) 1992.  I had helped in a few EFL classrooms but never studied English grammar the way a second language teacher would. The young beautiful woman interviewing smiled as she asked me questions. I wasn’t stressed.  I would have been if I’d known how little I knew about teaching.

“So,” she said, “What’s the difference between the simple present and the present continuous?” She still smiled. I got the feeling that she was proving herself right about my lack of grammatical know-how.

“Excuse me?” I asked. I thought Mr. Sharrar had once said something about the tenses in 11th grade at Auburn High School. But I wasn’t sure.

“If I say, ‘I use the pen,’ how is that different from ‘I am using the pen?'” she asked, the smile still reassuring me that even though she knew I would get this wrong, I’d still get the job.

“Uh…” And here my memory fails me. I think I said something ridiculous like using the pen is faster. I can’t be sure. 1992 was, after all, a long time ago. Most native speakers don’t know what they are telling themselves and each other when they use these two different tenses. That’s why they confuse the continuous with passive voice when they are writing. The good news is that, while passive voice is not something you want to use often in your writing, the continuous is a good strong way to express yourself.

If you are like me in 1992, however; you might need some explanation to understand just what that interviewer was talking about.

Continuous verbs (also called ‘progressive’ in some grammar books) describe action that is happening right now or that take some sort of progression to complete. For example, ‘I am using the pen’ describes me using the pen in this present moment whereas ‘I use the pen’ can describe a pen I use on a regular basis but not necessarily right now.

Another explanation is of the baby who ‘sleeps.’ Maybe she isn’t sleeping right now but she sleeps every night and doesn’t wake her mother up every two hours. In comparison, if you say the baby ‘is sleeping’ she has her eyes closed right now and is asleep.

More explanation and practice:



These explanations and practices are mostly for people studying English as a second language or trying to teach it. Writers, however, sometimes confuse the continuous with passive because it has the ‘to be’ verb. I did not find websites with a comparison of the passive voice and the continuous tense but here is a quick layout to help you get it:

Continuous = to be + ing and involves and action currently happening

Passive = to be + past participle

In case you wondered, I did get that job teaching English even though I needed much more grammatical knowledge than I had at the time. I remind myself of this when I feel the urge to squint my eyes at young or retired people who cruise the world, getting English teaching jobs without knowing what they are getting into. We all start somewhere. I’m just glad I took the time to figure out what I was doing and hope others will do the same.