30 Oct 2021

Is tense-based grammar necessary to speak English?

The burning question in this post – Is tense-based grammar necessary to speak English?

This write-up has partly been inspired by a 2003 paper by Mike Swan – a well-known writer of English language teaching and reference materials. 

Swan’s paper is entitled “Seven bad reasons for teaching grammar – and two good reasons for teaching some”.

In this post, I argue that (some) tense-based grammar is necessary to speak English. However, it’s down to syllabus writers and teachers to present RELEVANT bits and pieces of the English grammar system to learners. Moreover, English language learners should not feel they have to master every single verbal aspect. For instance, the future perfect progressive is so uncommon that it’s barely worth studying.


The “English tense system” – Is such grammar necessary to speak English?

Educators and English language students tend to correlate English grammar with the English tense system.

Unfortunately, syllabus writers brainwash teachers into thinking that they need to teach 24 (so-called) tenses to learners. Consequently, learners of English become brainwashed and riddled with fear themselves. After all, 24 is a large number.

Information posts about the English tense system – such as this one – don’t do teachers and English language learners any favours. Let’s move on and assess why tables such as the one below do more harm than good to teachers and English language learners:

24 tenses in English

12 regular “tenses” and 24 “tenses” in total with passives –  How many should you focus on?

I won’t get into a huge debate here about what the difference is between a tense and aspect. Nor will I discuss whether future is actually a verb tense at all. I dealt with those debates here.

When it boils down to the grammar necessary to speak English, I believe you only need to focus on FOUR aspects.

These aspects are:

  1. present simple
  2. past simple
  3. present perfect
  4. present perfect continuous

These aspects are most commonly used in everyday conversation.

Frankly, I can’t remember the last time I used the future perfect continuous. As for aspects like the future perfect continuous passive, don’t even bother with it. It’s not even common in written English, let alone spoken English. 

The grammar necessary to speak English is not as vast and extensive as you’ve been fooled to believe it is.

You need to prioritise. 

Prioritise is exactly what I’ve been doing with several of my students:

tenses and grammar necessary to speak English

In general, we’ve been focusing on the uses of the four key aspects. I’ve also offered my own personalised sentences which contain these four aspects. Next, my students come up with their own personalised sentences and tell stories about themselves. I type their responses into the appropriate column under my examples.

The icing on the cake is when my students can begin to speak about their lives and experiences using more than one aspect. 

To do that, they need to think in terms of numbers: 1-2-3-4.


What do you think about when you speak English?

Naturally, you shouldn’t be thinking about problems at work when you’re trying to shift between the present simple and past simple.

When you’re trying to apply an aspect such as the present simple correctly, or you wish to switch between aspects when speaking English, your mind should be in tune with simple mathematical patterns.

Hence, I’ve been teaching my students to think in terms of 1-2-3-4 when it comes to describing their lives and life experiences:

My students know the structures of the four aspects, so they only need to memorise:

1 – every day routines

2 – finished past

3 – general life experiences – no details

4 – past, present, future

“[4] I’ve been living in Warsaw for eight years, but [2] I LIVED in Berlin for ten years before [2] I MOVED to Warsaw. [3] I haven’t visited many places and districts in Poland because [1] I work a lot. I even work on weekends.”

You get the picture.

Have the numbers in your mind. 

Even resort to visualisation (four colours) if you need to. It may help you to make smooth transitions between the four key aspects.


Never ever forget to personalise to enable the four key aspects to sink in

Look, you need to make a personalised, emotional correction with a grammar point or tense/aspect in order for it to sink in.

Frankly, doing gap-fill exercise after gap-fill exercise in grammar workbooks won’t get you anywhere.

It’s all about making a mental and visual connection with true, personalised sentences.

What should you do if you wish to incorporate, for example, the present perfect aspect into your speech? 

If you’re interested in using the present perfect to talk about life experiences, start by working with a 1-2-2-2-2 pattern.

The present perfect vaguely outlines a life experience without giving specific details – our number 1:

1 – I’ve been to Belgrade plenty of times 

Then, you might want to go into detail. Hence, the past simple comes into play – our number 2:

2 –  The first time I WENT to Belgrade was in 2008.

2 – I remember that it WAS a really dirty and underwhelming city back then

2 – When I LIVED in Novi Sad between 2014-2018, I VISITED Belgrade quite a few times with my wife. It WAS great to see that the Government was fulfilling its promise of redeveloping large sections of central Belgrade



In terms of the tense-based grammar necessary to speak English, the number of aspects you need to learn is not that substantial.

Remember – 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 !

Of course, we can add one or two more commonly-used structures, such as going to (for future use) and would like to our list.

Still, prioritising is the name of the game.