Mastering Tense in the English Language: The Present
Writing in the English language is far from an easy task, especially for those academics and scientists who are not native speakers of the language. Among the many challenges faced by authors is the appropriate and accurate use of the various tenses of English verbs. In casual speech it may not always be essential to conjugate verbs perfectly, but when you are writing sophisticated scholarly prose, using the wrong tense can prevent you from explaining your methods and results clearly and precisely and even cause you to confuse and potentially mislead your readers. It is therefore imperative to have a firm grasp of the most commonly used tenses.
The most basic tense in English is the simple present tense. Examples include ‘I am thin,’ ‘you do it well,’ ‘she sings,’ ‘he swims daily’ and ‘they lie down at this time every afternoon.’ This tense is used when something is happening or done right now or when an action or state is general, habitual or ongoing. The simple present tense can also be used in conditional sentences, as in ‘Yes, if you do it right the first time’ and ‘if he swims every day, he will be very fit.’
The present continuous tense is constructed with the present tense of the auxiliary verb ‘to be’ and the present participle of the main verb. ‘You are doing well,’ ‘he is swimming right now’ and ‘they are lying down for a rest’ are all correct examples. If the meaning is negative, ‘not’ should be inserted between the two verbs, as in ‘you are not doing well.’ The present continuous is used when an action is happening now or around now, but it can also be used to describe future action if that action is already planned before the sentence is spoken or written and a word or words indicating the future are included. For example, ‘we are eating at a restaurant this evening’ and ‘I am swimming tomorrow too.’
The present perfect tense often creates difficulties for those learning English, though its construction is relatively straightforward. It is formed from the simple present tense of the auxiliary verb ‘to have’ followed by the past participle of the main verb. For instance, ‘I have swum every day this week,’ ‘you have done well,’ ‘he has sung in three different choirs this year’ and ‘we have visited that country several times.’ For negative sentences, ‘not’ should appear between the two verbs, as in ‘you have not done well,’ and for questions, the subject should be inserted between the two verbs: ‘Has she made the team?’ As its name suggests, the present perfect is connected to both the past and the present, so it is used to express experience and to communicate both a change and a continuing situation. ‘I have lived there, ‘the price of fuel has gone up again’ and ‘they have been ill for weeks’ all demonstrate the correct use of the present perfect.
The present perfect continuous tense uses a threefold structure of two auxiliary verbs and a main verb. The first auxiliary verb should be the simple present of ‘to have,’ while the second auxiliary verb should be the past participle of ‘to be,’ and the main verb should follow as a present participle. Examples include ‘he has been swimming for years,’ ‘they have been walking in the country’ and ‘I have been considering a change.’ If a negative construction is required, ‘not’ should be inserted after the first auxiliary verb, and if a question is intended, the subject should appear after that first auxiliary verb: ‘I have not been walking every day as usual’ and ‘have you been working on your article?’ The present perfect continuous is used to write about action that started in the past and is still continuing or has recently stopped. For instance, ‘my throat is sore now because I have been singing for hours today’ and ‘she has been studying since this morning and is not stopping yet!’
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