The last chapter of the textbook contains a review of verb tenses, so I thought I could double up lesson planning and blog posting. Consider:
I eat pizza. I am eating pizza. I have eaten pizza. I have been eating pizza.
I ate pizza. I was eating pizza. I had eaten pizza. I had been eating pizza.
Pizza is eaten. Pizza is being eaten. Pizza has been eaten. Pizza has been being eaten.
Pizza was eaten. Pizza was being eaten. Pizza had been eaten. Pizza had been being eaten.
I like eating pizza.
I want to eat pizza.
I will eat pizza.
Eating pizza is good.
I eat pizza is present simple (V/Vs). One use of present simple is to express a proposition which is always (or usually, or sometimes) true.
I am eating pizza is present continuous ([am/is/are] Ving). The usual use of present continuous is to express an event which is occurring now (or around now). It can also be used to talk about a plan or arrangement for the (near) future.
I have eaten pizza is present perfect (simple) ([have/has] V-pp). The two main uses of present perfect are: 1) life experience (once or more times) – I have eaten pizza in my life (true) and 2) past event with present result or significance – I’m not hungry because I have eaten pizza already today (not true).
I have been eating pizza is present perfect continuous ([have/has been] Ving). Present perfect continuous usually means 1) more times, or 2) longer duration, or 3) more immediately before now than present perfect simple – I have been eating pizza all my life or I’m really not hungry because I have just been eating pizza.
I ate pizza is past simple (V-ps). The usual use of past simple is to express a proposition which was true once or (always, usually, sometimes) more times in the past.
I was eating pizza is past continuous ([was/were] Ving). The usual use of past continuous is to express an event which was occurring at some time in the past. It is often used with an expression of time (I was eating pizza at 3 am), or with ‘while’ to indicate that two longer events were occurring at the same time (I was eating pizza while you were doing the housework), or with ‘when’ to indicate that the longer event was interrupted by a single, shorter event (I was eating pizza when you hit me with the vacuum cleaner and told me to do some housework).
I had eaten pizza is past perfect (simple) ([had] V-pp). The two main uses of past perfect are: 1) life experience (once or more times) before a relevant time in the past – I had eaten pizza in my life before I travelled to Italy and studied pizza making (not true), and 2) event before a relevant time in the past with result or significance at that time in the past – I wasn’t hungry when I arrived at work yesterday because I had eaten pizza already yesterday morning.
I had been eating pizza is past perfect continuous ([had been] Ving). Past perfect continuous usually means more times, longer duration, or more immediately before a relevant time in the past – I put on 10 kg because I had been eating too much pizza or I had crumbs on my clothes because I had been eating pizza on the train.
The next eight verb tenses are the passive voice equivalents of the first eight. Much nonsense has been written about the passive voice in English, usually by people who a) can’t reliably identify it when they see it, and b) use it quite naturally in the course of writing rubbish about it. It is a perfectly good part of English, and capable of good use and bad use. Its primary use is focus: what are we talking about right now? If you ask ‘What do you eat?’, I would probably answer ‘I eat pizza’, not ‘Pizza is eaten by me’. But if you ask ‘What do you know about pizza?, I would probably answer ‘Pizza is eaten by many people in many countries’, though it is always possible to answer ‘Many people in many countries eat pizza’. Otherwise, the meanings of the passive voice tenses match pretty closely with the active voice tenses. (For a previous post about the passive voice, see here.)
It is almost always possible, and almost always reasonably stylistic, to use active voice tenses (and they’re easier to make). It is not always possible, and not always stylistic, to use passive voice tenses (and they’re harder to make). Using passive voice tenses is often a deliberate grammatical or stylistic decision. Passive voice tenses get more unusual and rarely used quicker than the equivalent active voice tenses. I can think of reasonable contexts for past perfect continuous active, but it is difficult to think of a reasonable context for past perfect continuous passive.
PS the next day – this morning I whipped up this table, which I’ll let them use as a cheat sheet in today’s fortnightly exam. Because auxiliary verbs divide into three (are/am/is), two (were/was and have/has) and one (had), is not possible to include all possible forms on one reasonably-laid-out page. It is also not possible to include negatives and questions (which in same cases include the auxiliary do).
PPS two days later – I partially fixed the second of those problems by creating another table which shows the negative and question forms with ‘I’ (active) and ‘Pizzas’ (passive). I’ve made some verb tenses smaller – partly to fit them into the available space and partly because they are so rare. I think there’s something about ‘been being’ and ‘be being’ that our brain just can’t cope with (mine, at least).
But wait, there’s more …