When I learn english, I noticed that all the tenses can be obtained by turning on and off a certain boolean flag. Okay, I am a programmer. So it's easier for me to understand it that way. Though I wonder why schools never teach it that way.

The flags are, continuous, past, perfect, and future.

For example, sijmple tense would be

I go.

With one of the flag on, it would be

  1. I am going
  2. I went
  3. I have gone
  4. I will go.

Then I see that we can combine everything. I can, for example, turn on all flags and get

I would have been going

But then what does it mean?

My english teacher says that past tense are often used to say something that's not true or regret. Really? How?

Let's do this with past and future flag turn on.

  1. I would go
  2. I would be going
  3. I would have gone
  4. I would have been going

What are the 4 sentences above mean? What are their differences>

It seems that when future and past flag is on, it took on a different meaning. What?

  • 2
    There is no "past future tense". There is past tense and there is future tense. And that is all. Would is not a tense; would is a Modal Auxiliary Verb. – John Lawler Oct 8 '14 at 0:59
  • Schools never teach it that way because you are mixing up tense, aspect, and mood. Tense locates an event in time, and there are only two grammataical times: past and not-past, AKA present-future. – Roaring Fish Oct 8 '14 at 1:14
  • 1
    You can do past tense. You can do future(-ish) tense. You can express the past of a future time frame (will have... / was going to have) or you can express the future of a past time frame (would... / was going to...) — both of those would be expressing your past and future flags yet are not interchangeable. – user0721090601 Oct 8 '14 at 1:20
  • You will be interested in Linguistics and English Language Learners as well. – Kris Oct 8 '14 at 6:00

First of all, you cannot have only one 'flag' (as you say) turned on, there should be at least two, and here is why. Continuous and Perfect do not really define the timing, they can happen in present, past and future. Continuous denotes a started and not finished, in progress action. Perfect, on the other hand, describes something the result of which we can observe, so that action is already complete.

Now let's get to your examples:

  • I would go: it is easy to understand this if for a moment we go back in the past and consider it to be present. For this example, we will have I will go. Now let's add some more context and move it back to past: I thought I would go with him, but he insisted on going alone.
  • I would be going: again, bringing it to present: When you get home I will be going to school. That means that at some point I will be in the middle of doing something (going to school). And now moving the sentence to past: I told you I would be going to school.
  • I would have gone: if I say it now, it will be If you are a little late I will have gone, the difference between this and the previous case is that in this case the result is important not the process of the action itself, and the previous case stresses on incomplete progress of the action. Again, moving it to past: If you were a little late I would have gone.
  • I would have been going: here it is both perfect and continuous, so both the result and the progress are emphasized. Coming to present will give By the time you get married I will have been going to school for 5 years. Now moving back: I always thought I would have been going to school for 5 years by the time you graduate.

Thus, I would go means that at some point in the past you could say/think "I will go". That is actually another good usage of all the future in the past mystery - indirect speech. When you convert direct speech to indirect, you need to bring the speech to appropriate timeline, for example:

  • Tom said: "I will never go there again".

    converts to

  • Tom said that he would never go there again.

I would have gone, as I already said, means at some point in the past you could say/think "I will have gone", which in its turn means that at some point in the future you will be gone, the fact that you won't be there any more is the most important statement.

Would has another meaning also, not sure how that is called in grammar, but it is used to express some usual, habitual action, similar to used to:

  • I used to eat an apple every morning. == I would eat an apple every morning.
  • My english teacher told me that sometimes would is used to express regret. I would have been rich if only I didn't have employee. – user4951 Oct 8 '14 at 2:36

I used to eat an apple every morning - this did happen

I would eat an apple every morning - this never happened nor will happen

by TinTinTin's Twin

  • Use citations in answers, if you please. – lbf Apr 4 '18 at 17:20

I can not discuss tenses like Arsen did so well... but I can add clarification to your snippet.

It is easiest to understand your snippet by writing a whole sentence:

I would have been going to the cinema tomorrow, but I broke my leg.

It is discussing an arranged event in the future, but it can't happen now because...

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