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How many tenses do native speakers of English use to communicate?

September 6, 2017 , by Dr Julian Northbrook

How many tenses does the average speaker use when communicating on a daily basis, when doing ordinary activities?

This is a good question.

This is something that’s easier to show you, so watch this:

This is all just rough.

But you get the idea.

Basically, we can say that native speakers use the simple forms 80~90% of the time, then the present forms… and from there it’s all downhill.

Of course, that doesn’t mean people never use the other grammatical tenses.

They certainly do.

Every tense is used somewhere

Every rate grammatical tense is used somewhere, just the same as rare words. But just because it’s used somewhere, that doesn’t mean it’s useful to spend a lot of time learning it.

One of the big problems with the way English is taught is that it over-represents the rare tenses, and under-represents the simple tenses. The result is that people develop strange intuitions about tense, and mistakenly believe they should be using the rare ones a lot more than the should.

When in doubt?

Use the simple tenses: after all, you’ll be right about 90% of the time.

But the point is…

The way speakers actually use the tenses is clearly extremely imbalanced. And so the approach you take to learning the patterns of language (including tenses) needs to take this into account. What most people do is actually backwards, and it’s, well, not very good.

This is where what I call…

“Example-Based Learning” comes in.

That’s a topic we don’t have time for in this blog post: but if you want to learn about it, my best selling book, Master English FAST shows you how.

Julian Northbrook


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