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Writers' Center

Eastern Washington University

Grammar, Punctuation, and Sentences

Verb Tenses

There are a plethora of different verb tenses, but the three most basic are past, present, and future.

Here are some examples of more common verb tenses:

Simple Present: The athletes practice.

Present Perfect (action began in the past and continues into the present): The athletes have practiced for three hours.

Simple Past: The athletes practiced.

Past Perfect (action completed in the past before another action occurs): The athletes had practiced for three hours when the whistle blew.

Future: The athletes will practice.

Future Perfect (denotes a specific future time that the action will be complete): The athletes will have practiced for three hours by 2 p.m. this afternoon.

Verb Tense Consistency

To avoid confusing your readers, you want to remain consistent with your verb tense within a sentence or a string of sentences that share the same time frame. Failure to do so is called a “verb tense shift.”

Inconsistent Verb Tense: Last spring break, I booked a flight to Hawaii, and I have swum with the dolphins.

The writer began the sentence in the past tense by setting the time frame as “last spring break” and using the verb “booked.” By incorrectly shifting to the present perfect tense (“I have swum”), the reader becomes confused about when all of this activity occurred. Was it in the past or happening now?

Consistent Verb Tense: Last spring break, I booked a flight to Hawaii, and I swam with the dolphins

Literary Present Tense

Typically, you should write about pieces of literature in the present tense. This is called the “literary present.” When you read a book, it feels like the events are happening and unfolding right then (and thus you use the present tense).

It doesn’t hurt to double check with your instructor if you’re not sure of his or her preference regarding using the literary present tense.

Click HERE for more explanation on the literary present.