From Rick:

It’s been a while since I talked about verb tenses. The last article that dealt with them in part was back on April 11, 2016 as part of an article on Common Writing Mistakes-Part 1. Before that, I had done a five-part series on verb tenses. You can find those articles (and the Common Writing Mistakes one) by clicking the category link “Verb Tenses” on the left of the blog.

For those who think they have a good grasp of verb tenses, this post will serve as a refresher. The references in this post contain a LOT of information and examples. I’ve included some exercises at the end to challenge your knowledge. Even if you consider yourself an expert on verb tenses, some of these exercises may still prove challenging.

One of the biggest issues I encounter with new writers is verb tense shifts. While there are times when it’s proper—even required—to shift the tense in a narrative, many times writers do it improperly or do it without thinking or without realizing they’ve done it.

Another problem occurs when the writer who normally writes in past tense tries to write a present-tense story. It’s easy to slip back into the old way. Screenplays are written in present tense, so if you’re a screenwriter, you have find it challenging to write a consistent past-tense story.

Verb tenses get down to the nitty-gritty of the grammar of any language, and anyone who has ever learned a foreign language knows that verb conjugations can be one of the most challenging aspects.
Verb forms are one of the things that children pick up naturally as they learn how to talk. We also develop a natural feel for time and learn to connect verb tenses to time: present, past, and future. After a while, we take these becomes part of our everyday speech and simply don’t think about them. I suspect this is why writers usually get the verb tense right in dialogue—because it’s how we talk. The problems seem to arise when we try to write non-dialogue narrative.

On a side note, one of the reasons some people finding learning a foreign language difficult often comes from learning verbs and verb tenses. Why is this? Well, the verb tenses in many other languages vary from slightly different to very different. Even German, whose verb structure is relatively close to English still has some major differences. Some languages have verb tenses that do not exist in English, and things we can express in English as a verb tense may be expressed differently in another language.

Here’s one informal discussion on the subject that I found very interesting.

TENSES WITHOUT ENGLISH EQUIVALENTS

And here’s a more formal article from Wikipedia.

GRAMMATICAL TENSE CLASSIFICATION

But let’s get back to writing and English.

Few of us have problems expressing ourselves in terms of verb tenses in speech, and even if we don’t get it quite right (like people who say “I should have went”), our listeners will know what we mean. In writing, our audience is more critical and expectations are higher for getting it right.

Here are several articles for you to check out that deal with verb tenses in writing.

PARTICIPLES AND PERFECT VERB TENSES

VERB TENSE SHIFTS #1

VERB TENSE SHIFTS #2

VERB TENSE CONSISTENCY

VERB TENSE CONSISTENCY EXERCISES

VERB TENSE SHIFTS #3

VERB TENSE WORKSHEET AND EXERCISES

TENSE SHIFT AND ERRORS AND EXERCISES

VERB TENSE SHIFT NOTES

MIXING PAST AND PRESENT TENSE

One error I see writers (both new and not-so-new) make is the failure to use the PAST PERFECT appropriately. Whereas the PAST tense denotes something happened in the past, the PAST PERFECT denotes something that happened prior to some past action or in the distant past. Look at these examples. The past perfect is shown ins all caps.

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As a private investigator, James frequently consulted with the police on cases. (normal past tense)

At the funeral, police captain Robert Anders said that James HAD OFTEN CONSULTED with the police on cases. (distant past denoting something that happened prior to the funeral)

Emily told her daughter to be careful when crossing the street. (happened recently)

Emily HAD TOLD her daughter to be careful whenever she crossed the street. (happened previously, possibly after some event that resulted from not being careful crossing the street)

David recalled how he first met his wife. A bad snowstorm HAD HIT the city, making driving nearly impossible. He HAD SEEN a woman standing next to a car half-buried in a snowdrift. (starts with a current memory being related and flashes back into the past)

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Now compare that last sentence with the one below incorrectly written in terms of verb tenses. This is the specific type of error I see writers make.

INCORRECT: David recalled how he first met his wife. A bad snowstorm hit the city, making driving nearly impossible. He saw a woman standing next to a car half-buried in a snowdrift.

This sentence improperly blends the two time frames together so that it’s not as easy to understand the times are different. Now, as a variation, let’s change the opening tense to present tense.

David recalls how he first met his wife when a bad snowstorm hit the city, making driving nearly impossible. He saw a woman standing next to a car half-buried in a snowdrift.

Since we open in present tense, the shift into simple past is now correct. Previously we opened in past tense and needed to shift further back in time, hence past perfect was needed. But here I added the word “when” to make a clearer transition.

I’m going to end this post with some examples copied from several online exercises. I misplaced the exact links, but I believe they came from the Daily Writing Tips blog. In any case, they’re not my own examples. See how well you fare on these two sets of exercises.

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EXERCISE 1 (Correct the tense errors, if any):

1. I had wanted to show you where the Joneses lived.

2. She wrote a poem that began with an apt simile.

3. Einstein supposedly said positive-feedback loops were the most impressive phenomenon in our universe.

4. Shortly before he died, he told me he was convinced that the only way to win was to practice.

5. She had profound insights about how the bones of the head moved.

*****

ANSWERS AND EXPLANATIONS

1.
Original: I had wanted to show you where the Joneses lived.
Correct : I had wanted to show you where the Joneses live.

If the Joneses no longer live at the location, the sentence is correct. But if they still live there, the past tense of the initial verb is irrelevant to the present state of their residence.

2.
Original: She wrote a poem that began with an apt simile.
Correct : She wrote a poem that begins with an apt simile.

The beginning of the poem, assuming the poem still exists, includes an apt simile, and it always will.

3.
Original: Einstein supposedly said positive-feedback loops were the most impressive phenomenon in our universe.
Correct : Einstein supposedly said positive-feedback loops are the most impressive phenomenon in our universe.

Positive-feedback loops presumably still hold that status, so the linking verb should be in the present tense; Einstein’s evaluation is immortal even if he isn’t.

4.
Original: Shortly before he died, he told me he was convinced that the only way to win was to practice.
Correct : Shortly before he died, he told me he was convinced that the only way to win is to practice.

The person expressed what he believed to be a timeless truth, not something he thought only before the time he stated his opinion.

5.
Original: She had profound insights about how the bones of the head moved.
Correct : She had profound insights about how the bones of the head move.

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EXERCISE 2 (choose the correct version):

1.
a) It was common knowledge that things fall down when you drop them.
b) It was common knowledge that things fell down when you dropped them.

2.
a) He posited that the universe consisted of a space-time continuum.
b) He posited that the universe consists of a space-time continuum.

3.
a) She told me that the ACLU was a Communist organization.
b) She told me that the ACLU is a Communist organization.

4.
a) The instructors came up with this engaging lesson because they want to give younger students a base of understanding for future science projects.
b) The instructors came up with this engaging lesson because they wanted to give younger students a base of understanding for future science projects.

5.
a) He faced a steep learning curve in terms of just how serious fans are about the football program.
b) He faced a steep learning curve in terms of just how serious fans were about the football program.

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CORRECT ANSWERS AND EXPLANATIONS

1.
a) It was common knowledge that things fall down when you drop them.

“Things fall down when you drop them” is a perpetual truth, so the verbs in the statement should be in the present tense regardless of the tense of the sentence’s initial verb.

2.
b) He posited that the universe consists of a space-time continuum.

If the proposition is true, the universe is still composed as stated.

3.
b) She told me that the ACLU is a Communist organization.

Depending on the context, “was” may be correct—the person who made the statement may have been referring to a previous state—but if she was referring to it in its present state, the present tense should be used to refer to that state regardless of the use of past tense to report the statement.

4.
a) The instructors came up with this engaging lesson because they want to give younger students a base of understanding for future science projects.

The goal of the instructors is presumably perpetual and has no relation to the verb used to explain what the instructors did. However, in a historical context, describing what former instructors did, “wanted” is correct.

5.
a) He faced a steep learning curve in terms of just how serious fans are about the football program.

Assuming that passion of the fans has not diminished, they should be described as still being serious about the football program.

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I trust that this post has been informative and that it will help you master the proper use of verb tenses to make your writing stronger.

–Rick