If you want to do well in IELTS, you need to have a good grasp of grammar, and one of the most important things you should know is how to use verb tenses correctly.
Of course, verb tenses can be difficult… First you need to know when to use them and then you need to know how to use them. It is really easy to make mistakes, but as with other parts of English you can increase your chances of success by focusing on the most important areas.
As such, today I want to talk about the most common verb tenses for IELTS.
The Most Common Verb Tenses
There are twelve verb tenses in English and these are used for different purposes (which you can learn about here). They are not all used equally and in fact some are much more common than others. In a 2016 study of university-level academic papers by native speakers of English, it was determined that present simple was by far the most common verb tense:
|Present perfect continuous||0.21%|
|Past perfect continuous||0.009%|
|Future perfect continuous||0.009%|
As you can see, there are huge differences between the verb tenses in terms of their frequency in the sort of academic writing that you need to know in order to do IELTS.
How can this help you?
Well, Look at the first three verb tenses. Together, they account for 83.14% of all verbs in academic English! If you were able to master these, you would make very few verb tense errors.
On the other hand, if you spent lots of time revising the rules for future perfect continuous and past perfect continuous, you would just be wasting your time and energy because these are almost never used.
Let’s now review the verb tenses and how they could be used in IELTS.
As we can see from the table above, the present simple tense is by far the most common in English, with almost twice as many uses as the next most common one. That is because it is a versatile tense with many applications.
We use the present simple for:
- Facts (The Sahara Desert is very big)
- Routine actions (I go to the supermarket every Saturday)
- Instructions (Please open your books to page 26)
You will use the present simple tense often in your speaking and writing tests. In the speaking exam, you will often say things like “I like,” “I go,” “I think,” and so on. These are statements of fact about yourself. You will also use it for opinions: “It is interesting,” “They are cute,” etc.
In the writing test, you will use this frequently. Look at this example:
To begin with, the tendency to work many hours per week is something of a modern health crisis that has reached epidemic levels. All across the developed world, people feel that it is necessary for their career to do overtime or even be on-call twenty-four hours per day. This causes them to lack sleep, stay at their computer for long periods, and miss out on healthy activities like sport and gentle exercise.
We can see that the present simple tense is clearly the most common because the writer is stating facts (or at least his belief that these are truths):
- (a tendency) is…
- people feel…
- it is…
- this causes…
We also use this in task 1 because we have to observe data… however, be careful because often that data comes from the past.
The past simple is used frequently in daily English and academic English. It has two main uses:
- Actions that occurred in the past (I grew up in London)
- Actions that occurred repeatedly in the past (I walked to school every day)
You can see from my examples here how this would be very helpful in the IELTS speaking test for talking about your life. Particularly with the topic of childhood, this would be an essential verb tense.
It is also of course useful in the writing exam and particularly in task 1, where we frequently have to talk about data that comes from the past. For example:
In 2002, about 55% of the population had a computer. This figure grew by roughly five percent over the next two years, and again in each of the following years. By 2010, approximately 75% of the population were computer owners.
In three sentences, we have three instances of the past simple tense:
- population had…
- This figure grew…
- 75% of the population were…
Because all of the data here comes from a period that is now finished, this is the most likely verb tense.
I have written about the present perfect before and called it the most underused verb tense in IELTS because, even though it is the third most common tense, IELTS candidates almost never use it. In fact, it is so underused that I made a video to explain why you really ought to use it more:
The present perfect is used for two main reasons:
- Actions at an unknown or unstated time in the past (I have been to Germany)
- Actions that began in the past and could continue now because the time period is ongoing (She has had three cups of coffee this morning)
You can see then that there is a lot of scope for using this tense in an IELTS essay or in a spoken answer. For example:
- EXAMINER: Where do you live?
- CANDIDATE: I live in London. I’ve lived here since 2017.
The phrase “I’ve lived” is a contraction of “I have lived,” which is the present perfect tense. It shows that this action (living) began in the past and continues now in the present. Note that we often use “since” or “for” with this tense.
It is often used in task 2 as well:
- Pollution has been a major problem for many decades.
- Governments have been slow to respond.
If you want to succeed in IELTS, you need to be good at grammar. However, not all tenses are equally important. Whilst you would certainly benefit from knowing them all, it is better to concentrate your studies on mastering the most common ones first, then get familiar with the others. This will help you to achieve a greater degree of accuracy. Remember that fewer mistakes means a higher band score.