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Critical Mistakes to Avoid with Verb Tenses

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Verbs are the engines of language. They make things happen. However, they must be used correctly to convey your meaning properly. That’s done with tense.

Verb tense tells us whether an action happened in the past, if it is happening now, if it will happen in the future, and more. However, using verb tenses correctly can be challenging, particularly if you tend to write the way you speak. Below, we’ll clarify some of the most critical mistakes to avoid with verb tenses.

Being Inconsistent

Perhaps the single most common mistake with verb tenses is being inconsistent with verb forms. For instance:

John ran through the town square. Suddenly, a car pulls out in front of him.

In the example above, we move from past tense to present tense, creating inconsistency and confusion. To be clear, it is possible to mix verb tenses in the same sentence. However, to do so successfully, you’ll need the right combination of dependent clauses and, even then, the sentence will likely confuse your readers.

Falling Prey to Present Tense Faux Pas

Another common stumbling block is using the incorrect present tense. This is all too easy to do since four different tenses can be used to convey information about a current situation. These are:

  • Simple present tense – runs
  • Present perfect tense – has run
  • Present continuous tense – is running
  • Present perfect continuous tense – has been running

Encountering Past Tense Snafus

Past tense tells us what has already occurred, but as there are four of these, as well, it can be hard to do clearly in some situations. The four past tense verb forms are as follows:

  • Simple past tense – ran
  • Past perfect tense – had run
  • Past continuous tense – was running
  • Past perfect continuous tense – had been running

Jumping from One to the Other

Jumping from present to past tense or vice versa is a bit more complicated than just inconsistent usage. It can include multiple sentences and the wrong tense used in one or more. For instance:

“Hey, Alfred! You’d better get over to the office pronto!” Josh yelled. Josh was in the military and he constantly reinforces his authority in the warehouse.

The sentences above have some confusing points thanks to the use of both past and present tense. Is Josh still in the military or is he retired from service? “He constantly reinforces” also introduces confusion. The whole thing should be rewritten to provide greater clarity:

“Hey, Alfred! You’d better get over to the office pronto!” Josh yelled. An ex-military man, he felt the need to constantly reinforce his authority in the warehouse.

Failing to Use the Correct Future Tense

Future tense can be tricky. That’s because, unlike some of the examples above, you can (and should) change tenses when using it. For instance:

You’ll get a job when your education is complete.

This sentence is grammatically correct but contains two tenses. The alternative, “You’ll get a job when your education will be complete” is both awkward and wrong.

It’s not impossible to master verb tenses, but it will require careful attention to how you attempt to convey information to your readers.