September 2020
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Danièle Allard, Université de Sherbrooke and Bishop's University, Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada
Riichiro Mizoguchi, Japanese Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, Nomi, Japan

Danièle Allard

Riichiro Mizoguchi

Learning to use verb tenses appropriately is reportedly a major challenge in the process of ESL/EFL acquisition. Larsen-Freeman and Celce-Murcia (2015) strongly recommend that instructors focus on clear explanations of the various principles that govern English tenses and aspects. To this effect, grammatical explanations of tense rules are regularly featured in ESL/EFL pedagogical materials.

We work with advanced level students in Canadian universities. The curriculum proposes classes that entail a thorough or partial review of verb tenses and their appropriate uses to support text analysis and academic writing. A number of students, however, are not prepared for such a review, nor is there always time to consolidate what, presumably, has been covered in their English training prior to admittance into higher level ESL classes. Our classes also gather an increasing number of recent immigrants with large differences in ESL/EFL backgrounds who have a strong need to acquire English proficiency to pursue university degrees or secure employment. Added to these challenges is that available time in most teaching contexts for grammar is generally limited (Ellis, 2006), and instructors must decide upon suitable strategies within curriculum constraints. Given this situation and in an attempt to ease our students’ learning process, we began researching comprehensible shortcuts to the many verb tense rules our students need to contend with. We present one of these, which focuses on time (or adverbial) clause identification within a relevant time frame (past, present, or future). (For the sake of simplicity, we consider the following as “tenses”: future simple, progressive, perfect, and perfect progressive. We acknowledge that not all grammarians agree that these are tenses.)

Time clauses, as we know, are a common hallmark of English sentences. The grammar materials used in the institutions where we teach usually have at least one section dedicated to their identification, especially when future time is discussed, given that time clauses describing a future time frame necessarily (and, to many students, unexpectedly) call for present tenses. For example:

  • I’ll do it tomorrow, when I finish school (NOT: when I will finish).
  • I’m going to watch TV as soon as I have finished / [as soon as I finish] my homework (NOT: as soon as I will have finished).
  • John is planning to have a party while his parents are visiting relatives (NOT: while his parents will be visiting).
    (Thewlis, 1993, p. 270)

We cover the topic of time clauses at the beginning of a verb tense review. This allows us to introduce the shortcut suggestion described here. We begin the review by explaining the nature of clauses. Simply put, one verb implies one clause; two verbs, two clauses; and so on. We teach students to distinguish between a main (independent) clause and a dependent clause. The former can stand on its own; the latter cannot. In so doing, we provide and elicit a variety of examples. We further explain that independent clauses can be joined by a coordinating conjunction (FANBOYS: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). For example: The cat is grey and the dog is black. Finally, we explain that though there are different types of dependent clauses, our goal is to focus on the time clause, most often introduced by the following words/expressions: when, while, before, after, as soon as, until, by the time, since, whenever, as.

We review the examples and ask students to identify which dependent clauses are time clauses, an exercise they seldom find difficult to do. By this time, we have also reviewed stative verbs in contrast to action verbs (to be versus to walk). Recognizing English stative (or stative-meaning) verbs is relevant because these often call for nonprogressive tenses. Furthermore, knowledge of stative verbs based on native language cannot be relied upon given that these vary across languages. We conclude our lesson with a shortcut suggestion.

In sentences containing (dependent) time clauses, identify the time frame in the (independent) main clause. Does it describe the past (or something that began in the past), the present, or the future? Once established, a time clause tense can be chosen based on the shortcut shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Shortcut to Time Clause Tense Choice

Main Clause Time Frame

Tense in Time Clause

while/as + action verb*

Other time clauses


past progressive

simple past


present progressive

simple present


present progressive

simple present

*If a stative-meaning verb, proceed according to third column:
Jade is staying home while she has (is having) the flu.

In short, students feeling overwhelmed by the tense-aspect system understanding can make a number of reliable and somewhat straightforward choices. We further encourage them to pay attention to time clause identification (and stative/action verb identification) throughout the class. Among other things, we suggest that they systematically underline the words/expressions introducing time clauses in all examined exercises and written texts and pay attention to the verb tenses used.

We devised this shortcut as a result of analyzing the many sentences found in the tense practice exercises of more than ten international intermediate/advanced grammar ESL textbooks. Initially, we did this to be able to quickly direct students to featured tense rules so that they may understand the rationale behind any of the answers provided in class or through answer keys. Over time, we began to see a pattern for time clauses emerge, with one main exception, which we point out in class. A time clause featuring since may require a perfect tense:

  • I’ve known her since we were at school together [we no longer are].
  • I’ve known her since I’ve lived on this street [and still live there].
    (Swan, 2005, p. 513)

Experience with students over 3 years has generally confirmed that using this shortcut allows for appropriate tense choices in time clauses and greater focus on main clause tense uses, which generally reflect core rules. To see a more comprehensive list of examples demonstrating shortcut validity, one may consult the online grid describing various time clause patterns presented by Bergen Community College (Egan, 2020).

We inform students that this shortcut does not reflect all the possibilities for tense uses in time clauses (see the following examples), and we analyze the tenses in any such examples throughout the class. Students are further encouraged to experiment with the use of other tenses than those suggested in the shortcut. They are given a list we have drawn of salient examples and explanations to this effect that also demonstrate that the shortcut options essentially remain possible [provided in brackets where applicable/with relevant time frame identification]. Following are the main excerpts from this list:

(a) We usually use while to say that two longer actions or situations go/went on at the same time. We can use progressive or simple tenses:

  • While you were reading the paper, I was working. [Past]
  • John cooked supper while I watched TV. [was watching/Past]
    (Swan, 2005, p. 68)

(b) We can use as, when, or while to introduce a longer “background” action or situation, usually with a progressive tense. But as and while can be used with a simple tense, especially with a “stative” verb like sit, lie, or grow:

  • As I sat reading the paper, the door burst open. [was sitting/Past time frame] (Swan, 2005, p. 68)

(c) As is used (with simple tenses) to talk about two situations which develop or change together:

  • As I get older[,] I get more optimistic. [am getting (suggestion: become in main clause)/Present] (Swan, 2005, p. 68).

(d) After, before, as soon as, until, and when clauses can be used with perfect tenses to show that one thing is completed before another begins:

  • I’ll telephone you after I’ve seen Jake. [I see/Future] (Swan, 2005, p. 28)
  • He went out before [as soon as] I had finished my sentence. [finished/Past] (Swan, 2005, p. 84)
  • I waited until the rain had stopped. [stopped/Past](Swan, 2005, p. 594)
  • I will borrow her book when she has finished it. [finishes/Future].


(e) In time clauses with when, a statement that implies a what question concerning the future can be followed by the simple future:
  • Joachim must decide/doesn’t know (what?) when he will return home. [returns/Future]

(f) Finally, there are particular uses of perfect tenses that need to be examined in context:

  • While Daniko had been travelling, Jacques had tended the garden. [Past]

As language instructors, we definitely encourage the wealth of possibilities offered by the English language. Classroom experience, preliminary testing, and student comments have nevertheless demonstrated that the time clause identification shortcut has proven useful, especially to students struggling with verb tense choices. Not only do verb tense use mistakes in time clauses diminish and seemingly become less prevalent in speech, but students can place greater focus on main clause tense use understanding, which is where verb tense rules are more obviously featured. We have also used this shortcut with high school ESL students successfully, though our experience mainly lies with adults. Ultimately, this shortcut provides an option to facilitate verb tense use consolidation, namely in the context of institutions where testing prevails as a measure of ESL progress and fluency.


Egan, D. (2020). Guide for mixed tense exercises—Part 2: Time clauses.

Ellis, R. (2006). Current issues in the teaching of grammar: An SLA perspective. TESOL Quarterly 40, 83–107.

Larsen-Freeman, D., & Celce-Murcia, M. (2015). The grammar book: Form, meaning and use for English language teachers (3rd ed.). Heinle and Heinle.

Swan, M. (2005). Practical English usage (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press.

Thewlis, S. (1993). Grammar dimensions three—Form, meaning, and use (D. Larsen-Freeman, Ed.). Heinle & Heinle.

Danièle Allard, PhD, works both at Université de Sherbrooke, in the Faculty of Education, and Bishop’s University, in Continuing Education. She has taught second language courses for more than 20 years.

Riichiro Mizoguchi, PhD, is professor emeritus at the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. His research interests include knowledge-based systems, ontological engineering, and intelligent learning support systems.
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