Tenses and structures to describe the present:

The adventures of Keith and a small company, and the fact that he makes cakes...

Just as the Eskimos have several words for snow, so the English language makes use of several tenses and constructions to describe the present.

And my goodness me. I knew that there was going to be a bit of organisation to this section, but I didn't expect a full-on corporation of it all. 

What we present here is a list of examples of the different grammar structures that are used to describe a situation expressed in the present tense, using the same scenario (Keith and a small company, and the fact that he makes cakes).

So meet Keith below.

We begin with Keith and his relationship with the small cake-making company, but about halfway through we will change the situation slightly by switching verbs from work to make. (As for why, well, this will become clear when we do this.)

And so...

Present simple

Keith works for a small company.

He works, and he does this – perhaps from 8am to 4pm, and five days a week – at a small company.

Keith doesn’t work for a small company.

Keith may or may not work now, but from this we understand that he does not work at a small company at or around the time of speaking.

Keith doesn’t work for a small company at weekends.

Keith works for a small company, but not on Saturday or Sunday. Maybe he enjoys not working at the weekend, or perhaps he does something else…

Does Keith work for a small company?

The speaker is asking if Keith works, or not, for a small company, but this does not necessarily mean to be ‘at this moment in time’.

Do you work for a small company, Keith?

The speaker is generally asking Keith if he works, or not, for a small company.

 

 

Present continuous

Keith is working for a small company.

He is working at or around the time of speaking, and maybe he’s even enjoying his job; in this case, it’s at a small company. We are focussing on his activities and not just a single act.

Keith isn’t working for a small company.

He may be working (or not) at or around the time of speaking, but in this case, we are informed that he’s not doing any duties at a small company somewhere.

Is Keith working for a small company?

The speaker is asking if Keith is working for a small company at or around the time of speaking and not working for a bigger organisation.

Are you working for a small company, Keith?

The speaker is asking Keith if he is working for a small company at or around the time of speaking and not working for a bigger organisation.

 

Present continuous with 'going to'

Keith is going to work for a small company.

This tells us that Keith has successfully got a job at a small company, and he is intending to begin work there in the near future after all the formalities are completed; signing his contract, for example.

Keith isn’t going to work for a small company.

This tells us that Keith is not intending to begin work at a small company. This doesn’t tell us why – perhaps he was not successful, he decided not to go there, or something else.

Why is Keith going to work for a small company?

This tells us that Keith is intending to begin work at a small company in the near future, and the asker is trying to find out the reasons why. We can change the question word with when (The speaker is asking the time he is going to start), and how (the method of getting there, or another reason that maybe makes it difficult for Keith to be doing his duties – disability, perhaps?)

Aren’t you going to work for a small company, Keith?

The speaker isn’t sure, but he believes that Keith has got a job at a small company, and so he is asking to be certain, or perhaps he is just making a suggestion - Keith may respond: No, I would rather work for a corporation or for myself, or even Hey, that's a good idea!

Present perfect (Something that happened in the past but with a result or consequence now)

Keith has worked for a small company for seven years.

This can tell us one or two things. First, and the most likely, there is a small company that Keith works for, and he started there seven years ago and is still there now. The second, however, can suggest that at some point in the past, Keith worked for a small company and he doesn’t work there now (“Hey, ask Keith! He has worked for a small company for seven years at some point in the past. Ask him what he thinks!”). The emphasis is on the company, not the activity (Keith at work).

Has Keith worked for that small company recently?

The speaker is asking if Keith, at some point in time in the recent past, worked for a particular small organisation they know, or has maybe even done a job for them on a short-term basis, or worked there as an outside contractor. We do know that if he did, it was a short time ago, but we don’t know exactly when as there is no specific time reference.

Hasn’t Keith worked for a small company for several years?

The speaker is uncertain if Keith, at some point in time in the past, worked for a small company. Keith may perhaps still be at this company. Again, there are no specific time references.

Haven’t you worked for that small company before, Keith?

The speaker is asking Keith if, at some point in time in the past, he worked for a particular small organisation they know. This is one of those examples that the same question could be used by asking in the simple past: Didn’t you work for that small company before, Keith?

 

Present perfect continuous (A continuous action that began at some point in the past and is either still continuing or has recently been completed)

Keith has been working for a small company for several years.

This tells us that Keith is currently working for a small company. He started working at the company a number of years ago, and at the time of speaking, is still working at the company. He perhaps enjoys working there. The point is that the emphasis is now on his activities – the fact that he is working – and not on the small company.

However, there is a situation where, perhaps, Keith looks really tired and is asked why, and he states that he’s been working on a project for seven hours. This tells us that he’s finished the job for now (but he may restart tomorrow), but the result now is that he’s feeling really exhausted.

Keith hasn’t been working for a small company for several years.

Keith has not been working at a small company for a long time. But it is possible that, even further back in time, he was.

Has Keith been working for a small company for several years?

The speaker is asking if Keith is still working at a small company, as he wants to know if he began working at such a place at some point in time in the past which is not specified, and is still working there today. It is also possible, but perhaps less likely, that the speaker is asking if Keith has been working at a small company continuously at some period of time in the past, but is not necessarily working at a small company now.

Hasn’t Keith been working for a small company for several years?

The speaker is uncertain about what he understands about Keith working at a small company; he heard that Keith was working there (and probably still is) for a long time, and he is trying to confirm this.

Haven’t you been working for a small company for several years, Keith?

The speaker is uncertain about what he understands about Keith working at a small company; he heard that Keith was working there (and probably still is) for a long time, and he is trying to confirm this directly from the man himself.

​Now with the verb make, which we are going to use for the remaining examples, we should compare examples of usage with the present perfect, present perfect continuous, and the past simple as these do cause some confusion with students:

Keith has been making a cake.

Imagine this situation: we see Keith in the kitchen and he’s looking satisfied. He is wearing a kitchen apron, and his hands are covered in flour. The kitchen table is not yet tidy from all the things used to make a cake. So why is Keith in this situation? He has been making a cake! (The cake is probably in the oven now, but Keith hasn't tidied the kitchen yet.)

Keith has made a cake.

Imagine this situation: we see Keith in the kitchen and he’s looking satisfied. This time, however, he is happily holding a cake that has just come out of the oven, or perhaps he has finished decorating the cake. Result: he has a cake, and he made it. How long it took to make and when he started this is not mentioned. We are interested only in the recent result (finished the cake), and not his recent activity (the process of making the cake).

Keith made a cake.

Here we are only interested in the completed result. Keith, at some point in time in the past – this could be recently, yesterday, several days ago, last month, whatever – made a cake. What happened to the cake or Keith afterwards is not important to us at this time. We are only interested in the completed act.

 

Present passive

Cakes are made at the small company Keith works for.

This construction is often used as an answer to the question ‘Where are cakes made?’. Anyway, what this does tell us is that the small company, where we can find Keith employed, is a manufacturer of cakes. Often the sentence can be: ‘Cakes are made at that small company' (not the, unless the listener specifically knows what you’re talking about) as it is not always important to know who the agent is (in this case, Keith). Often used formally in speaking and writing. In short, it just tells us what the small company makes.

Are cakes made at the small company Keith works for?

The asker is unsure what is manufactured at the company Keith is happily employed at, but he thinks that they make cakes. He’s asking to be sure. Like the previous example, often the agent is dropped if Keith is not relevant to the question (which he is here). He would then perhaps just ask, ‘Are cakes made at the/that small company?’

Biscuits aren’t made at the small company Keith works for.

The speaker makes it clear that the company that Keith works for is NOT manufacturing our favourite things to eat to go with our teas and coffees. As before, if Keith is not relevant to the statement, we would just simply say ‘Biscuits aren’t made at that small company.’

 

 

​Present passive continuous

Cream cakes are being made at the small company Keith works for.

This is most likely the answer to the question ‘What is being made?’ Perhaps this is because there have been signs of some unusual activity: noises, actions, smells, or just general secrecy, whatever, that has provided the question and this answer. Of course, it could all be perfectly innocent, but if the speaker is only interested in what is being made there, they are perhaps more likely to ask, ‘What do they make there?’ or ‘what are they making there?’

Are ginger cakes being made at the small company Keith works for?

The asker is perhaps curious about what is being produced at the company Keith works for, particularly ginger cakes, as he may have heard there is the possibility that this is the case. As with other passive forms, who is actually producing these – or when – inside the company is not important or known, unless the speaker specifies the ‘agent’ or ‘doer’, for example ‘…being made by Belinda Nicholl?’

Strawberry cakes aren’t being made at the small company Keith works for.

​Nobody – or the company in general (remember, this is the passive, so who or what is not relevant unless we say so) – is making strawberry cakes, or as things stand, plans to be doing so. End of.

 

 

Causative in the present

Mrs. Higginbotham has her cakes made (at the small company Keith works for).

Mrs. Higginbotham doesn’t make cakes, or has chosen not to on this occasion, and so she get her cakes made by somebody else. In this case, it’s the small company etc etc…

Mrs. Higginbotham doesn’t have her cakes made at the small company Keith works for. She makes them herself.

Mrs. Higginbotham makes cakes, or has chosen not to get her cakes made by somebody else. In this case, it’s the small company etc etc…

Mrs. Higginbotham is having her cakes made at the small company Keith works for.

Mrs. Higginbotham isn’t making any cakes, or has chosen not to on this occasion, and so she is getting her cakes made by somebody else. In this case, etc etc…

Mrs. Higginbotham isn’t having her cakes made at the small company Keith works for. She’s making them herself.

Mrs. Higginbotham is making cakes and not somebody else… you know the rest.

Does Mrs. Higginbotham make her cakes or does she have them made?

The speaker is asking about Mrs. Higginbotham’s cakes; does she make them, or somebody else (maybe Keith)? This is most likely talking about something that Mrs Higginbotham does regularly.

Is Mrs. Higginbotham making her own cakes or is she having them made?

The speaker is asking if Mrs. Higginbotham is – at or around the time of speaking – making, surprise surprise, cakes, or is somebody else making them for her (maybe Keith)?

Present perfect/perfect continuous with would/could/should

Keith would make his own cakes, but he likes the cakes his small company makes.

This suggests that Keith perhaps enjoys, or is good at, or is capable of, baking his own cakes, but he prefers the cakes from his company for some reason – maybe he’s lazy, or he’s not that good a baker, or the cakes made at his company just taste nicer than anything he can make himself.

Keith could make his own cakes, but he’s lazy and prefers the cakes made by his small company.

This suggests that he can make cakes, he’s capable of doing so, but he’s not interested and, anyway, he thinks the cakes at his company are better than anything he can produce at home.

Keith should make his own cakes. He doesn’t have to always eat the free cakes given to him by the small company he works for.

The speaker is giving the opinion that Keith only eats the cakes given to him by his company because they’re free, but suggests that he should make his own for many possible reasons – maybe the company’s cakes are not that healthy, he’s got into the habit of being lazy, he’s not developing any home baking skills – whatever.

Why are you in Keith’s Kitchen? Shouldn’t he be making his own cakes?

The speaker has walked into Keith’s kitchen, expecting Keith to be there baking cakes, but is surprised to find – oh, I don’t know, Mrs. Higginbotham, Belinda Nicholl, whoever – in the kitchen doing what they expected Keith to be doing. They’re surprised at this and so ask the listener why they are making cakes and not Keith.

Should Keith make his own cakes?

The speaker is expressing an opinion in the form of a question, or wanting to share an opinion with the listener(s), that they believe, for some reason, Keith should do the job of making cakes and should not eat the free ones from his company or the ones made by somebody else. As an additional note, if, for example, Keith was a five-year old child, then one of his parents may ask this if they are unsure if he can do this.

Shouldn’t Keith make his own cakes?

Here, the speaker is perhaps suggesting – in the form of a question, of course – that Keith is relying on others to make his cakes for him, and really, he should be doing this.

Wouldn’t Keith make his own cakes?

The speaker is expressing surprise after hearing that, when asked if Keith would make some cakes, was told by the listener who said he would not, and that he is perhaps planning to get cakes from somewhere else.

Couldn’t Keith make his own cakes?

Two possibilities here: either he can make cakes, he’s capable of doing so, but he’s not interested, or the speaker is discussing the possibility that he could do the job because of other reasons – maybe the cake-making was his idea, but for whatever reason, chose not to be involved.

Do you think Keith would make his own cakes?

There is a situation where some cake baking is going to happen, and the speaker is asking the listener if Keith is going to get involved in the baking in some way – that is, cakes – and not get somebody else to do this or get them from his company.

Do you think Keith could make his own cakes?

The speaker could be asking the listener one of two possibilities – first, if Keith is capable of making his own cakes (he may be a rotten baker, or perhaps his kitchen is ill-equipped, or he may not have the time), or that he is perfectly capable of making them as this would be helpful for some reason, but they are not certain if he would.

 

Must/have to/need to

Keith must learn to make his own cakes if he wants to be the head supervisor at the company.

In the speaker’s personal opinion, Keith should work on his cakemaking skills if there is to be any chance of him become the company’s head supervisor.

Keith mustn’t learn how to make his own cakes if he wants to be the head supervisor at the company.

In the speaker’s personal opinion, Keith should not work on his cakemaking skills if there is to be any chance of him become the company’s head supervisor. Maybe there’s another reason for this, which we don’t know at this time.

Keith has to learn to make his own cakes if he wants to be the head supervisor at the company.

This is not the speaker’s personal opinion; it is most likely a company requirement. Keith should work on his cakemaking skills if there is to be any chance of him become the company’s head supervisor.

Keith doesn’t have to learn to make his own cakes if he wants to be the head supervisor at the company.

The company Keith works for has not made it a requirement that he should work on his cakemaking skills to have the opportunity of becoming the company’s head supervisor.

Keith needs to learn to make his own cakes if he wants to be the head supervisor at the company.

The speaker believes that it is important Keith works on his cakemaking skills if there is to be any chance of him become the company’s head supervisor; this is not necessarily a company requirement or an opinion.

Keith doesn’t need to learn to make his own cakes if he wants to be the head supervisor at the company.

Quite simply, it is not important Keith works on his cakemaking skills if there is to be any chance of him become the company’s head supervisor. It is not a company requirement or an opinion.

Keith needn’t learn to make his own cakes if he wants to be the head supervisor at the company.

It is not a requirement, it's not important, and it's not an opinion – quite simply, he doesn’t have to do this. This is just less emphatic than the previous example, but either of these two examples can be used to express the same thing.

 

 

Zero/open conditionals

Keith makes cakes if you ask him to do so.

This speaks for itself. You ask him, he makes them.

If Keith makes his own cakes, give him a pay rise.

Keith currently doesn’t make his own cakes at the company, but should he do so, the speaker suggests giving him more money.

Keith is very happy when he makes his own cakes.

An explanation surely not needed!

Keith isn’t very happy unless he makes his own cakes.

This suggests that Keith is not happy with cakes he doesn’t make. He prefers his own.

If Keith doesn’t do as he’s instructed, give him a warning.

Keith is not listening to his employer’s instructions. This has been noticed and his bosses have decided that he will officially be told and could be in more trouble later if he still chooses not to listen to them.

When Keith doesn’t do as he’s instructed, give him a warning.

This suggests that Keith will get a warning from his employer if he doesn’t do as he’s told.

 

 

First conditional

Keith should be given a warning if he doesn’t do as he’s instructed.

Keith will be in trouble with his employer if he doesn’t do as he’s told, with an official warning being strongly advised as his punishment.

Keith shouldn’t be given a warning if he doesn’t do as he’s instructed.

The speaker believes that Keith shouldn’t receive a warning if he doesn’t do as he’s told. Which may seem odd, but it’s possible that he’s the cakemeister and absolutely brilliant at making cakes, and they have to make allowances for this – even not doing as he’s instructed. Indeed, he’s the one who more likely instructs them!

 

 

Historic Present

Watch this video. You see, Keith goes onto the factory floor, he sits down, opens his laptop, and – there – you see? He's playing Fortnite and not making any cakes!

Note that with this structure – using the present tenses – it’s often used as a storytelling technique about events in the past, usually when the speaker is commenting on those events as if they were happening now. This technique is often used by sports commentators when they look at action replays. Here, security is perhaps reviewing video surveillance footage and they discover Keith has not been doing his job properly!

Tenses and structures to describe the present       the past      the future

All media on this website is © Roger Hartopp/Tertium publishing group 2019, except where noted that they are copyright of a contributor.

Please do not copy without permission. If you do decide to use one of my cartoons for demonstration purposes, or create a link directly to one of my cartoons held on this site, then do please credit where you got it from. Me. Those are the rules, I'm afraid...