Dr. Judith M. Newman

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 eyes.

The main action is taking place in some past time, so the second sentence should read: Finally she opened her eyes.

General guideline

Do not shift from one tense to another if the time frame for each action or state is the same.


  • 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 holding" 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.
    Corrected:The directors are working on changes to the rules so when students leave their computers, they lose their privileges in the lab.
  • Yesterday 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.

General guideline

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 a journal.
    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.
    A new 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, or future.


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 usual standard.


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!

Tense Changes

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.

General Guidelines

  • 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 cues.

Sample paragraphs

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.

Online Quiz

Click here to check your proficiency with verb tense consistency.