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10.06: Verb tense

  • Page ID
    25432
    • Alexandra Glynn, Kelli Hallsten-Erickson & Amy Jo Swing
    • North Hennepin Community College & Lake Superior College

    Once again, every sentence must have a main subject (noun) and a verb (governing verb).

    We caught the tread of dancing feet,

    We loitered down the moonlit street,

    And stopped beneath the harlot's house. (Wilde “The harlot’s house”)

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    The verb is underlined above. A verb in a sentence is that which tells the action, or the state of being. Above, the actions are “caught” and “loiter” and “stop”. The subject (a pronoun) is "we." Notice that you could write the above as three sentences, and they would all be good sentences:

    We caught the tread of dancing feet.

    And

    We loitered down the moonlit street.

    And finally, with an insertion of the subject again,

    And we stopped beneath the harlot’s house.

    Verbs can be in different tenses. For example, the above example is written in the past tense. If it were present, it would be

    “We catch” or “We are catching” and “We loiter” or “We are loitering” and “We stop” or “We are stopping.”

    If it were future tense, it would be

    “We will be catching” and “We will be loitering” and “We will be stopping.”

    These are the three basic tenses in English: past, present, and future. They indicate the time of the action. Let’s look at the sentence again, considering the subject. We caught the tread of dancing feet.

    Let’s look at the sentence again, considering the subject.

    We caught the tread of dancing feet.

    The subject of the sentence above is “we.” That is the subject, the thing that is doing the action, or is in the state of being. The subject is always a noun. Again, the verb, or the thing that is what “we” are doing, is the word “caught.”

    One common error in writing, with verbs, is that the writer switches tenses mid-paragraph, or even mid-sentence. This is a relationship error. It makes the sentence non-logical; it doesn’t “make sense.” For example:

    Sometimes a horrible marionette

    Came out, and smoked its cigarette

    Upon the steps like a live thing. (Wilde “The harlot’s house”)

    That’s a nice phrase. But what if it said:

    Sometimes a horrible marionette

    Came out, and smoking its cigarette

    Upon the steps like a live thing.

    Now you have created head-scratching questions of relationship for the reader, the audience. The “and” in the second line awaits another verb in the same form or verb tense as the one it is connecting to “came.” And that second verb in the same form never comes. So the audience is confused. The audience also awaits another pronoun, or noun, to provide a subject for “smoking its cigarette upon the steps like a live thing.” Perhaps it is the horrible marionette that is “smoking its cigarette upon the steps like a live thing”? But perhaps it is something else, like an officer, in which case we would expect something like

    “Sometimes a horrible marionette

    Came out, and smoking its cigarette

    Upon the steps like a live thing, the officer debated.

    Or, we could do as the original, and change “smoking” to “smoked,” as it should be, so that we know that it is the second verb describing what the marionette did.

    Another common error in writing, with verbs, is that the tense does not match the subject.

    He sit.

    In third person singular, there is an “s” at the end of the verb. The “he” already indicates that this is third person singular, but the “s” is another grammatical marker that indicates the same thing. This is redundancy, but languages do this.

    So the correct way to write it is “He sits.” For various reasons, you can write “he sit” and you will probably be understood. However, you should know the rule.

    When writing a longer sentence, it is easy to put the wrong verb. For example, we might write, quickly, during one of the pre-writing or drafting parts of our writing process:

    Almira and I, sea-weed draped, rose up out of the ocean. We raced to the beach towel, trailing green slime. We knew there was no sea-monster after us, but you run faster when you think there is. On the edge of the beach, someone was roasting corn. Almira and I go over to the man selling corn. We say, "How much?"

    In the second to the last sentence, the verb tense shifts. So then, in revising, we realize we need to change it to all past tense, or else keep it to the basic present, which is how the above passage ends. We try the past tense:

    Almira and I, sea-weed draped, rose up out of the ocean. We raced to the beach towel, trailing green slime. We knew there was no sea-monster after us, but you run faster when you think there is. On the edge of the beach, someone was roasting corn. Almira and I went over to the man selling corn. We said, "How much?"

    But what about the present tense?

    Almira and I, sea-weed draped, rise up out of the ocean. We race to the beach towel, trailing green slime. We know there is no sea-monster after us, but you run faster when you think there is. On the edge of the beach, someone is roasting corn. Almira and I go over to the man selling corn. We say, "How much?"

    Either choice is fine, as long as one stays consistent.

    To keep the flow, and also to keep the reader in the same sense of time (past tense), the verb should stay in past tense throughout a sentence.

    Within a paragraph, you should also try to keep the same tense. Sometimes people change tenses between sections of a writing, but they have an obvious reason for doing so. This is so that the reason-element of the audience’s brain does not stall.

    If you change tenses, you should do it deliberately, not accidentally.

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