ESL Corner: Perfect and Continuous Tenses

When English language writers wish to reference a block of time collectively—last week, later, Saturday afternoon—they treat it as one point in time.  This applies to simple past and simple future.  English language writers use simple present for things done routinely or habitually. Think of simple present as this point in life or even this point in history.

Statue of LibertyBut people don’t interact with time quite so simply. We often do two things almost at the same time, and the sequence matters, like the following example:

Before I realized where I was, I saw the Statue of Liberty rising up before me.

This week’s post covers a few of the tenses that English language writers use to convey more complicated relationships with time; specifically, continuous, perfect, and continuous perfect.


Continuous tenses (also called progressive tenses) describe an ongoing activity, whether past, present, or future. They use “to be” as an auxiliary, or helping, verb followed by the –ing form of the action verb.

All complex tenses require a reference point. In present continuous, the reference point is understood to be now. Past continuous and future continuous require a time, like 9:00 AM or an activity, like when you called.

* Present Continuous – You are learning English (now).
* Past Continuous – We were cleaning the house when you called.
* Future Continuous – He will be playing football at noon.

Perfect tenses express two specific moments in time sequentially. Perfect tenses use “to have” as the auxiliary verb followed by a past participle.

In regular verbs, the past participle is the same as the simple past tense. Irregular verbs must be memorized.

Like continuous tenses, perfect tenses require a time reference.

* Present Perfect – I have already done my English homework (now).
* Past Perfect – We had already finished cleaning when our guests arrived.
* Future Perfect – They will have played the football game by the time we arrive.


Both past and future continuous perfect tenses imply that the previous action stops at the moment the next action occurs. Again, time references are required.

* Past Perfect Continuous – We had been cleaning the house when you called.

The sentence implies the cleaning has stopped. Compare with the past continuous:
* We were cleaning the house when you called.

Examples, cont’d:
* Future Perfect Continuous – He will have been playing football for an hour when we pick him up.

This sentence implies the player will stop playing football when we pick him up.

However, unlike past and future perfect continuous tenses, present perfect continuous describe an ongoing activity.

* Present Perfect Continuous – I have been learning English.

In this case, the speaker is still learning. Compare with the simple past:
* I learned English. – implying an action that has ended.

Now compare with the past continuous:
* I was learning English before I got married and had to take on extra hours at work. – also implying that the learning has now ceased.

Got it?

Well, it takes practice, so practice, practice, practice!

See you next time, in the ESL Corner.

Liam HickeyLiam Hickey currently teaches ESL with Corporate English in Guadalajara, Mexico.  Via Willpower Careers, Liam also works as a career coach, teaching people how to write effective résumés, research companies, interview and negotiate salary, network, and more.  His clients also benefit from his ten years of technical writing and consulting experience.

He can be reached at or

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