Present simple, past continuous, future perfect, present perfect continuous etc. These terms are used when English is taught to foreigners. All of them are from quite a neat chart 3×4 of tenses, which are studied thoroughly and separately, and then in speech.
I was wondering if native speakers students who study English use the same terms and approach. I got this idea after I'd read the book of English grammar, by British for the British. It is quite old, and maybe the approach is outdated too. It said there were two tenses, present and past. All the rest were just syntactical constructions for detailed meanings.

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    Personal experience (native Br.E speaker): I was taught and learnt far more about tenses when learning French as a foreign language than I did when learning English.
    – TripeHound
    Commented Apr 17, 2018 at 8:58
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    Native speakers may not know the names you know (or they may have been taught a different set of names) but they know how to use them properly, usually.
    – Xanne
    Commented Apr 17, 2018 at 10:14
  • Aren't all tenses syntactical constructions for detailed meanings?
    – Kris
    Commented Apr 17, 2018 at 11:42
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    This topic always makes me tense. (Partly because the "official" terminology keeps changing.)
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Apr 17, 2018 at 12:59
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    As a native speaker, I took many "English classes" in my time. That said, in middle and high school, our grammar was corrected but we were not taught tenses in the way an English language learner is taught tenses. Also, we don't do grammar exercises. We write essays and then our essays are corrected for usage and grammar. This will include proper tense sequences, for example, in the corrections.
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 17, 2018 at 14:19

2 Answers 2


Native speakers of English, or really any language, know how to use their verbs better than anybody else (and if they make 'mistakes', they make the right mistakes).

But you are really asking about conscious knowledge of their own language and the educated vocabulary used to describe it.

I can't say for other cultures, but in the US schooling system, there is some explanation of grammar with those terms you used in late elementary/early secondary school. But it is not emphasized or repeated later. As mentioned in a comment, most Americans learn more about grammar (and English grammar) when learning grammar of a foreign language.

As to you particular mention about two tenses, that's actually a bit of a terminological controversy, where most people informally think of English as having three, but they just would understand the formal vocabulary for tense as meaning English only has two inflected tenses (future and aspect are all periphrastic/modal/etc).

I distinctly remember in middle school (early secondary) some older student mentioning that they just learned about the future perfect in English, eg "I will have left for the store by the time you return", and thinking, wow, that must be some university level stuff. But it was never eventually mentioned to me in any English class (almost entirely devoted to literature and writing). And also eventually, I just learned how to do it naturally despite its rarity.

There are so many things in your native language that as a native you are just not aware of, but for non-native learners, an explicit rule makes things so much easier. Which preposition goes with a verb, the order of adjective roles, which article goes with a noun, the native speaker has no idea how to describe these, they just do it correctly without a thought.

To your title question, sure, most native speakers know the tenses past and present, they've heard things like 'present perfect continuous' but probably don't know exactly what it means, searching hard and failing from their memory of early grade school English.

Of course, ELU denizens, a very particular bunch, might track you down and forcibly explain every nuance of tense and aspect to you.

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    In 7th grade, one of our exercises was to choose an action verb and write out a semi-comprehensive matrix of English conjugation encompassing all the tenses and aspects we had learned to date (I draw, you draw, he/she/it draws, etc.). The explicitly stated purpose of it was to prepare us for foreign language classes, not to improve our understanding of English in any way.
    – choster
    Commented Apr 17, 2018 at 15:32
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    +1, but even within the U.S. there's a lot of variation from school to school and decade to decade. I don't think we ever "officially" learned any name for the progressive/continuous aspect at my school, but we did learn eight named parts of speech, five named uses of nouns, three named types of "verbals", etc.
    – ruakh
    Commented Apr 17, 2018 at 17:23

Native speakers of English learn to use variations in tenses for past, present and future. They are taught as 'Participles'. http://www.thefreedictionary.com/Participles.htm If you read the top of the page, only past and present are mentioned. At the bottom of the page, future is added into their examples.

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