Actions can take place in the past, present, or future. Some actions are completed at a particular point in time; others might be ongoing or progressive. Actions can also take place in relation to other actions. As we’ve seen in previous lessons, these time-related subtleties are indicated through the various verb tenses.
For example, I might change my socks yesterday, today, or tomorrow. To show that I did it in the past, I would write “I changed my socks” (past tense) or “I have changed my socks” (present perfect tense).
If the action is taking place right now, I could say “I change my socks” (present tense) or “I am changing my socks” (present progressive tense).
When talking about a future event, I might say, “I will change my socks” (future tense) or “I will be changing my socks” (future progressive tense).
Writers must be consistent and clear in their use of verb tense. Narratives that begin in the past should not jump inexplicably to the present or vice versa. Notice the random shift in the verbs below:
The camping trip began well enough. We packed carefully and arrived at our campsite in plenty of time to get our tent and supplies set up. That’s when things start to go wrong. Jim points toward a clump of bushes and cries, “Did you see that?”
This shifting of tense in the midst of a story is a common problem among rookie writers. You have to watch your tenses.
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This doesn’t mean that you must use precisely the same verb tense throughout every paper. There are many situations that demand appropriate tense changes. Just be sure that the use of different tenses is consistent and logical. Have a reason to shift and be sure you are clear. The paragraph below is an example of a reasonable and clear verb tense shift.
When I was young, I played sports just about every day. Now that I am an adult, I rarely get to participate in athletics. Hopefully, I will find an activity that my busy schedule will allow.
This paragraph includes a past tense verb (was), a present tense verb (am), and a future tense verb (will find) in consecutive sentences, yet it makes perfect sense.
The question is, when do the events described take place? If you are narrating an event that has already occurred, stick with the past tense. If you want to relate a story as it is unfolding, keep in the present. Change verb tenses when you must, but always have a logical reason.
Is It Incorrect to Use Multiple Verb Tenses in a Sentence?
Some GMAT test-takers wonder whether it is grammatically correct to use multiple tenses in a single sentence. Today we will discuss the cases in which mixing verb tenses is acceptable and those in which this is not. The bottom line is this: there is no restriction on what tenses we can use and mix within a sentence, as long as they are appropriate for the context.
Take a look at this example sentence featuring multiple different verb tenses:
I have heard that Mona left Manchester this morning, and has already arrived in London, where she will be for the next three weeks.
Here, we have present perfect tense, simple past tense and simple future tense all in the same sentence. We’re mixing different tenses, but they all make sense together to create a logical sequence of events.
The confusion over using multiple verb tenses in one sentence probably arises because we have heard that we need to maintain verb tense consistency. These two things are different.
Tense Consistency – We do not switch one tense to another unless the timing of the action demands that we do. We do not switch tenses when there is no time change for the actions.
Pay particular attention to the “unless” clause in that description – maintaining consistency of a single verb tense is not an absolute virtue! Verb tenses need to convey a logical timeline or sequence of events, so if there is a shift in the timeline of when events occurred, your job isn’t to preserve verb tense consistency at all costs, but rather to mix verb tenses as necessary to tell a logical story of how and when things happened.
Let’s take a look at some examples to understand this:
Example 1: During the match, my dad stood up and waved at me.
These two actions (“stood” and “waved”) happen at the same time and hence, need to have the same tense. This sentence could take place in the present or future tense too, but both verbs will still need to take on the same tense. For example:
Example 2: During my matches, my dad stands up and waves at me.
Example 3: During the match tomorrow, my dad will stand up and wave at me.
On the other hand, a sentence such as…
Example 4: During the match, my dad stood up and waves at me.
This sentence is grammatically incorrect. Since both actions (“stood” and “waves”) happen at the same time, we need them to be in the same tense, as shown in the variations of this sentence above. Consider this case, however:
Example 5: My dad reached for the sandwich after he had already eaten a whole pizza.
Here, the two actions (“reached” and “eaten”) happen at different times in the past, so we use both the simple past and past perfect tenses. The shift in tense is correct in this context, and that mixing tenses is necessary to convey a logical sequence of events.
Takeaway: The tenses of verbs in a sentence must be consistent when the actions happen at the same time. When dealing with actions that occur at different points in time, however, we can – and probably should – use multiple tenses in the same sentence.
- Let’s look at an official GMAT question now to see how multiple tenses can be a part of the same sentence:
- For the farmer who takes care to keep them cool, providing them with high-energy feed, and milking them regularly, Holstein cows are producing an average of 2,275 gallons of milk each per year.
- (A) providing them with high-energy feed, and milking them regularly, Holstein cows are producing
(B) providing them with high-energy feed, and milked regularly, the Holstein cow produces
(C) provided with high-energy feed, and milking them regularly, Holstein cows are producing
(D) provided with high-energy feed, and milked regularly, the Holstein cow produces
(E) provided with high-energy feed, and milked regularly, Holstein cows will produce
Grammar Rant: Verb Tenses
by Taylor Berman
I do a lot of reading. A lot. I also do a lot of free editing for my friends, and most of them it seems, don’t even bother to edit themselves before they send their drafts off to me.
It’s a good idea to have your work proof-read and edited before you send it off to an agent or a publisher. If your manuscript is riddled with spelling and grammatical errors it looks unprofessional, and many agents and publishers won’t take you seriously.
But before you even send it to a friend, try to edit it yourself. Read it over. Make sure what you’re reading actually makes sense.
So where am I going with all of this? One of the worst mistakes I’ve come across while editing is the improper use of verb tenses. What I will do, is rant to you about the misuse and mixing of verb tenses in writing and why it bothers me to no end. I’ll also provide you with some helpful hints about how to avoid this in your own writing.
Now I’m not saying it’s never okay to switch verb tenses. That’s not the case at all. Say your story is written in the present tense, and your narrator is reflecting on something that happened in the past. In this case you would need to switch tenses.
I’m talking about switching tenses for no apparent reason. Starting off a story that’s in present tense and then randomly switching to past tense half way through a paragraph, or even worse, a sentence.
Now you may be thinking “oh psh, who even does that?” Unfortunately way too many people.
Here are some simple guidelines to help you avoid making this grammar faux-pas.
1) Find your comfort zone. Most people are more comfortable writing in a certain tense. Find yours and stick to it. I personally prefer to write my fiction in past tense, so I tend not to stray from that.
2) Don’t change the tense once you’ve written it. Some people change the tense of their work to try an fit guidelines after they’ve written it.
Your publisher prefers stories written in present tense, but yours is in past? Who cares? You wrote it in past tense, leave it in past tense.
Trying to change it will just confuse you, and chances are, you’re going to miss a lot of the verbs.
3) Double, Triple, Quadruple read. I cannot stress this enough. Read what you’ve written. Read it in your head, read it out loud, read it over and over and make sure it sounds right. If it doesn’t sound right out loud – it probably isn’t. Can’t tell if it sounds right? Don’t be afraid to ask someone.
4) Know your tenses. There’s more than just past, present and future tenses.
In the English language there’s simple present, simple past, simple future, present perfect, past perfect, future perfect, present progressive, past progressive, future progressive, present perfect progressive, past perfect progressive, and future perfect progressive. Learn them all. Learn how and when to use each tense.
Follow these rules and you should be golden.
Acceptable Shifts in Verb Tense
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Verb tense consistency is especially important in modern English. In most cases, verb tenses must remain the same within and among sentences, paragraphs, and entire passages. Yet, there are a handful of situations where a shift in verb tense is not only acceptable but necessary to help express a particular idea.
- Unacceptable Shifts
- English verb tenses need to remain consistent when events expressed are directly connected:
- After she left school, Marie went to the gym.
On one particular day, Marie went to the gym after she left school. One-time events take simple past tense verbs.
After she leaves school, Marie goes to the gym every day.
Marie goes to school then goes to the gym on a regular basis. This is part of her routine, or what we call a “habitual” action. Habitual actions take simple present tense verbs.
- Because one action directly follows the other action, we can’t mix and match verb tenses:
- After she left school, Marie goes to the gym every day. (Unacceptable shift from past to present)
- After she leaves school, Marie went to the gym. (Unacceptable shift from present to past)
- Acceptable Shifts
- Occasionally, it is acceptable to shift tense in the middle of or between sentences. In these rare instances, a shift in tense is necessary to accurately express the relationship between events:
- 2001: A Space Odyssey is [present] a film that has confused [past] and delighted audiences since it was released [past] in 1968.
2001 was released on a specific day in 1968. While this was a one-time event, the fact that it continues to provoke strong reactions is an essential, or habitual, characteristic of the film. Audiences did, do, and (presumably) always will respond to 2001 with a combination of confusion and delight.
At the time, I thought [past] that my ESL teacher was being [past] needlessly precise about the rules of English verb tenses. However, now I appreciate [present] just how tricky these tenses can be.
In the first sentence, the speaker is reflecting on how he or she felt about his or her English teacher’s methods when he or she was studying English verbs. In the second sentence, the speaker expresses a newfound appreciation for those methods.
The speaker shifts from past to present to contrast how he or she felt then with how he or she feels now. To help clarify that he or she is contrasting the past with the present, the speaker includes the phrases “at the time” and “now.”
Writing About Your Research: Verb Tense
Consistency of verb tense helps ensure smooth expression in your writing. The practice of the discipline for which you write typically determines which verb tenses to use in various parts of a scientific document.
In general, however, the following guidelines may help you know when to use past and present tense. If you have questions about tense or other writing concerns specific to your discipline, check with your adviser.
Use Past Tense…
To describe your methodology and report your results. At the time you are writing your report, thesis, dissertation or article, you have already completed your study, so you should use past tense in your methodology section to record what you did, and in your results section to report what you found.
- We hypothesized that adults would remember more items than children.
- We extracted tannins from the leaves by bringing them to a boil in 50% methanol.
- In experiment 2, response varied.
When referring to the work of previous researchers. When citing previous research in your article, use past tense.
Whatever a previous researcher said, did or wrote happened at some specific, definite time in the past and is not still being done.
Results that were relevant only in the past or to a particular study and have not yet been generally accepted as fact also should be expressed in past tense:
|“Smith (2008) reported that adult respondents in his study remembered 30 percent more than children.”||Smith’s study was completed in the past and his finding was specific to that particular study.|
|“Previous research showed that children confuse the source of their memories more often than adults (Lindsey et al., 1991).”||The research was conducted in the past, but the finding is now a widely accepted fact.|
To describe a fact, law or finding that is no longer considered valid and relevant.
|“Nineteenth-century physicians held that women got migraines because they were 'the weaker sex,' but current research shows that the causes of migraine are unrelated to gender.”||Note the shift here from past tense (discredited belief) to present (current belief).|
Use Present Tense. . .
To express findings that continue to be true
Verb Tense Consistency // Purdue Writing Lab
This handout explains and describes the sequence of verb tenses in English.
Throughout this document, example sentences with nonstandard or inconsistent usage have verbs in red.
Controlling shifts in verb tense
Writing often involves telling stories. Sometimes we narrate a story as our main purpose in writing; sometimes we include brief anecdotes or hypothetical scenarios as illustrations or reference points in an essay.
Even an essay that does not explicitly tell a story involves implied time frames for the actions discussed and states described. Changes in verb tense help readers understand the temporal relationships among various narrated events. But unnecessary or inconsistent shifts in tense can cause confusion.
Generally, writers maintain one tense for the main discourse and indicate changes in time frame by changing tense relative to that primary tense, which is usually either simple past or simple present. Even apparently non-narrative writing should employ verb tenses consistently and clearly.
General guideline: Do not shift from one tense to another if the time frame for each action or state is the same.
1. The instructor explains the diagram to students who asked questions during the lecture.
Explains is present tense, referring to a current state; asked is past, but should be present ( ask ) because the students are currently continuing to ask questions during the lecture period.
CORRECTED: The instructor explains the diagram to students who ask questions during the lecture.
2. About noon the sky darkened, a breeze sprang up, and a low rumble announces the approaching storm.
Darkened and sprang up are past tense verbs; announces is present but should be past (announced) to maintain consistency within the time frame.
CORRECTED: About noon the sky darkened, a breeze sprang up, and a low rumble announced the approaching storm.
3. Yesterday we walk to school but later rode the bus home.
- Walk is present tense but should be past to maintain consistency within the time frame (yesterday); rode is past, referring to an action completed before the current time frame.
- CORRECTED: Yesterday we walked to school but later rode the bus home.
- General guideline: Do shift tense to indicate a change in time frame from one action or state to another.
1. The children love their new tree house, which they built themselves.
Love is present tense, referring to a current state (they still love it now;) built is past, referring to an action completed before the current time frame (they are not still building it.)
2. Before they even began deliberations, many jury members had reached a verdict.
Began is past tense, referring to an action completed before the current time frame; had reached is past perfect, referring to action from a time frame before that of another past event (the action of reaching was completed before the action of beginning.)
3. Workers are installing extra loudspeakers because the music in tonight's concert will need amplification.
Are installing is present progressive, referring to an ongoing action in the current time frame (the workers are still installing, and have not finished;) will need is future, referring to action expected to begin after the current time frame (the concert will start in the future, and that's when it will need amplification.)
Controlling shifts in a paragraph or essay
General guideline: Establish a primary tense for the main discourse, and use occasional shifts to other tenses to indicate changes in time frame.
- Rely on past tense to narrate events and to refer to an author or an author's ideas as historical entities (biographical information about a historical figure or narration of developments in an author's ideas over time).
- Use present tense to state facts, to refer to perpetual or habitual actions, and to discuss your own ideas or those expressed by an author in a particular work. Also use present tense to describe action in a literary work, movie, or other fictional narrative. Occasionally, for dramatic effect, you may wish to narrate an event in present tense as though it were happening now. If you do, use present tense consistently throughout the narrative, making shifts only where appropriate.
- Future action may be expressed in a variety of ways, including the use of will, shall, is going to, are about to, tomorrow and other adverbs of time, and a wide range of contextual cues.
Using other tenses in conjunction with simple tenses
It is not always easy (or especially helpful) to try to distinguish perfect and/or progressive tenses from simple ones in isolation, for example, the difference between simple past progressive (“She was eating an apple”) and present perfect progressive (“She has been eating an apple”).
Distinguishing these sentences in isolation is possible, but the differences between them make clear sense only in the context of other sentences since the time-distinctions suggested by different tenses are relative to the time frame implied by the verb tenses in surrounding sentences or clauses.
Example 1: Simple past narration with perfect and progressive elements
On the day in question…
By the time Tom noticed the doorbell, it had already rung three times. As usual, he had been listening to loud music on his stereo. He turned the stereo down and stood up to answer the door. An old man was standing on the steps. The man began to speak slowly, asking for directions.
In this example, the progressive verbs had been listening and was standing suggest action underway at the time some other action took place. The stereo-listening was underway when the doorbell rang.
The standing on the steps was underway when the door was opened.
The past perfect progressive verb had been listening suggests action that began in the time frame prior to the main narrative time frame and that was still underway as another action began.
If the primary narration is in the present tense, then the present progressive or present perfect progressive is used to indicate action that is or has been underway as some other action begins. This narrative style might be used to describe a scene from a novel, movie, or play, since action in fictional narratives is conventionally treated as always present.
For example, we refer to the scene in Hamlet in which the prince first speaks (present) to the ghost of his dead father or the final scene in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, which takes place (present) the day after Mookie has smashed (present perfect) the pizzeria window.
If the example narrative above were a scene in a play, movie, or novel, it might appear as follows.
Example 2: Simple present narration with perfect and progressive elements
In this scene…
By the time Tom notices the doorbell, it has already rung three times. As usual, he has been listening to loud music on his stereo. He turns the stereo down and stands up to answer the door. An old man is standing on the steps. The man begins to speak slowly, asking for directions.
In this example as in the first one, the progressive verbs has been listening and is standing indicate action underway as some other action takes place.
The present perfect progressive verb has been listening suggests action that began in the time frame prior to the main narrative time frame and that is still underway as another action begins.
The remaining tense relationships parallel those in the first example.
In all of these cases, the progressive or -ing part of the verb merely indicates ongoing action, that is, action underway as another action occurs. The general comments about tense relationships apply to simple and perfect tenses, regardless of whether there is a progressive element involved.
Verb Tenses – Grammar
According to corpus research, in academic writing, the three tenses used the most often are the (a) simple present, (b) simple past, and (c) present perfect. The next most common tense is the future; some major assessments, course assignments, and the doctoral study proposal at Walden are written in this tense for a study that will be conducted in the future.
Simple present: Use the simple present to describe a general truth or a habitual action. This tense indicates that the statement is generally true in the past, present, and future.
- Example: The hospital admits patients whether or not they have proof of insurance.
Simple past: Use the simple past tense to describe a completed action that took place at a specific point in the past (e.g., last year, 1 hour ago, last Sunday). In the example below, the specific point of time in the past is 1998.
- Example: Zimbardo (1998) researched many aspects of social psychology.
Present perfect: Use the present perfect to indicate an action that occurred at a nonspecific time in the past. This action has relevance in the present. The present perfect is also sometimes used to introduce background information in a paragraph. After the first sentence, the tense shifts to the simple past.
- Example: Numerous researchers have used this method.
- Example: Many researchers have studied how small business owners can be successful beyond the initial few years in business. They found common themes among the small business owners.
Future: Use the future to describe an action that will take place at a particular point in the future (at Walden, this is used especially when writing a proposal for a doctoral capstone study).
- Example: I will conduct semistructured interviews.
Keep in mind that verb tenses should be adjusted after the proposal after the research has been completed. See this blog post about Revising the Proposal for the Final Capstone Document for more information.