Writing

A Guide to Verb Tenses: 5 Tips for Using Tenses Correctly

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 27, 2019 • 4 min read

One way writers communicate time in writing is through the use of different tenses. It may have been a long time since you learned about tenses, but there’s no time like the present to brush up on verb tenses in order to employ them effectively.

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What Are Verb Tenses?

Verb tenses in writing are sets of verb forms that are used to convey the time at which an action occurs—past, present, or future. In English, the main categories of verb tense include simple tense, perfect tense, progressive tense, and perfect progressive tense; we then refer to these tenses as present, past, or future.

What Is Simple Tense?

‘Simple’ is the word we use to describe the most familiar tenses, which describe the occurence of events in relation to the current time period.

  • Simple past tense: Sam made a sandwich.
  • Simple present tense: Sam makes a sandwich.
  • Simple future tense: Sam will make a sandwich.

What Is Perfect Tense?

Perfect tenses are used to describe complete actions (as opposed to ongoing actions) at different time periods. The perfect form of a verb generally adds some version of the word “has” to an existing verb.

  • Past perfect tense: Sam had made a sandwich.
  • Present perfect tense: Sam has made a sandwich.
  • Future perfect tense: Sam will have made a sandwich.
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What Is Progressive Tense?

Progressive tenses describe ongoing action.

  • Past progressive tense: Sam was making a sandwich
  • Present progressive tense: Sam is making a sandwich.
  • Future progressive tense: Sam will be making a sandwich

What Is Perfect Progressive Tense?

Perfect progressive tense describes actions that have been ongoing.

  • Past perfect progressive tense: Sam had been making a sandwich.
  • Present perfect progressive tense: Sam has been making a sandwich.
  • Future perfect progressive tense: Sam will have been making a sandwich.

5 Tips for Writing in Different Verb Tenses

Now that you have a basic understanding of the different tenses and verb forms, it’s time to learn how to use tenses in your writing. It may seem straightforward, but writers take a fair amount of creative license when deciding how to use tenses. Below are some tips for using tenses in your writing:

  1. Know your genre. If you’re a journalist writing an article describing past events that occurred at a specific time, you’ll have less freedom to play around with different tenses than a writer working on a first person short story full of flashbacks. If you’re working on academic writing you’ll also likely be bound to a singular time frame. It’s important to learn the conventions of the form you are writing in before you start playing with tense form or employing radical tense shifts.
  2. Choose a tense that serves your narrative. If you’re writing a crime thriller, the tense you use as you unfold your narrative can be very important. Most novice authors who are writing fiction for the first time or working on their first novel will stick to the past tense. Past tense is simple and clear and is the most commonly used tense for literary fiction. That being said, it’s never too early in your writing career to play with the use of tenses and consider writing present tense stories in which action unfolds in the present moment.
  3. Keep tenses consistent. Unless a change in time period or context occurs, you should keep tenses consistent and adhere to a common tense. Obviously, you will most likely employ multiple tenses within a larger piece, but you need to make sure you are using the correct verb forms to keep your tenses consistent at the sentence level. Once you’ve finished a first draft, you should proofread to make sure that verb tenses are uniform, double-checking verb agreement. Proofreading is important for many reasons, but checking for tense choice is a necessary part of the process.
  4. Play with time shifts. If you’re writing literary fiction or creative nonfiction, deliberate time shifts can be an effective way to keep your readers engaged. Switching point of view within your narrative—or alternating between second person and third person—can also inform changes in tense. If a present tense narrative is told from the first person POV of a main character, but you make the decision to switch to third person for a chapter or two, that can be a good time to avoid the use of present tense and briefly shift to past tense.
  5. Switch tenses in the editing process. It can be a fun exercise to play with tense after you’ve finished writing a draft. Taking a passage of a novel or piece of nonfiction and switch out your verbs to use present tense instead of past tense. This may inject some life and urgency into a passage that previously lacked energy. You may even realize that what started as a past tense novel feels more alive when changed into a present tense novel in which the action unfolds in real time. You can also modify this exercise to switch from passive voice to active voice or second person to third person. Changing specific elements of your prose in a deliberate way can help unlock changes that elevate your work and energize your writing.

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