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Speak, Spoke and Spoken

Hello and welcome to our first of many English language blogs.

Our plan with these blogs is to answer some common questions about English language and structure. We’re aiming to release two or three long posts like this per month. 

We named our school “SpeakSpoke” after one of the first verbs most English learners will meet. Thinking about that, it seemed like it would be a good idea for us to start our English language blogs with a question we get quite often:

What’s the difference between Speak, Spoke and Spoken?

It’s pretty simple really. Let’s start with Speak.

“Speak” is the present simple tense, some people call it the “Verb 1” form. 

We use it when something is a generally true fact.

For Example:  “I speak English, French and Japanese.”

We can also use it to talk about something that happens regularly.

For Example:  “I speak to them every two weeks.”

These two are pretty similar. In both cases we’re talking about something that’s true over time, from the past and into the future. We use the present simple here because it’s something true at a time we can’t specify, (so we need the simple tense) and over a range of time that includes the present (so we use the present tense by default).

The last example that we have for you of “speak” is a little harder to understand. Sometimes we can use “speak” (the present simple tense) to talk about something that will happen in the future.

For Example:  “I speak to the team next Tuesday.”

You probably know English has a future tense, so why don’t we say “will speak”? Well, we could. “I will speak to the team on Tuesday,” is fine. The meanings are quite similar, too. The big difference between “speak” and “will speak” when we talk about things in the future is how certain we are about the event.

Obviously when we talk about something in the future, we’re always at least a little uncertain – it’s the future, so it hasn’t happened yet. If you use the present simple to talk about something in the future, people will understand it’s planned and nearly 100% certain. Maybe we’re talking about a meeting in your calendar, or maybe we’re talking about something we can 100% predict, like the time of sunrise tomorrow. So if you want to talk about a definite plan you have in the future, then you can use the present simple.

“Spoke” is the past simple tense. If you knew the present simple as “Verb 1,” then you probably know this form as “Verb 2.”

We use it for situations that happened in the past and are now finished, but where we don’t, or can’t, talk about exactly when it happened. Remember we used present simple for an event where we couldn’t give a specific time in the last section? This is the same thing.

For Example:  “I spoke about the difficulty of learning English.”

We don’t know when the person spoke, but we know it’s already happened and finished. It could have been 10 minutes ago, or 10 years. We can use the past simple for either one. We can add a time to the sentence if we want to specify, but we don’t have to – the sentence makes sense without it.

“Spoken” is the participle of speak and can be used to form either the present perfect or past perfect tense. This is the “Verb 3” form, and the hardest to understand.

The quick and simple version is that we use “have” plus the participle to make the present perfect tense, and “had” plus the participle to make the past perfect tense.

The present perfect is usually for talking about an event in the past that is not completed.

For Example:  “I have spoken to some of the students.”

We can also talk about past experiences with the present perfect tense.

For Example: “I have been to Paris.”

So what’s going on here? When a native English speaker sees the sentence “I have spoken to some of the students,” then they understand that the person spoke to students in the past, but did not speak to all of them yet. The person is probably going to speak to the students again in the future.

When an English speaker sees the sentence “I have been to Paris,” they understand that the speaker is talking about an experience they had at some point in the past. They have now finished the experience.

So why do we use the perfect tenses? Well, the present perfect is there to connect the past with the present. In the first example above, we’re talking about a situation that started in the past but is not finished yet. In the second example the completed action in the past is somehow related to the present conversation.

We use past perfect to refer to an event in the past that was completed before another event completed in the past. What that means is that we’re talking about two events in the past, one after the other. We talk about the first event with the present perfect and the second with the past simple.

For Example:  “I had spoken to some of the students before we ate lunch.”

As you can see, the difference between speak, spoke and spoken is a complex question and if you still need help, then we’d love to welcome you as a student. You can start with a free account and look at our self-study material, or better still, you could sign up for live classes with one of our paid memberships so you can benefit from live classes and ask questions.

The different tenses are covered in level one and level two of our programme, and you might be able to find more resources in the discussion boards for levels one or two.

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