What is Verb Tense?

When we describe an action, we usually indicate its time of occurrence — the past, the present, or the future. Verb tenses allow us to do this. They also let us indicate whether a past action is continuing into the present, or whether it occurred before another action. With such a stress-inducing array of options, it's easy to see why they call them tenses!

Bobby ate too many jelly beans, and he got sick.

Bobby ate too many jelly beans, and now he is sick.

Bobby ate too many jelly beans, and soon he will get sick.

Errors in verb tense can annoy and even confuse your reader. Fortunately, by following the guidelines in this section, you can learn to use tenses well. Let me begin with the Big Rule of Tenses (which is less intimidating than it sounds):

Verb Tense

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Pick one tense for a given time period, and use that tense consistently.

Shakespeare was born in 1492 and dies in 1776. During this time, he will write more than eighty plays, all of which had been performed numerous times in the years since he has died.

The most important words in the Big Rule are "for a given time period." After all, there are plenty of reasons to change tense — in the middle of a paper, a paragraph, or even a sentence — if you are shifting attention from one time period to another. Thus, all of the following examples are correct, even though the first is the only one that stays with the same tense:

These are all fine. In examples two and three, the second part of the sentence refers to a different time period (relative to the present) than the first part does, so changing tense makes sense. But we can't say the same of this passage:

Here, the tense changes simply do not work. All of the events inaccurately described in the paragraph happened in the past, but the writer chose to use past, present, future, past perfect, and present perfect tenses (in that order). Let's look at a better version:

Shakespeare was born in 1492 and died in 1776. During this time, he wrote more than eighty plays, all of which have been performed numerous times in the years since he died.

With one exception— the present perfect tense have been performed – the paragraph is consistently and appropriately set in the past tense. And the exception is justified, as I'll explain in the next section of this article.