Signal words for English verb tenses

(Key words and expressions that refer to certain tenses)

Table of contents – signal words

On this page you will find the following:

  1. Signal words for English verb tenses
  2. Further explanations and exercises

What are signal words and which ones are there?

When learning a language, we sometimes come across the term signal word. Basically, it refers to expressions that indicate the use of particular verb tenses. Such phrases can be single words, typical word combinations, or groups of words (in most cases adverbials), or even whole sentences. The advantage for language learners and, in this case, mainly for English learners is clear: If we want to construct a sentence with one of those expressions, we can mostly rely on the tense that goes with it and conjugate the verb accordingly.

Be careful! However, it is essential to know that signal words are valid often or even very often but never in every case.

The most important signal words in the English language for grammatical verb tenses are the following:

  • The present simple offers these very typical signal words that show regularities (that means how often something happens):
    • regularly, usually, every year, every day, normally, often, rarely etc.
      • “Peter always plays tennis on Tuesdays.”
  • For the present continuous, we have the following:
    • currently, now, at the moment, this week, next month etc.
      • “I’m living at my friend’s house at the moment.”
  • Another tense that has very well-working signal words is the present perfect. In combination with the following key words, it usually appears in the simple form or the ing-form (progressive):
    • since, for, recently; since 7 o’clock, for five years etc.
      • “Mary hasn’t seen her best friend for three years.”
  • You can also rely very well on the key words for the simple past:
    • yesterday, last year, two hours ago, last weekend, in 2007 etc.
      • “Francis moved to Italy in 2010.”
  • The past perfect also bears some signal words. However, you have to be careful as they can also stand for the present perfect. Some key words are:
    • just, never, how long, for, since, already etc.
      • “We had already left when the band started to play.”
  • Information: Although there is a good variety of signal words for other tenses in English, we are a bit limited when it comes to future tenses. Admittedly, there are some expressions or words that relate to the future, but they are all not very precise. Consequently, you should rather not rely on specific ones.

Further explanations referring to the ‘Signal words for English verb tenses’

The following explanations relate to the topic ‘Key words and expressions for English verb tenses’ and may also be interesting: