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Concourse 2

Complex tenses


This guide assumes you are familiar with the form and meaning of all the tenses in English and comfortable with the concepts of aspect and voice.
If that is not the case, you should refer to the introductory guide to English tenses and/or the guide to tense and aspect (new tabs).



If you have the familiarity suggested above, this will be known to you.
What is the difference between the tense forms in these examples?

  1. He arrived
  2. He has arrived
  3. She left
  4. She was leaving

Sentences 1 and 3 are simple tense forms but sentences 2 and 4 display an aspect of the tenses, perfect aspect in sentence 2 and progressive aspect in sentence 4.
Many languages, as you will also know, do not have a way of differentiating between the senses in 3. and 4., relying on context and adverbials to make the meaning clear.  Additionally, many other languages do not differentiate formally between the aspects in sentences 1 and 2 although some will, like Italian, differentiate between distant and close past events.


Combining aspects

Complex tenses are those in which English combines aspects, for example, the perfect and progressive but other aspects are also combined, and they cause considerable trouble for learners, especially for those whose first languages do not have a developed aspect system, or, arguably, an aspect system at all.  Learners from these language backgrounds have to come to terms not only with the forms in English (which include a range of auxiliary verbs) but also with acquiring the concepts which the forms signal.
That is not to say, incidentally, that other languages do not have complex verb phrases, just that English happens to have combinations of aspectual forms which are not usually parallelled in other languages.

Here are three examples for you to figure out the meanings.

  1. I have been running
  2. She will have been driving for hours
  3. They had been working all night

Click here when you have decided what the senses of these examples are.



Complex tenses are quite hard to form correctly.  They work like this:

Tense Form
Present perfect progressive subject + have / has + been + verb + -ing + adverbial(s)
It has been rain ing for weeks
Future perfect progressive subject + will / shall + have + been + verb + -ing + adverbial(s)
They will have been work ing for hours
Past perfect progressive subject + had + been + verb + -ing + adverbial(s)
She had been play ing poorly up to then

Understanding the forms is not at all easy and producing them fluently requires a good deal of practice.  The central issue is that complex tenses contain more than one primary auxiliary verb (be, have, get, do or will) which have to be ordered correctly in the correct form for the tense to be acceptably produced.  Any deviation usually produces nonsense such as, for example:
    *They will has be work
    *She had will be worked

    *I had will be doing it
Unusually, such utterances are rarely understood even by a sympathetic listener and almost never by someone untrained in the kinds of errors that learners may make.
Moreover, unlike some languages, English does not consistently allow adverbials to be embedded within the verb phrase so, while:
    They will definitely have been making numerous mistakes in the calculations
is acceptable,
    *They will have been definitely making numerous mistakes in the calculations
    *They definitely will have been making in the calculations numerous mistakes
    *They will have definitely in the calculations been making numerous mistakes

and a range of other formulations are not allowed.  None of this is obvious or intuitive to most learners
There is a guide in the initial plus section of this site to the main uses and forms of primary auxiliary verbs, linked below).



In spoken English, the auxiliary verbs are often contracted and the stress falls on the main verb and the adverbial (usually) so we get, e.g.:

  1. It's been raining for hours (/ɪts bɪn ˈreɪn.ɪŋ fə ˈaʊəz/)
  2. They'll've been working for hours (/ˈðeɪləv bɪn ˈwɜːk.ɪŋ fə ˈaʊəz/)
  3. She'd been playing poorly up to then (/ʃid bɪn ˈpleɪ.ɪŋ ˈpʊə.li ʌp tə ðen/)

If the phonemic script means nothing to you at the moment, don't fret.  Just try saying the sentences rapidly and notice how been is pronounced as bin and how the 'o' in for and to is reduced to a short sound such as the one at the end of sister (/ə/).

This gets worse in the negatives where we get, e.g.:
    They won't've been travelling for long (/ˈðeɪ wəʊntəv bɪn ˈtræ.vəl.ɪŋ fə ˈlɒŋ/)

This sort of thing is tough to say in a foreign language and learners need lots of practice perhaps including some drilling before they get it right.
Hearing the form is also a challenge because of the consistent use of contractions and weak forms.  This meansd that learners will often be unaware of some of the auxiliary verbs in what they hear and hear something like:
    I'll've been finished by six
    I've been finished by six
or even as
    *I'll finished by six
In particular, the reduced forms of will, had and been will often be missed.



For learners whose languages don't work at all like this (i.e., most of them), getting the concept clear is also tough going.  Time lines help a lot.  As a sort of test, can you match the lines to the forms?
Here are the examples again.  Click on the image when you think you have matched it to one of these.
    I have been working without a break and I'm exhausted
    She's been banging on the door for an hour
    He will have been spending too much money and will be broke.
    He will have been driving over 200 miles a day for weeks and will be fed up.
    He had been out riding that morning and was feeling refreshed and happy.
    He had been trying to fix the pipe on and off for weeks before he called in a plumber.

banging riding drive
plumber broke working

The first two examples above show the semantically determined difference between the progressive and iterative aspects.  Although both sentences contain been + -ing forms and are perfect in aspect, the sense of the verb bang is that it is an instantaneous action and cannot be a progressive one whereas the sense of the verb ride is one that implies a possible (almost certain) progressive action.  When the -ing form is used with instantaneous verbs such as bang, break, glance, cough etc., the sense signalled is of a repeated action but when it is used with a durative verb such as ride, read, study, sleep, drive etc., the sense signalled is of a progressive action rather than a repeated one.
The third example shows how a usually durative verb (drive) can be made iterative in aspect by the addition of adverbials (a day for weeks).  The fourth example also shows this phenomenon (the adverbials on and off for weeks).  The fifth example is slightly ambiguous because it could be interpreted as iterative if the spending occurred frequently but on separate occasions.
For learners whose first languages have no way to signal progressive aspects, that is troubling.


The passive

Using these tense forms in the passive adds another layer of complexity (which explains why we don't often choose to).  It is, however perfectly possible to make the complex-tense passive forms like this:

Tense Forms
Present perfect progressive passive subject + have / has + been + being + past participle + adverbial(s)
The car has been being serviced for weeks
Future perfect progressive passive subject  + will / shall + have + been + being + past participle  + adverbial(s)
The house will have been being  painted for days
Past perfect progressive passive subject + had + been + being + past participle + adverbial(s)
She had been being interviewed for 20 minutes

These forms are quite rare and, therefore, difficult to set in context for teaching purposes.  The time lines above will still, however, be applicable.
The complication in English, again not often shared by other languages, is that the verb be functions both to signal a progressive aspect and a passive voice.


Modal auxiliary verbs

In exactly the same ways that modal auxiliary verbs can be used with simple tenses, they can be deployed with complex ones.  We get structures such as these

  1. He must have been out walking because his boots are all wet and muddy
  2. They will have to have been driving all night so they will be tired when they arrive tomorrow

The past perfect progressive is not used with modal auxiliary verbs.  When we need to insert modality we use the present perfect progressive with the modal and follow it with a past tense if need be.  For example:

  1. *He must had been out walking in the rain because he came with wet, muddy boots.
    is unacceptable.  Compare 1. above.

We can even combine modality with the passive so it is, theoretically, possible to form examples such as:

  1. His car must have been being serviced if he came in a cab.
  2. The room can't have been being painted recently.  There was no smell of paint.
  3. He should have been being treated sooner but there will be a delay, I'm afraid.

These forms are rare, which is not to say they don't exist, of course.

An issue with modal auxiliary verbs concerns aspect.  With non-modal clauses, the use of the prefect aspect signals that events are considered as relational so, for example:
    She has arrived so now we can start the meeting
embeds the past event in the present to make the relation clear and
    They had lost their money so walked home in the rain
embeds the past event inside another event.
However, when modal auxiliary forms are used in the past, this relational sense is not always retained so.
    She can't have left at nine o'clock
may not be related to the present at all and refer to a finished past event set in absolute rather than relative time.
In that sense, the aspect is simple, not perfect.

cause and effect

Causative structures

What we can do with the passive and modal auxiliary verbs, we can also do with the causative so, again, the following are theoretically possible, albeit rare, apart from the present perfect progressive causative which is actually reasonably frequently used.  See 9., below.

  1. I will have been having my hair cut here for ten years by then.
  2. He must have been having to have his car serviced because he wanted a lift.
  3. Sorry I'm late.  I have been having my eyes tested.
  4. He had been having his old shoes repaired for years before he bought a new pair.
  5. She might have been getting her hair cut in town, I imagine.
  6. They couldn't have been getting the groceries delivered.

The very complex forms with passives, modal and causative constructions are, because of their comparative rarity, quite hard to teach but, at higher levels at least, the form and meaning is not difficult to analyse.


Teaching complex tenses

This is not easy for four reasons:

  1. The forms and their pronunciation (see above) are challenging and require a good deal of practice.
  2. The concepts are difficult to grasp and depend on knowing
    1. how the simple forms work in English
    2. how the progressive aspect is realised in English
    3. how the use of the perfect aspect is dependent on the speaker's view of an event
    4. how the distinction between progressive, continuous and iterative aspects is signalled.
  3. The use of the verbs be and have is confusing because both have more than one function: progressive and passive and perfect and causative signals, respectively.
  4. Other people's languages often just don't have equivalent constructions or distinctions.

Combining form and concept

There's little point simply focusing on the forms if the learners have no idea why they should be using them.  A good place to start, therefore, is by contrasting progressive and simple forms of the three tenses (not, please, at the same time).  For example, Step 1 can be to get the learners to figure out the difference in meaning between these pairs.

Sentence A Sentence B
He has played chess with his brother He has been playing chess with his brother (for three hours)
He had played the drums in a band before he became a solicitor He had been playing the drums but stopped when the neighbours complained
We will have finished by 6 We will have been working on this for 4 hours by 6
She will have called her mother She will have been calling her mother

Learners who already know how the perfect aspect affects current meaning and who understand the concept of duration and repeated action expressed through the progressive aspect will have the ability to unpack these meanings (and it is unwise to try to tackle this area with learners who don't).  They will also understand how the addition of the time adverbial affects meaning.

Once the concept is clear, for Step 2, you can focus on the form and the pronunciation in a reasonably controlled way.  The trick then is to go on to get the learners to make their own meanings.

Step 3:
The easiest tense to focus on is the present perfect progressive.  When learners have the sense of that, they can transfer the concept to the other complex tenses.  The ideas of durative or repeated actions are parallel across all three tenses.
A half-way house is to use visuals to get learners to use the forms correctly.
The following is for illustration purposes and mixes all the tenses.  It is far safer to focus on one at a time but the same kinds of visuals can be used for all of them.
Start with the sentence completion exercise before you go on the more challenging task of starting the sentences.

Prompt Finish the sentence Start the sentence
sitting alone He has been sitting in the park for hours and now he ...
He had been thinking about what to do next when ...
He will have been sitting alone for over an hour so it's time ...
... and now he's feeling hungry so is going home.
... so he decided to tell his father the truth.
... so he will be getting hungry.
working We have been thinking about .... and we believe ...
We'll have been talking about this ...
We had been discussing the problem when ...
... and we have decided to ...
... for 2 hours soon without getting anywhere.
... when she suddenly saw the solution.
chess They had been playing chess outside the pub when ...
Joe had been thinking for over ten minutes before ...
Harry: You'll've been thinking for twenty minutes soon
Joe: ...
... when it began to rain.
... when Joe decided he'd had enough.
Harry: ...
Joe: Will I?  Sorry.  I'll make a move in a minute.
driving I've been driving too long so I ...
He had been driving for 3 hours so he ...
He will have been driving for 7 hours so ...
... when I had to stop for petrol.
... he'll be tired when he gets here.
... when he realised he was lost.

Almost any visual of people doing something can be used in this way but it is important continually to check the concepts, of course, or the students will just be parroting the form without understanding its significance.

Step 4 is to get the learners to think about questions such as:

Then you can conduct a simple find-someone-who exercise as a way of getting feedback.
You will need to be very alert to the responses from your learners and prepared, for example, to explain why
    *I had been opening the front door before I came to class
is wrong.
Actions and events need to be durative or repeated (i.e., in iterative aspect) for the forms to work.


Combining form, concept and modality

This is, of course, even more challenging because it requires a mastery of form, concept and modal auxiliary verb meaning simultaneously.  It is not for the faint hearted and needs to be approached piecemeal.
A possible way is to get learners to modify sentences rather than construct them from scratch, like this:

Prompt Convert this sentence ... into a sentence with a modal auxiliary verb How does the meaning change? 
stone We had been walking for hours when we finally found the milestone We must ...  
work John has been working on the new part for weeks John should ...  
story The old man had been telling stories all his life The old man will ...  
ill The boss won't have been in the office today because he's ill The boss can't / couldn't ...  

It is very important that the fourth column is filled in and discussed, of course, or the exercise will be mere manipulation.  It is also the case that the third column can be completed with a variety of forms, all with slightly different meanings.  That, too, merits some careful discussion.

Once the learners are confident in using the forms and understand the concepts involved, you can go on to just providing a set of visual prompts to get them to produce appropriate utterances combining tense forms and modal auxiliary verbs.  Like this, perhaps:

Look at these images and make four sentences with can't, must, should and might, using the forms we have studied today.
The first one is an example.
think John must have been considering his options for a long time before he resigned his job.

That is really a very challenging exercise which cannot be done quickly.

Related guides
modality and aspect which explains how modal auxiliary verbs operate somewhat differently in terms of the relationships between time and meaning
aspect a guide which considers eight aspects in English
4 guides to time, tense and aspect for more on aspect and tense
primary auxiliary verbs which considers five primary auxiliary verbs in English: be, have, get, do and will (slightly unusually)
the causative which considers causative verbs and structures
the passive voice which has much more on the possibilities of, and constraints on, the use of the passive in English
a lesson on causatives this lesson is for fairly advanced learners and focuses on causative structures and causative verbs
syntax: phrases, clauses, sentences index for more choices from the in-service index