Explanation of Verb Tense Consistency

What is verb tense consistency?

Verb tense consistency refers to maintaining identical tense throughout a clause. The goal is to avoid having a single time period being described in multiple tenses. In the event that you are refereeing to more than one time period, it is advisable to start a new clause or a new sentence altogether.

Take into consideration this example, where the sentence contains multiple tense:

Joan finished her homework, feeds the dog, and went to the gym.

Not only is it confusing, it is grammatically incorrect. Finished and went are both written in past tense, but feeds is written in present tense. Joan’s actions shift from past to present and then back to past, which is completely illogical. There are a few ways that this sentence could be corrected.

  1. Joan finished her homework, fed the dog, and went to the gym.
  2. Joan finished her homework and went to the gym, and is now feeding the dog.

In the later example, Joan’s past actions are demonstrated in the first clause, and her present actions are demonstrated in a new clause – one that has its own subject and verb.

The agreement between verb tenses will either stay present or past – never both.

Ponder for a minute the wayward time shift in the sentence below:

The winds along the countryside blow the fences over when the storm got bad.

In the above example, it is unclear if the storm is causing damage in the present or if it caused damage in the past. In order to guarantee verb consistency, the author must select either one or the other.

The winds along the countryside blow the fences over when the storms get bad.

OR

The winds along the countryside blew the fences over when the storm got bad.

Verb tense consistency is of particular importance whenever attempting to illustrate cause and effect over a period of time, and whenever a secondary action requires a new clause to be started.

I’m drinking the coffee that I made this afternoon.

The verb tense agreement in the above example appears to be logical because the coffee needs to be made before drinking. I’m drinking the coffee is a clause all on its own; a new clause is signified with the use of the word that. The new clause includes its own subject (I) and a verb (made). If you pay careful attention to verb tense agreement, you will increase the chances of your writing being better understood by your audience.

Verb Tense Consistency  – How to Control It

One of the greatest steps to ensuring verb tense consistency comes from learning how to control shifts in verb tense. This is not a difficult task.

Considering that writing often involves the task of telling a story, there are times where we might narrate a story, or choose to include a short anecdote or even a hypothetical situation as a point of reference or to illustrate our point in an essay.

Even when writing an essay that does not specially tell a story there might be implied time frames for the actions that are being discussed or argued. Changes in verb tense will help the audience to better understand the correlation of the events being discussed. But unnecessary or inconsistent shifts in verb tense will ultimately cause confusion.

Typically, a writer will choose to maintain a single verb tense for the main narrative and then will indicate changes in time frames by changing  tenses to either simple past or simple present. Even non-narrative writing should maintain verb tense consistency.

As a rule of thumb, avoid shifting from one tense to another is the time frame for each action is the same.

For example, the teacher explains the math problem to the students who asked questions during the midterm.

Explains is in present tense and asked is in past tense. Asked should be written in present tense (ask) because the students are currently asking questions during the midterm.

The above example, if written following the rules of verb tense consistency, should look like this: The teacher explains the math problems to the students who ask questions during the midterm.

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Here is another example: About 5:00PM the sky clouded over, the wind picked up, and a loud boom announces approaching thunder.

Clouded and picked up are written in past tense, whereas announces is written in present tense, but should actually be written in past tend (announced.)

If the above mentioned example had been written with proper verb tense consistency, it would have looked like this: About 5:00PM, the sky clouded over, the wind picked up, and a loud boom announced approaching thunder.

As a rule of thumb, it is acceptable to shift tense in order to indicate a change in timeframe from one action to another.

Here is an example: The sisters love their new dollhouse, their dad built it for them.

Love is written in present tense (they still love it currently) and built is written in past tense because it refers to something that had happened (and was completed) prior to the current moment in time. (Their dad is not still building it.)

Here is another example: Before the students had even started their presentations, the teacher had guessed who would do the best job.

Started is written in past tense because it refers to something that has been completed before present time; had guessed is written in past perfect because it refers to an action from a moment in time that is prior to that of another past event. (the action of guessing was concluded prior to the action of starting)

How to Control Shifts in a Paragraph or Essay

As a general rule of thumb, it is important to establish a primary tense for the main clause and use occasional shifts whenever it is necessary to indicated changes in time or period.

Tips and Guidelines:

  • Use past tense when narrating events or when referring to an author or their ideas as historical entities (bibliographical information, etc.)
  • Rely on present tense whenever stating the facts, referring to habitual or perpetual actions or when discussing your own thoughts and ideas or those expressed by an author in their work. Present tense should also be used to demonstrate or describe action in literature, a movie or fictional narratives.  For dramatic effect, you might choose to narrate an event or occurrence in present tense as if it were happening currently. If you do choose to do this, remember to use present tense consistently through the narrative and only make shifts where it is appropriate to do so.
  • You can express future action in a number of ways, including by using will, shall, is going to, are about to, next week, and other adverbs to describe time.

The use of Other Tenses in Conjunction with Simple Tense

It isn’t always easy to attempt to differentiate perfect and / or continuous tenses from single tenses. For example, note the difference between simple past continuous tense (she was drinking a soda) and present perfect continuous tense (she has been drinking a soda.) Determining the isolation in these sentences is possible, but the differences make logical sense on in the context of other sentences because the time distinctions suggested by different tenses are only relative to the time periods implied by the verb tenses in the clauses or sentences that surround them.

For example, simple past narration with perfect and continuous elements:

On the day in question …

By the time that Carl noticed the street sign, the bus had already passed his stop. As usual, he had been listening to podcasts on his ipod. He stood up to ring the bell to alert the driver to stop. The driver was preparing to stop when the bus hit the curb. Carl fell into the isle.

In this example, the continuous verb had been listening and was preparing to stop suggest that some sort of action was occurring at the same time as the other action took place. The podcast listening was happening when the bus passed the stop. The standing up was happening when the bell rang.  The past perfect continuous verb has been listening indicates action that had occurred in the time window prior to the main narrative and that still occurred while another action started.

Things to Remember when Using Perfect Tense

Typically, the use of perfect tense should be determined by the correlation of the tense to the primary narration. If the primary narration uses simple past tense then any action started before that time frame should be demonstrated in past perfect. In the event that the primary narration is described using present perfect tense, than any action started before the time of narration should be demonstrated in present perfect tense. If the primary narration is described using simple future tense, than any action that occurs before that time frame needs to also be described using future perfect tense.

Remember, past primary narration parallels past perfect (had + past participle) for events that occurred prior to that time frame.

Present primary narration parallels present perfect (has or have + past participle) for events that occurred earlier.

Future primary narration parallels future perfect (will have + past participle) for events that occurred prior.

Present perfect might also be used to demonstrate action that occurred in the past but has not yet finished, or that is to say, that might continue or may be repeated at another time. For instance, “I have owned six business” This example implies ‘so far… I may own more. This verb tense is distinct from simple past, which is only used when describing actions that have been completed prior to the present and have no possibility of continuing or repeating themselves in the future. For example, ‘Prior to retiring, I owned six businesses.’ This sentence implies that ‘I’ve retired and will not be involved in any more business ventures.’

Phrases that are used to navigate time, like before, after, by the time, next week and so on – when used to connect two or more actions in a time period – are great indicators of why perfect tense verbs are needed in a sentence. Here are a few examples:

  • By the time the teacher finished (past) reading the book, the class had lost (past perfect) all interest in the topic.
  • By the time the teacher finishes (present: habitual action) reading the book, the class has lost (present perfect) all interest in the topic.
  • By the time the teacher finishes (present, suggesting future time) reading the book, the class will have lost (future perfect) all interest in the topic.
  • After the children had finished (present perfect) the dinner, their parents offered (past) them dessert.
  • After the children have finished (present perfect) the dinner, their parents offer (present: habitual action) them dessert.
  • After the children have finished (present perfect) the dinner, their parents will offer (future: specific single time action) them dessert.