Mastering the Simple Present Tense in English
Ask yourself this one simple question: what do you do every day? Just think about it for a second and write your answers down. Here are some of my answers:
I wake up early every morning.
I have breakfast at 7 am.
I typically work out in the afternoon.
I work like crazy.
I always go to bed after midnight.
If you look at the verbs I used in each sentence, they follow a pattern. In fact, none of them are changed, they all use the base form. Well, that’s exactly what we’re here for and it’s the main thing you need to know about the simple present tense in English.
Ah… the simple present tense. Even though English is hard to learn for many due to its quirky rules, I’d say this topic is probably the easiest and most important tense to learn. Also, It’s usually the first step of everyone’s English language learning journey.
It’s the crown jewel of the English grammar. So, without further ado, here’s everything you need to know about the simple present tense to ensure your English is off to a great start.
When Do I Use the Simple Present Tense?
Linguists have different ways of pointing out the exact number of possible situations when we use the simple present tense, but I’ve always maintained a list of three, and my students love it.
So, we use the simple present tense when we talk about:
Repeated actions or actions that happen on a regular basis
I go to school every day.
My brother comes home from work at 6 pm.
I wake up early in the morning.
My dog likes to bark at strangers.
Facts, or as I like to call them, “universal truths”
The Eiffel Tower is in Paris.
One year has twelve months.
Note: Some of these usages might overlap with one another, e.g. a habit might be so frequent that it becomes a regular event.
Adverbs of frequency are usually used with verbs in the simple present tense, such as: always, usually, rarely, regularly, often, etc.
How Do I Form the Simple Present Tense?
This part is actually quite simple to master, as I mentioned earlier in the introduction. We form the simple present tense by using the base form of the main verb, which is the infinitive without “to”, e.g. do, eat, have, sleep, etc.
We only add the suffix “-s” to verbs used in the person singular, i.e. with the pronouns “he”, “she”, and “it”. Other than that, the main verb always stays the same and doesn’t change its base form. Here are some examples:
I have two dogs.
He walks five miles each day.
We take the same bus every morning.
She can easily do that. (modal verb “can”)
He is the oldest child in his family. (the verb “to be”)
The “-s” in the third person singular is literally the only thing that changes, with the exception of modal verbs, e.g. “need”, “must”, etc. and the verb “to be”.
Now, before we proceed, there’s one thing we need to address regarding “-s” suffix. You see, not all English verbs are the same nor do they act the same, especially when adding a suffix to them.
It is why the English language has three rules when it comes to the spelling of some verbs used in the third person singular in the simple present tense. Here they are:
For verbs that end in “-o”, “-ss”, “-ch”, “-sh”, “-x”, or “- z”, we add “-es” instead of “-s”.
He does his homework after school.
My mother misses my dad whenever he goes away.
My dad catches bad guys every day.
The rain washes all the pain away.
My phone buzzes every time I turn it off.
He fixes rooftops for a living.
For verbs that end with “-y” preceded by a consonant, we remove the “-y” and add “-ies”.
He studies hard every single day.
My mother worries too much!
John always carries an extra bag around.
For verbs that end with “-y” preceded by a vowel, we just add “-s”.
She enjoys action movies and crime series.
Demi plays tennis in her free time.
The sign says to keep off the lawn.
How Do I Form Negative Sentences in the Simple Present Tense?
When we want to make a negative sentence in the simple present, we usually add “don’t” or “doesn’t” before the main verb, except with modal verbs and the verb “to be”.
I don’t have two dogs.
He doesn’t walk five miles each day.
We don’t take the same bus every morning.
She can’t easily do that. (modal verb “can”)
He isn’t the oldest child in his family. (the verb “to be”)
Of course, “doesn’t” is only used in the third person singular. However, when we add it before the verb in a negative sentence, the “-s” that typically comes at the end of the main verb in an affirmative sentence is no longer used.
He doesn’t speak good English. (correct)
He doesn’t speaks good English. (incorrect)
Note: Even though the contracted forms “don’t” and “doesn’t” are used more frequently, especially in spoken English, you can still use the full forms “do not” and “does not”. However, they sound a bit more formal.
How Do I Ask Questions in the Simple Present Tense?
When we want to ask questions in the simple present, we usually add “do” or “does” at the beginning of the affirmative sentence, except with modal verbs and the verb “to be”.
I work a lot. (affirmative sentence)
Do I work a lot? (question)
You have what it takes. (affirmative sentence)
Do you have what it takes? (question)
As in every other case today, there’s also a different scenario when we’re asking a question to someone in the third person singular. So, instead of “do”, we use “does” at the beginning of the question.
Does he speak English?
Does Kendall want a new car?
Note how the main verb in the question no longer has a suffix “-s” but is in its base form. This is actually due to the addition of “does” at the beginning of the sentence.
Hence, one rule can be brought to your attention here: whenever we form questions with “do” and “does” in the simple present tense, we always use the main verb in its base form.
How Do I Answer Questions in the Simple Present Tense?
There are two ways to answer questions in the simple present tense – with short or long answers. The short answers are typically more frequent and, to a further extent, more acceptable in speech, as they sound more natural than the longer version.
Do you like pizza? Yes, I do. / No, I don’t (short version)
Do you like pizza? Yes, I (do) like pizza. / No, I don’t like pizza. (long answer)
To save us some time, I’m just going to focus on the short answers in all the other examples.
Do I have something in my eye? Yes, you do. / No, you don’t.
Does he want money? Yes, he does. / No, he doesn’t.
Does she need help? Yes, she does. / No, he doesn’t.
Does it have great battery life? Yes, it does. / No, it doesn’t.
Do we want to go to the movies? Yes, we do. / No, we don’t.
Do they ever actually do anything? Yes, they do. / No, they don’t.
Note: These short answers are only used to answer direct (yes-no) questions. If you’re answering a wh-question, you can’t use these short answers.
Here’s a Weird Conclusion…
Regardless of what proficiency level you’re currently at, know that your English language learning goals should not be limited by English grammar.
I’ve always liked the “Success is a journey, not a destination” quote. It just summarizes the English language so beautifully, particularly when it comes to its simplest tenses.
Today, it just so happened to be the simple present tense. There are just two or three things about it that you really need to know, yet it opens the door to an entire world of other English tenses that your language learning goals simply cannot exist without.
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Jasmin Alić is an award-winning EFL/ESL teacher and writing aficionado from Bosnia and Herzegovina with years of experience in multicultural learning environments.