English Grammar in Context – Tense Timelines, Mindmaps, Writing Tips, and More...

How to Talk About the Duration of Actions


Verb structures that include a continuous form are used when there is a requirement to focus on the duration of an action. The tenses that have this Core Characteristic are: 

Present Continuous

Future Continuous

Past Continuous

Present Perfect Continuous

Future Perfect Continuous

Past Perfect Continuous


While each of these tenses is covered in its separate section, it is useful to examine the similarities between the forms in order to understand the patterns that connect them. All these verb forms contain a Continuous Aspect. This is used to talk about temporary actions - actions that started at some point and will inevitably end - and to focus on the time period when this action was happening. The Continuous Aspect is useful because it allows the speaker to talk about parallel occurrences and to show which actions were quick and which actions were enduring:

I was working out when you called

In this sentence, the Past Continuous verb "I was working out" shows that this action happened over a longer period, while the past simple verb "when you called" was a short action.

WORKOUT-GIRL-PHONE.svg

Verb StructureSentence ExampleTimeframeFunction of Continuous AspectStructure
Present ContinousI am wearing my favourite T-shirt this morningPresentTemporary action with a focus on its duration


be + verb( +ing)

Future ContinuousI will be wearing my favourite T-shirt tomorrow afternoonFuture
Past ContinuousI was wearing my favorite T-shirt yesterday eveningPast


Sentence ExampleSentence ExampleTimeframeFunction of Perfect AspectFunction of Continuous AspectStructure
Present Perfect ContinuousI have been wearing my favourite T-shirt a lot recentlyUnfinished time Connects the Past to the Present

Temporary action with a focus on its duration

have + been + verb(+ing)
Future Perfect ContinuousBy next Friday, I will have been wearing this T-shirt for 5 days without washing itThe Past in the FutureConnects the Past to the Future
Past Perfect ContinuousI had been searching for my favourite T-shirt months before it was foundAn Earlier PastConnects the Past to an Earlier Past


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