Verb Tense Consistency

Verb Tense Consistency

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Verb tenses can be confusing, in part because many students often misunderstand their teachers and professors and believe that an entire paper must be written in a single verb tense. However, there are many cases when this is not true. Just as unnecessary tense changes cause confusion, tense changes that are appropriate can help readers understand how events relate to each other according to the time they took place. Generally, writers maintain one tense, but will indicate changes in time frame by changing tenses to describe different situations, which are usually used with either simple past or simple present. The main thing to remember: don’t shift tenses if the time frame for each action is the same.

To help you understand tense consistency, review the following examples and explanations, wherein sentence A) is incorrect and sentence B) is correct.

    A)  The ocean contains rich minerals that washed down from rivers and streams.

    B)  The ocean contains rich minerals that wash down from rivers and streams.

Contains in both examples is present tense, referring to the current state of the ocean; washed down in example A) is past but should be present, as in example B), because the minerals are still washing down into the ocean.

    A)  About noon the sky darkened, a breeze sprang up, and a low rumble announces the approaching storm.

    B)  About noon the sky darkened, a breeze sprang up, and a low rumble announced the approaching storm.

In both example A) and B), darkened and sprang up are past tense verbs; however, in example A), announces is present tense but should be the past tense, announced, as shown in example B), to maintain consistency within the time frame (an event that happened all in the past) established by the beginning of the sentence.

    A)  The children loved their new tree house, which they built themselves.

    B)  The children love their new tree house, which they built themselves.

You’ll notice in example A) above, although the tense is consistent, loved in the past tense indicates the children both loved and built their tree house in the past but currently no longer love it.  If the writer, however, actually means the children still love the tree house now but built it in the past, love should be in the present tense, as in example B).      

Rely on past tense to –

  1. narrate past events
  2. refer to an author or an author’s ideas as historical entities (biographical information about a historical figure or narration of developments in an author’s ideas over time).

Use present tense to–

  1. state facts
  2. refer to perpetual or habitual actions
  3. discuss your own ideas
  4. discuss ideas or to describe action in any piece of text, movie, or other literary work.
  5. narrate an event in present tense as though it were happening now (for dramatic effect).

Future action may be expressed in a variety of ways, including the use of will, shall, is going to, are about to, tomorrow and other adverbs of time, and a wide range of contextual cues.

Style Matters:

When citing an author’s words or ideas, remember to stay in the present tense, as in Dr. Joe states …., rather than Dr. Joe stated … This will also help uphold an active voice throughout your writing. Look through some of your own work and read over a paragraph. Do your sentences maintain a consistent tense, or can you spot some unnecessary shift changes? 

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this handout is part of a library of instructional materials used in California State University, Long Beach’s writing center, the Writer’s Resource Lab. Educators and students are welcome to distribute copies as long as they do so with attribution to all organizations and authors. Commercial distribution is prohibited.