Verb Tense Consistency (Grammar Rules)

Verb Tense Consistency (Grammar Rules)

Verb tenses tell us when an action happened: In the past, present, or sometimes future. It’s always good measure to maintain verb tense consistency throughout a clause or entire text.

This means that you should keep the same verb tense (present tense, for example) from beginning to end. You should only change verb tenses if you want to indicate a change in time.

When you do need to indicate a change in time, make sure that the new verb tense has a separate clause, with its own subject and verb. Otherwise, you’ll likely confuse your reader about when the action is occurring.

Let’s take a look at some examples:

After school, Josie ate ice cream, cleans her room, and did her homework.

  • There are three verbs in this sentence: ate, cleans, and did.
  • Ate is past tense, but cleans is present tense. The verb did shifts us back to past tense. Unless this is a story about time travel, it doesn’t make any sense for Josie’s actions to go from the past to the present and back again.

We can fix this sentence in a couple of different ways. First, we can change cleans to past tense to match the other verbs in the sentence:

After school, Josie ate ice cream, cleaned her room, and did her homework.

  • Now all three verbs are in past tense, so the revised sentence has verb tense consistency.

If the sentence is written this way because Josie ate ice cream and did her homework in the past, but she’s cleaning her room now (in the present), we can revise the sentence to give each verb tense its own clause:

After school, Josie ate ice cream and did her homework, and now she is cleaning her room. 

OR

After school, Josie ate ice cream and did her homework. Now she is cleaning her room.

  • We do change verb tenses in these two revisions, but only to indicate a change in time. The two different verb tenses have separate clauses with their own subject and verb.

Here’s another example:

The teacher explains the assignment to students who asked questions during class.

  • In this example, explains is present tense and asked is past tense. We can’t tell if class is taking place in the past or in the present, so we need to stick to one tense.

We could fix the sentence in one of two ways:

The teacher explains the assignment to students who ask questions during class.

OR

The teacher explained the assignment to students who asked questions during class.

  • In the first revision, we used present tense for both verbs, indicating that class is taking place now (in the present).
  • In the second revision, we used past tense for both verbs to show that class took place previously (in the past).

For the most part, it’s best to maintain verb tense consistency by using only one verb tense from the beginning of the text to the end. However, you may need to change tenses for the following reasons:

  • To indicate cause and effect.
  • To narrate an event in the present tense for dramatic effect.
  • To describe a literary work, movie, or other fictional text in the present tense.
  • To state facts, describe habitual actions or discuss ideas in the present tense.

Remember that when you do need to shift verb tenses, it’s important to give the new verb tense a new clause. We’ll leave you with one final example:

I’m reading the book that I bought yesterday. 

  • This sentence does demonstrate verb tense consistency correctly.
  • I am reading the book now (present tense), but I bought the book yesterday (past tense).
  • The word “that” indicates the beginning of a new clause. It has its own subject (I) and its own verb (bought).

If you’re careful to use appropriate verb tense agreement, you’ll be able to clearly convey your message to your readers.


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