Verb Tense Consistency
Controlling Verb Tense
Consistent verb tenses clearly establish the time of the
actions being described. Changes in verb tense help readers
understand the time relationships among varous narrated events.
Writers will generally maintain one tense for the main discourse
and indicate changes in time by changing tense relative to
that primary tense. Even apparently non-narrative writing
should employ verb tenses consistently and clearly.
When a passage begins in one tense and then shifts
without warning and to another, readers can be confused.
Rescue workers put water on her face and lifted her
head gently onto a pillow.
Finally she opens her
The main action is taking place in some past time, so the
second sentence should read: Finally she opened her eyes.
Do not shift from one tense to
another if the time frame for each action or state is the
- I went into the building, and the next thing that
I see is a man who is holding a gun and demanding my money.
"Went" is past tense; "see" and "is
are present tense.
Corrected: I went into the building,
and the next thing that I saw was a man holding a gun and
demanding my money.
- The directors are working on changes
to the rules so when students left their computers, they
lost their privileges in the lab.
"are working" is present tense; "left" and "lost" are
past tense for no logical reason.
are working on changes to the rules so when students leave
their computers, they lose their privileges in the lab.
we had walked to school but later rode the bus home.
"Had walked" is past perfect tense but should be
past to maintain consistency within the time frame (yesterday);
"rode" is past, referring to an action completed before
the current time frame.
Corrected: Yesterday we walked to
school but later rode the bus home.
Do shift tense to indicate a change
in time frame from one action or state to another.
- My essay contains quotations that I found in
The essay currently contains the quotations
and the quotations were found in the past.
- We will develop a new version of the program because
our client is suggesting several changes.
version will be developed in the future because the
client is currently suggesting changes.
- Newton proved that white light is a mixture of the
colours of the rainbow.
Newton proved this in the
past and it is still true now that white light is a
mixture of colours of the rainbow.
Controlling Shifts in a Paragraph or Extended Discourse
A paragraph or complete work should have one basic tense
with shifts to other tenses to indicate a change in time frame
to the reader. Your basic tense will probably be past, present,
If you are writing about past events or if you are discussing
completed studies or findings or arguments given in scientific
literature, your basic tense throughout your work should
be past tense. Study the following paragraph and you will
see that the basic tense is past and that it inappropriately
shifts to future and present tense.
I watched (past tense)
the small children with their mother as they threw (past
tense) bread to the ducks. The ducks catch (X inappropriate
present tense) the bread in their beaks. The children cheered
(past tense) loudly. This made (past tense) me happy and
I smiled (past tense). I will go (X inappropriate future
tense) home happy. When I went (past tense) home I wrote
(past tense) a simple poem about my day.
If you are writing about facts or your own ideas or
if you are describing what happens in a particular book or
movie, use the present tense. Study the following paragraph
and you will see that the basic tense is present and that
it inappropriately shifts to past and future tense.
In Smith’s new book “Dragon” the theme
of driving ambition is (present tense) important. The main
character, Big John, takes (present tense) the prophecy of
his friend, Jacko, seriously and develops (present tense)
a dreadful plan which leads (present tense) to death and misery.
He believed (X inappropriate past tense) the plan was foolproof
but he is (present tense) wrong. He will encounter (X inappropriate
future tense) many obstacles on his journey. At first Big
John believes (present tense) his plan is (present tense)
working but he was (X inappropriate past tense) wrong. This
book is (present tense) not up to Smith’s
If you are reflecting on what will happen in the future,
use future tense. Study the following paragraph and you will
see that the basic tense is future and that it inappropriately
shifts to present and past tense.
I will take (future tense) a train to Sydney and then
a bus to Parkes. It will be (future tense) great. I will write
(future tense) to you later and will give (will give) you
all the details of the trip. No doubt I enjoy (X inappropriate
present tense) the food on the train. I will visit (future
tense) Mary and Tom Brown after the conference. They liked
(X inappropriate past tense) a visit. I will see (future tense)
you on my return!
Just as tense change is sometimes justified
within sentences, so too tense change is sometimes justified
in paragraphs and complete works. The basic rule is to change
tense only when necessary.
In the following paragraph you will see that
the basic tense is past but that tense shifts appropriately
to past and future.
Our researchers found (appropriate past tense)
that most people who used (appropriate past tense) the system
liked (appropriate past tense) it. Most said (appropriate
past tense) that they particularly liked (appropriate past
tense) the sound effects. However, some people mentioned (appropriate
past tense) that they found (appropriate past tense) the text
too small. We will be making (appropriate future tense) the
text one size larger. Hopefully, this will satisfy (appropriate
future tense) the users. Although we conducted (appropriate
past tense) our study at a very busy time of year, we found
(appropriate past tense) that many people gave up (appropriate
past tense) an hour of their time for this study. We are grateful
(appropriate present tense) to them all.
- Rely on past tense to narrate events and to refer to an
author or an author's ideas as historical entities (biographical
information about a historical figure or narration of developments
in an author's ideas over time).
- Use present tense to state facts, to refer to perpetual
or habitual actions, and to discuss your own ideas or those
expressed by an author in a particular work. Also use present
tense to describe action in a literary work, movie, or other
fictional narrative. Occasionally, for dramatic effect,
you may wish to narrate an event in present tense as though
it were happening now. If you do, use present tense consistently
throughout the narrative, making shifts only where appropriate.
- Future action may be expressed in a variety of ways, including
the use of will, shall, is going to, are about to, tomorrow
and other adverbs of time, and a wide range of contextual
The main tense in this first sample is past. Tense shifts
are inappropriate and are indicated in bold.
The gravel crunched and spattered beneath the wheels of the
bus as it swung into the station. Outside the window, shadowy
figures peered at the bus through the darkness. Somewhere
in the crowd, two, maybe three, people were waiting for me:
a woman, her son, and possibly her husband. I could not prevent
my imagination from churning out a picture of them, the town,
and the place I will soon call home. Hesitating a moment,
I rise from my seat, these images flashing through
my mind. (adapted from a narrative)
Inappropriate shifts from past to present, such as those
that appear in the above paragraph, are sometimes hard to
resist. The writer becomes drawn into the narrative and begins
to relive the event as an ongoing experience. The inconsistency
should be avoided, however. In the sample, will should be
would, and rise should be rose.
The main tense in this second sample is present. Tense shifts—all
appropriate—are indicated in bold.
A dragonfly rests on a branch overhanging a small stream
this July morning. It is newly emerged from brown nymphal
skin. As a nymph, it crept over the rocks of the stream bottom,
feeding first on protozoa and mites, then, as it grew larger,
on the young of other aquatic insects. Now an adult, it will
feed on flying insects and eventually will mate.
The mature dragonfly is completely transformed from the drab
creature that once blended with underwater sticks and leaves.
Its head, thorax, and abdomen glitter; its wings are iridescent
in the sunlight. (adapted from an article in the magazine Wilderness)
This writer uses the present tense to describe the appearance
of a dragonfly on a particular July morning. However, both
past and future tenses are called for when she refers to its
previous actions and to its predictable activity in the future.
here to check your proficiency with verb tense consistency.