Manage Your Verb Phrases

My formal education is in engineering. I liked numbers a lot more than words. Life events kind of shaped me in such a way to be teaching English in Slovakia in 1993. To become an effective teacher, I had to learn English grammar.

Don’t get me wrong. As an educated native English speaker, I was already pretty good at English grammar. I knew when grammar mistakes were made. I just didn’t know why!

As I delved more into the technology of the English language, I gained a better appreciation of all the nuances we have to express some complicated concepts.


“Be” is a fascinating verb in any language. Here are the dictionary definitions of the English “be”:

1. to exist or live
2. to take place or happen
3. to occupy a place or position
4. to continue
5. to belong
6. to attend

Indeed “be” has several somewhat abstract meanings, to which nearly all English speakers have an instinctual understand.

“Be” is also a very irregular verb, meaning it takes on forms not really related to the original verb. Here are the irregular forms in the present tense:

He/She/It IS
You (pl) ARE
They ARE

And in the past tense:

He/She/It WAS
You (pl) WERE

But in the future tense, the regular form comes back:

You (pl) WILL BE

“Be” can also be used to express a relative probability, in conjunction with modal verbs. For example, let’s answer this question: “The door bell is ringing. Who is it?”

It IS Fred. (100%)
It MUST BE Fred. (90%)
It MAY BE Fred. (50%)
It MIGHT BE Fred. (50%)
It COULD BE Fred. (25%)
It IS NOT Fred (0%)

With each answer, the speaker is giving an indication of how certain he or she believes the Fred was the person ringing the door bell.

This same aspect of grammar is also used in the past tense: “There’s a dead snake by the door. Who killed it?”

It WAS FRED. (100%)
It MUST HAVE BEEN Fred. (90%)
It MAY HAVE BEEN Fred. (50%)
It MIGHT HAVE BEEN Fred. (50%)
It COULD HAVE BEEN Fred. (25%)
It WAS NOT Fred. (0%)

Relative probabilities can also be expressed by various adverbs: Who is ringing the door bell?

It is PROBABLY Fred.
It is LIKELY Fred.

These two choices signify that the speaker is not 100% sure that Fred is behind the door.

There are other adverbs to express probability: How does Fred occupy his time?

He is ALWAYS killing snakes.
He is FREQUENTLY killing snakes.
He is OFTEN killing snakes.
He is SOMETIMES killing snakes.
He is OCCASIONALLY killing snakes.
He is SELDOM killing snakes.
He is NEVER killing snakes.

Linguists say that our brains are hardwired to express and interpret probabilities. And all languages have these features.

So it seems strange to me that much of our political discourse is USUALLY based on one extreme or the other. There is no allowance for any possible middle ground or uncertainty. For example, when I say: “Anthropological Global Warming MIGHT BE happening”, neither the climate change deniers nor the proponents for fighting climate change can not handle the verb phrase “might be happening.” To both sides, there is no uncertainty. Both sides are going against their human nature to express things in probabilistic terms when, in fact, no one really knows for sure.


Most native English speakers believe that the English language has 3 tenses: past, present, and future. Actually there are 13 tenses. And each tense communicates a subtle, yet powerful message.


Fred kills snakes.

While called “present,” this tense is actually used to convey a truth or something that happens all the time. It seems Fred’s occupation or hobby is killing snakes. He did this in the past; he will likely be doing it in the future. However, the tense really does not convey if the action is happening in the future.


Fred is killing snakes.

This tense actually represents the present: it is an activity that is happening right now.

It can also be used to convey the future with the right syntax: Fred is killing snakes next Friday.


Fred killed snakes.

In this tense, we are describing an action that happened in the past and that action is completed.


Fred was killing snakes.

This tense conveys that an activity that was carried out for a longer period of time. It is not certain whether the activity is completed or not.

When the simple past and progressive past are used together, they can compare the duration of two activities: Fred was killing snakes when he had a heart attack.


Fred will kill snakes.

This conveys an action in the future that is likely to happen. However, it conveys a lower probability of happening than using the present progressive in a future sense: i.e. will kill is a little less likely to happen than is killing.


Fred will be killing snakes.

This conveys an action in the future that will be of a longer duration. As well, this tense can convey a lower probability of happening than the the simple future.


Fred is going to kill snakes.

This tense is used to convey either an almost certainty of the action happening OR the action is going to happen very soon.

Often in spoken English, the “is going to” phrase is mushed into the phrase “gonna”.

Notice that we have four tenses that convey a future action, but each has different degree of actually happening. Below the four tenses are ranked to their estimated probability:

Dave is going to write an article tomorrow (100%).

Dave is writing an article tomorrow (95%).

Dave will write an article tomorrow (90%).

Dave will be writing an article tomorrow (80%).


Fred has killed a snake.

This tense connects the present with the past. The action happened in the past, but that fact is important for the present. In this case, the actual killing took place in the past and probably not long ago. That is why we see Fred holding a dead snake.

Usually the action has been finished using this tense.

This tense also describes something that was experienced in the past. For example, Dave currently lives in Canada, but he has lived in Slovakia.


Fred has been killing snakes.

Similar to the simple present perfect, this tense connects the past with the present. However, it conveys that the action is likely to continue in the future.

The progressive present tense is often used with “for” and “since” coupled with a time phrase.

Fred has been killing snakes since 1993.

Fred has been killing snakes for 10 years.


Fred had killed snakes.

This tense communicates that, with certainty, the action is finished. However it is mostly used in conjunction with the simple past to compare the timing of two actions. The second action may be mentioned or it may be inferred from other syntax.

Fred had killed a lot of snakes when he had a mental breakdown.

In this case, the snake killing had happened before the the breakdown.


Fred had been killing snakes.

This tense conveys an action in the past which was completed but was of a longer duration.

Fred had been killing snakes since 1993.

Fred had been killing snakes for 10 years.

In both cases, the snake killing is no longer happening at the present.

As a general rule, a writer should not use the past perfect tenses unless there is a good reason.

And there are ways to convey the time difference without using the past perfect: Fred was killing snakes before he got married. But a properly used past perfect gives an artistic flair to the writing.


Fred will have killed snakes.

This tense describes an action that will be completed in the future. The action may or may not have started in the present. Usually there is some syntax to better communicate the time reference: Fred will have killed 1000 snakes by next Saturday.


Fred will have been killing snakes.

This tense conveys an action of a longer duration. The action will be fully realized in the future. The action probably has a connection with the present. Often there is syntax to clarify the state of the action: By 2019, Fred will have been killing snakes for 10 years.

As a general rule, a writer should not use the future perfect tenses unless there is a good reason.

— —

Quite often in my writing, I get a little stumped with the sentences aren’t working the way I want them to work. I then ask myself: “OK, what tense do I really want to be in?” That little question and knowledge of the 13 tenses help make the sentence stronger.

I hope this has been useful to those readers reaching this point in the article.

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