Verb tenses

Lately, many tutors in the Writing Center have noticed students coming in with papers that display issues with verb tense. In this post, I will go over the basic verb tenses and how and when to use each.

There are six basic tenses in English, but only past and present require a change to the spelling of the verb. The others add a word or words (auxiliaries) to create the desired tense. The six tenses are simple present, present perfect, simple past, past perfect, future, andfuture perfect.

Simple Present
Verb: to walk

  • I walk.
  • You walk.
  • He/she/it walks.
  • We walk.
  • They walk.

Simple present is the most basic verb tense. It is used to describe something that is happening in the present, i.e. right now. Note the difference in the conjugation for he, she, and it. Instead of “walk,” the verb is “walks.” This is because “he, she, and it” are in the singular form, while “they,” for instance, is plural.

Present Perfect
Verb: to jump

  • I have jumped.
  • You have jumped.
  • He/she/it has jumped.
  • We have jumped.
  • They have jumped.

The present perfect tense is used to describe completed actions that have consequences in the present. While the jump in the examples happened in the past, something about them is affecting the present state of the speaker. Again, note the singular form for he, she, and it.

Simple Past
Verb: to talk

  • I talked.
  • You talked.
  • He/she/it talked.
  • We talked.
  • They talked.

The simple past is the basic form of past tense. It is used to describe something that was completed in the past and is not happening now. Conjugations are the same for all subjects.

Past Perfect
Verb: to wash

  • I had washed.
  • You had washed.
  • He/she/it had washed.
  • We had washed.
  • They had washed.

The past perfect tense is used when describing an event in the past that happened before other events in the past, as in I had woken up just before my alarm went off. Conjugations are the same for all subjects.

Future
Verb: to go

  • I will go.
  • You will go.
  • He/she/it will go.
  • We will go.
  • They will go.

The future tense is used to describe something that has not happened but will happen in the future. In the examples, the subjects have not gone yet, but they are planning to go. Conjugations are the same for all subjects.

Future Perfect
Verb: to see

  • I will have seen.
  • You will have seen.
  • He/she/it will have seen.
  • We will have seen.
  • They will have seen.

The future perfect tense is used to describe something that will have happened by a certain time or point in the future, as in I will have seen the Great Wall of China by the time I am old. Conjugations are the same for all subjects.

In academic writing, it is important to remember when to use each tense. Present tenses are used to describe events that are currently happening, while past tenses are used to describe events that have already happened and future tenses are used to describe events that are going to happen. In most academic work, it is important to remain consistent in your verb tense throughout the paper, usually sticking to either all past or all present tense. However, it is acceptable to interchange the tenses when speaking about separate events that happened in either the past or the present–it is not acceptable, though, to change the tense within the same sentence. It is also important to remember that when writing about literature, you must always refer to the events of the text in the present tense. This is because those events will still be taking place in the text any time the reader looks at it. Those events never end because the text is in a constant state of existence.

We hope this helps clear up any confusion about verb tenses, but if you ave any questions, please stop by and see us in the Writing Center. We would be more than happy to assist you. You can also visit the “verb tenses” link in the first paragraph for more help.

Happy First Day of Spring!

–Sarah

This post was originally published on March 20, 2014.

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