How to Decide Which Tense and Which Verb Form to Use?

By Robby

If you are new here please read this first.

Improve Spoken English


Hi guys. Hello boys and girls. Hello my dear fellow foreign English speakers. It’s Robby here from and welcome back to my video blog! Today I’m going to respond to a particular question that I received from one of my blog readers. And let me read it first and then we’re going to address it. Okay?

So “When I speak in English without translating from my native language…” which is the right way to do it, right? If you translate, you just can’t speak normally. So rule number 1; stop translating!

So “If I speak that way, I face the problem of tenses. Basically I cannot decide immediately which form of the verb should be used and all of that. So please let me know how I can deal with it. If you have any articles posted on your blog and if yes, send me the links or else please let me know of the solution.”

Let’s Wrap It All Up in a Single Article!

Now, here’s the deal. I have a number of articles that are related to this particular issue. But I’m going to wrap it all up in a single video here, right? Because I haven’t actually created a single article or a video addressing this particular question; how can I decide which tense or which form of the verb I have to use when I speak when I do it on the go basically. How do I decide? Okay?

And here’s an interesting thing my friends. Over the years I’ve actually I would imagine I’ve covered like all imaginable aspects of the English language and the fluency issues. All aspects imaginable, right? I just made a small mistake. Forgive me for that but that’s what I’m all about. I’m making mistakes just like you guys. I’m a human being. I’m not perfect. Okay?

So what I was going to say is I’ve covered hundreds and hundreds of different things when it comes to English fluency improvement. But there’s always a specific question that I haven’t answered. And that’s how I create these videos. Because when I read the email I realized immediately that this would make the perfect video because I’ve never actually answered this particular question, how do I decide what tense to go with and which form of the word to go with.

So first of all let me just tell you when – obviously you would be familiar with the whole concept of collocations and phraseology and word groups, right?

That’s what our English language is built from, word groups. And we have to learn those word groups that would enable us to speak fluently. We don’t just stick words together. Well, if we have the fluency issues whereby we stick the words together as we speak, we do it but that’s the wrong way.

If you want to speak naturally just like native English speakers do, then you would be using ready-to-go phrases and sentences and word groups. Okay?

Natural Speech Patterns Already Contain the Right Tenses and Verb Forms!

So as you go about your phraseology acquisition, first of all what I’m going to tell you is you would be learning word groups that would already contain all the tenses and the correct forms of verbs in them. That is the main point basically. The most important thing to bear in mind. And here’s a typical example.

Conditional sentence type 3, okay? Had I – I would have.

And let me give an example right off the top of my head. Had I not started running all those years ago I would have stayed – I would have remained an overweight man. Okay? But just because I’ve been running now for 8 years in a row – or something like that – I’m maintaining this physique and I’m maintaining a healthy body weight. So had I not been running all these years, I would have remained a fat person basically, right? Let’s call a spade a spade!

And you may think when you look at this particular grammar construct had I – I would have, that’s a very difficult grammar construct. How to wrap your head around it, right? But all you’ve got to do is just memorize it. Had I – I would have. And then when it becomes your second nature, you don’t have to think about when you have to use that tense.

You will automatically know when to use it just because you’ve memorized that particular grammar construct. Okay?

And the same goes with simpler expressions such as “I would have thought.”

It’s a typical expression used when – by the way you can click on these links right here because I’m changing them as I’m going along and basically I’m inserting the relevant links and you can click right on them in the video and it’s going to take you to my blog article and you’ll be able to read it and watch the relevant video and all that.

So I would have thought. Native English speakers use this expression to express the simple fact that they thought that something was the case but it turned out differently, right? So I would have thought that Jimmy was gone on holidays but I saw him at work yesterday. What’s the deal? Why is he back? I would have thought that he was gone on holidays, right?

So once you memorize that phrase “I would have thought”, it contains all the necessary grammar, all the tenses, the verb forms and all that in it. You don’t have to decide anything if you know what I mean!

The decision making is taken out of the equation so to speak. Once you memorize a ready-to-go phrase, it’s all wrapped up in a single package. You just memorize it and use it. And then there’s no decision making!

But here’s the deal, right? Obviously it’s all nice and well but when you speak, when you speak at great lengths, obviously at some stage down the line you will come across the situation when you have to make that decision.

Because obviously you wouldn’t be just using word groups and collocations and phraseology constantly. You will be making sentences as you go along because there’s no possible scenario whereby you can take like a hundred different phrases and create your speech purely out of them without using a single additional word, right? Obviously you would be using those phrases all the time but you would have to join them together to make sentences. Okay?

Here’s How to Decide Which Tense to Go With If You Have to – Go With Present Progressive!

So how would you decide then which tense to use when the situation demands? Here’s the rule of thumb that I would go by, okay? The present progressive tense. And this is something that I haven’t actually heard anyone else saying.

No English teacher would have told me that and I haven’t actually read it anywhere. But over the years as I’ve been working with my own English and I’ve been creating hundreds of articles and videos for my blog for you guys to enjoy, I’ve realized that the present progressive tense, basically “I’m doing something”, “I’m doing” is the most universal tense so to speak. You can use it to refer to any event happening in the past, in the now and in the future!

And here’s exactly what I’m talking about, right? I’m talking about the present actions; obviously you’re going to be using the present continuous tense, okay? And this is the link you can click on “Can present continuous substitute present simple tense?” right? Because obviously we are all taught that when describing actions that are ongoing at this particular moment in time, we would definitely have to use the present progressive tense.

But what about general activities that you engage in on a regular basis? They teach you that you have to use the preset simple – basically I work in such and such company, I go to work every day by bus blah-blah-blah.

So all those actions have to be described using present simple tense and only that tense, right? But here’s the deal.

Conversationally people use present progressive interchangeably with the present simple tense!

And just like is said, click on this link. Read the article. Read it once, read it two times till it registers and then you’ll realize what I’m talking about, right?

Basically I can easily say “I’m always driving to the college on the motorway. I’m always taking the motorway because it’s easier.”

I just used the present progressive tense. I didn’t say “I always take the motorway| even though I could have said it. But just because I chose to use the present progressive doesn’t make it incorrect!

So here’s a typical example how the present progressive works in both situations, whenever you’re referring to typical actions or actions that are on-going at this particular moment in time.

Past Events? Present Progressive!

Speaking of past events you may want to read this article “English Conversational Past Tense”, right? Conversationally when people talk about past events, they oftentimes kind of imagine themselves in that event and they kind of bring all those memories back and they talk about them as if they’re going on at this moment in time.

So the past becomes the present and obviously you can use the present progressive tense to refer to past events. Okay?

And just like I said, read the article, listen to the video, watch it and it’ll all make sense.

Future Plans? Present Progressive As Well!

And speaking of the future – where is the article? Yeah. This is the article. “Forget about Will Future Tense, Use Present Progressive Instead”. Basically this is one of the biggest mistakes made by you guys, you’d be using the WILL future, basically “I will do it” all the time when referring to future events.

But more often than that, native English speakers wouldn’t be actually using the WILL tense. They would be saying either “going to do something”, right? I’m going to do it. I’m going to go shopping today, right? Or “I’m going” which is more about events that you planned.

But you don’t necessarily have to analyze the whole thing and think about “hold on, is that an event I planned or is it something I didn’t really plan but I’m going to do it anyway?”

You can just stick with the rule of thumb of using present progressive. Okay?

I’m going shopping tonight. Tonight we’re going to the movies. Tonight we’re getting takeout and eating burgers and tacos, right?

So whenever you’re in doubt, stick with the present progressive. And this was the second point I was trying to make. The first one was – learn ready-to-go English speech patterns, collocations, phraseology and all that and they will already contain all the necessary grammar in it. You won’t have to conjugate anything!

And then when it comes to these decisions as to which tense to use as you join sentences together and as you talk about things that you wouldn’t be normally talking about then there would be less phraseology to use in those types of conversations, just go with the present progressive. I’m struggling to pronounce the name of the tense for some reason, right? Present progressive or present continuous. Different sources refer to the same tense differently, right? But it’s the same thing.

So use that one as your basic tense. Okay? And you won’t go wrong with it. All right? So that would be laying the ground rules so to speak.

A Few More Grammar Rules for Fluent Speech

And then there’s a few more. Yeah. You can read this article “3 Basic Grammar Rules Necessary for Fluent English” Okay? So the first one is how to use the past perfect “I had done it” basically, when talking about events that happened before a specific timeline. Then you use the past perfect. Okay?

And the second rule is the first conditional. If I do it, I will. A lot of foreigners would make the mistake of saying “If I will do it, something else will happen” but it’s wrong. Whenever you use words such as IF and WHEN, you have to use the simple present tense in that clause and then followed by a WILL future, right? That’s the second rule.

And the third one was – oh yeah – future tense! The same thing I already told you about, right? Basically you don’t have to use the WILL future tense which is way overused among us foreigners.

You just have to go with the present progressive. I’m doing it or “going to” future which conversationally becomes GONNA. I’m gonna do it, right? And that’s actually what people use in conversations on the street all the time. “I’m gonna” would be even more used than the present progressive, right? But just like I said if you use present progressive as your basic tense, you won’t go wrong with it. Okay?

So I hope that this is helpful to you. Thanks for asking the question.

Now, obviously if you have any further questions you are welcome to post them in the comments section below my friends.

Thanks for watching, chat to you soon, bye-bye!


P.S. Would you like to find out why I’m highlighting some of the text in red? Read this article and you’ll learn why it’s so important to learn idiomatic expressions and how it will help you to improve your spoken English!

P.S.S. Are you serious about your spoken English improvement? Check out my English Harmony System HERE!

English Harmony System

P.S. Are you serious about your spoken English improvement? Check out the English Harmony System HERE!

English Harmony System
  • Ivana Bakic

    Great and original approach to improving speaking skills, Robby! I love your idea of always using the Present Continuous- something I have never heard before. You’ve got yourself another follower/subscriber/whatever. 🙂

  • Hi Sunny Liu,

    And thanks for the comment!

    Speaking of the function words and everything else – again, I’m afraid I have to repeat myself again but it’s all about CONTEXT!

    You see – I strongly believe that the best and most natural way is to learn anything new the way it’s said in real life, in a sentence.

    There’s no point in learning the word “at”, for instance, and all situations when it’s used. It only facilitates the “writing mode” syndrome and makes you analyze your speech.

    The only effective way of learning those words is as part of collocations such as “at home”, “at war”, “at random”, “at odds” and so on.

    Now, as far as pronunciation – again, it’s all about sentences, you have to mimic sentences spoken by native speakers and as a matter of fact – you’ve commented on that blog post 2 years ago so from what I can see the entire concept is more or less known to you.
    As for learning English as beginners – please read this article where I’ve outlined the most important principles involved.
    Speaking of phonetic symbols – they’re helpful to help with understanding certain sounds but I don’t think there’s a need to learn them individually – it’s much better to start speaking entire words and sentences and then correct specific sounds along the way.
    Robby 😉

  • Sunny Liu

    Hi Robby,
    Thank you for the excellent article. I am very glad that I can understand your main idea without seeing the transcript! The difficult thing is the function words like ‘ in, of, our, on, etc.’ and silent sounds and other changes.
    would you like to share your idea about the above things?
    and what is the upper beginner’s level? how to teach the very beginners? Do they need to learn 48 phonetic symbols?


    Sunny Liu

  • Hi Mehdi,

    I’m really glad you find my blog useful and it’s great you’ve been able to achieve English fluency – well done!

    Speaking of reading literature in English – my approach is simple enough: “If I can’t understand it – why bother reading it?”

    I’d personally read only something that I understand and that excites me. If I pick up a book and find it difficult to read it, I just won’t do it!

    IF, on the other hand, it’s something that you REALLY, REALLY want and you’d be gladly reading such and similar pieces of literature – then you have to work on your reading fluency by starting to read young adult books covering similar subjects (they’d be way easier to understand) and then work your way up the book chain, so to speak!

    Please read the following posts, they may be quite helpful:

    Hope this helps,


  • Mohammad Mehdi Farahmand

    Hi Robby.
    One of the things I’d like to get familiar is the culture of people around the world.
    And, one aspects of culture is literature.
    I can consider myself fluent in English now (Thanks to your blog and a good friend of mine), But when it comes to English literature, I understand nothing of it.
    For instance the other day I was reading “The raven” by Edgar Allan Poe. I couldn’t understand it a bit.
    Why is that so?
    And how to be able to read English poetry?


  • Thanks for commenting Shaxawan and thanks for the question!

    Now, speaking of translation – any form of translation is bad, and here’s why.

    When you learn a language naturally, you build it in a separate compartment in your brain. Sure enough, in the very early stages of the language acquisition you’d be learning it through some other language – your native one, or your second language – but as soon as you reach the upper-beginner’s level, you should start using ONLY the target language and eliminate the medium language for the following reasons:

    * If you build your English vocab through translations in another language, that language will keep mixing in with your English thus making it more difficult to speak;

    * You’ll keep hesitating when speaking because you’ll keep translating from your native language to English in your head! Natural speech happens when you just speak in English without any thinking or analysis, and this can only happen if you’ve learned the English language contextually without involving another language.

    Please read more about it here:

  • shaxawan

    Great article.
    I remember when I was at primary school. We had very boring grammar tenses. So I memorized sentences instead of focusing on the grammar constructions. It was more successful.
    Anyway I heard you in the beginning of the article your blog-reader said I don’t transelste.
    You said that is very good.
    Did you mean translation to first language?
    Or all translations?
    If it’s all of them. How to understand?