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13.6: Verb Tense

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  • What is verb tense?

    Verbs indicate actions or states of being in the past, present, or future using tenses. Verb tense identifies the time of action described in a sentence. Helping verbs, such as be and have, also work to create verb tenses, such as the future tense. For a full list and descriptions of verb tenses, see "Verbs and Verb Tense" in Writing, Reading, and College Success, edited by Athena Kashyap and Erika Dyquisto. Here are a few of the most common tenses:

    • Past Tense: Yesterday, they walked to the store to buy some bread. 
    • Present Tense: Tim walks to the store. 
    • Present Progressive Tense: Sue and Kimmy are walking to the store. 
    • Present Perfect Tense: Sumita has walked to the store twice already.
    • Future Tense: Next week, they will walk to the store to buy some bread. 

    Maintaining consistent verb tense

    Sometimes without realizing it we may shift tense as we write.  This can be jarring or confusing for the reader. it is important to use the same verb tense consistently and to avoid shifting from one tense to another unless there is a good reason for the tense shift.

    Inconsistent tense:
    The crowd starts cheering as Melina approached the finish line.
    Consistent tense:
    The crowd started cheering as Melina approached the finish line.
    Consistent tense:
    The crowd starts cheering as Melina approaches the finish line.

    In some cases, we need to use different tenses in the same sentence. If the time frame for each action or state is different, a tense shift is appropriate. 

    Appropriate shift in verb tense: When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a firefighter, but now I am studying computer science.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Edit the following paragraph by correcting the inconsistent verb tense. 

    In the Middle Ages, most people lived in villages and work as agricultural laborers, or peasants. Every village has a “lord,” and the peasants worked on his land. Much of what they produce go to the lord and his family. What little food was leftover goes to support the peasants’ families. In return for their labor, the lord offers them protection. A peasant’s day usually began before sunrise and involves long hours of backbreaking work, which includes plowing the land, planting seeds, and cutting crops for harvesting. The working life of a peasant in the Middle Ages is usually demanding and exhausting.

    Past and present tense in academic essays

    In academic writing, as in other situations, we generally use past tense for historical events and present tense for present conditions. There is one convention, though, that might not seem intuitive.  Academic writing uses the present tense for ideas that come alive in the present as we read them, even if they were written down in the past. This is called the literary present. It is as if the conversation that takes place about issues in books and essays is always going on and writers continue to voice their opinions now through their recorded words. So if we write about a study, we would say "The researchers conclude that..." If we write about a newspaper opinion piece, we would say "The author maintains that..." In Chapter 3: Writing a Summary of Another Writer's Argument, we saw many examples of this use of present tense in the suggested phrases for describing arguments. 

    If we shift, however, to talking about a past action or a condition during a past time period, we should switch to the past tense for that.  For example, let's say we are analyzing Barack Obama's memoir Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. We might write, "Obama describes his upbringing by a white mother after his father returned to Kenya."

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    Complete the following sentences by selecting the correct form of the verb in simple present or simple past tenses. 

    1. The Dust Bowl (is, was) a name given to a period of very destructive dust storms that occurred in the United States during the 1930s.
    2. Historians today (consider, considered) the Dust Bowl to be one of the worst weather events in American history.
    3. The Dust Bowl mostly (affects, affected) the states of Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico.
    4. John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath (describes, described) a family's flight from the Dust Bowl to California.
    5. Dust storms (continue, continued, will continue) to affect the region, but hopefully they will not be as destructive as the storms of the 1930s.


    Adapted by Anna Mills from Writing for Successcreated by an author and publisher who prefer to remain anonymous, adapted and presented by the Saylor Foundation and licensed CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.