PRESENT If I win the lottery.. 

I have to study tonight


He has missed the bus


I play tennis


The motorway is being completed next year


The motorway is going to be completed next year

…I will travel around the world 

I must study harder!


He must have missed the bus


I can play tennis


the motorway may be completed next year



PAST If I won the lottery… 

I had to study last night


He arrived late because he had missed the bus


I used to play tennis on Saturdays


The motorway was being completed


The motorway was going to be completed next year


If it weren’t for the economic crisis….

.. I would travel around the world 



He shouldn’t have missed the bus



I would play tennis on Saturdays









..the motorway might have been completed last year.

All verbs in the present tense refer an actual, current situation

All verbs in the past tense refer to a remote situation, either in time (e.g. last night) or reality (e.g. if I won the lottery)

Ideas of ‘real’ or ‘unreal’ depend on the speaker who chooses the form. The person who says “If I win the lottery, I will travel around the world” sees this situation as a real possibility! (Little do they know that, apparently, the chances of a particular number being the winning one are less than the chances of a meteorite colliding with the Earth!)


All non-modal forms describe a situation or make statements of fact (as seen by the speaker)

All modal forms introduce an idea/judgement/attitude related to that fact. The person who says “I have to study” describes a situation, possibly imposed upon them by an external authority, but makes no comment on the desirability of that situation. The person who says “I must study” expresses their feeling of needing to study in order to reach a goal.

Likewise, “I used to play tennis” states this as a fact, whereas “I would play tennis” introduces the speakers wish (or will) to perform that action.


If the present tense refers to a what the speaker sees as current reality, and the past tense refers to remote situations, the aspects help us express how we see the relationship between the verb and its context:

What does the PERFECT express?

Have you ever been to Canada?

I’m hungry – I haven’t eaten lunch yet!

His stomach was rumbling all through the meeting because he hadn’t had time to eat breakfast that morning!

What about the CONTINUOUS?

I am sitting at my computer, when I should really be helping my daughter with her homework.

He broke his leg while he was playing football

While he was doing the shopping, his wife was enjoying some time alone watching the football on the TV.

What about a combination of both – the PERFECT CONTINUOUS?

I’ve been working all day

He was out of breath. He seemed to have been running.

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