Sequence of Tenses
Only two tenses are conveyed through the verb alone: present (“sing") and past (“sang"). Most English tenses, as many as thirty of them, are marked by other words called auxiliaries. Understanding the six basic tenses allows writers to re-create much of the reality of time in their writing.
Simple Present: They walk.
Present Perfect: They have walked.
Simple Past: They walked.
Past Perfect: They had walked.
Future: They will walk.
Future Perfect: They will have walked.
Usually, the perfect tenses are the hardest to remember. Here’s a useful tip: all of the perfect tenses are formed by adding an auxiliary or auxiliaries to the past participle, the third principal part.
1st principal part (simple present): ring, walk
2nd principal part (simple past): rang, walked
3rd principal part (past participle): rung, walked
In the above examples, will or will have are the auxiliaries. The following are the most common auxiliaries: be, being, been, can, do, may, must, might, could, should, ought, shall, will, would, has, have, had.
The present perfect consists of a past participle (the third principal part) with "has" or "have." It designates action which began in the past but which continues into the present or the effect of which still continues.
1. Simple Past: “Betty taught for ten years.” This means that Betty taught in the past; she is no longer teaching.
2. Present Perfect: “Betty has taught for ten years.” This means that Betty taught for ten years, and she still teaches today.
1. Simple Past: “John did his homework so he can go to the movies.” In this example, John has already completed his homework.
2. Present Perfect: “If John has done his homework, he can go to the movies.” In this case, John has not yet completed his homework, but he will most likely do so soon.
Present Perfect Infinitives
Infinitives also have perfect tense forms. These occur when the infinitive is combined with the word “have.” Sometimes, problems arise when infinitives are used with verbs of the future, such as “hope,” “plan,” “expect,” “intend,” or “want.”
I wanted to go to the movies.
Janet meant to see the doctor.
In both of these cases, the action happened in the past. Thus, these would both be simple past verb forms.
Present perfect infinitives, such as the examples below, set up a sequence of events. Usually the action that is represented by the present perfect tense was completed before the action of the main verb.
1. I am happy to have participated in this campaign! The current state of happiness is in the present: “I am happy.” Yet, this happiness comes from having participated in this campaign that most likely happened in the near past. Therefore, the person is saying that he or she is currently happy due to an event that happened in the near past.
2. John had hoped to have won the trophy. The past perfect verbal phrase, “had hoped,” indicates that John hoped in the past, and no longer does. “To have won the trophy” indicates a moment in the near past when the trophy was still able to be won. Thus, John, at the time of possibly winning the trophy, had hoped to do so, but never did.
Thus the action of the main verb points back in time; the action of the perfect infinitive has been completed.
The past perfect tense designates action in the past just as simple past does, but the past perfect’s action has been completed before another action.
1. Simple Past: “John raised vegetables.” Here, John raised vegetables at an indeterminate time in the past.
2. Past Perfect: “John sold the vegetables that he had raised.” In this sentence, John raised the vegetables before he sold them.
1. Simple Past: “Renee washed the car when George arrived.” In this sentence, Renee waited to wash the car until after George arrived.
2. Past Perfect: “Renee had washed the car when George arrived.” Here, Renee had already finished washing the car by the time George arrived.
In sentences expressing condition and result, the past perfect tense is used in the part that states the condition.
1. If I had done my exercises, I would have passed the test.
2. I think Sven would have been elected if he hadn't sounded so pompous.
Further, in both cases, the word if starts the conditional part of the sentence. Usually, results are marked by an implied then. For example:
If I had done my exercises, then I would have passed the test.
If Sven hadn’t sounded so pompous, then he would have been elected.
Again, the word then is not required, but it is implied.
The future present tense is used for an action that will be completed at a specific time in the future.
1. Simple Future: “On Saturday, I will finish my housework.” In this sentence, the person will finish his or her housework sometime on Saturday.
2. Future Perfect: “By noon on Saturday, I will have finished my housework.” By noon on Saturday, this person will have the homework already done even though right now it is in the future.
1. Simple Future: “You will work fifty hours.” In this example, you will work fifty hours in the future. The implication here is that you will not work more than fifty hours.
2. Future Perfect: “You will have worked fifty hours by the end of this pay period.” By the end of this pay period, you would have already worked fifty hours. However, as of right now, this situation is in the future. The implication here is that you could work more hours.
1. Judy saved thirty dollars. (past—the saving is completed)
2. Judy will save thirty dollars. (future—the saving has not happened yet)
3. Judy has saved thirty dollars. (present perfect—the saving has happened recently)
4. Judy had saved thirty dollars by the end of last month. (past perfect—the saving occurred in the recent past)
5. Judy will have saved thirty dollars by the end of this month. (future perfect—the saving will occur in the near future, by the end of this month)
Passive Verb Tenses
Often, writing teachers encourage the use of action verbs and the active tense. However, there are times when it makes more sense to use passive verbs instead.
Use passive verb tenses when you do not want to specify the actor. If the actor is either unknown or irrelevant, you may not want to specify an actor: “Crimes were committed.” In this case, the actor’s name is purposely avoided.
Additionally, use passive verb tenses when you wish to foreground a topic that is not the action or actor. “Penicillin was developed in 1928.” In this case, penicillin is foregrounded instead of the developer and instead of the verb, developed.
In the active example of simple present, the company ships the computers. Here, the company is doing the action.
In the passive example of simple present, computers are foregrounded instead of the company. In this case, it doesn’t matter who sent the computers.
|Present Progressive (verbs ending in -ing)|
In the active example of present progressive, the factors of the storm are emphasized rather than the storm itself.
In the passive example of present progressive, the storm is focused on rather than the factors of the storm.
Use the passive tense if you do not wish to detail the factors of the storm and instead wish to present the storm as the focus of the sentence.
|Past Progressive (verbs ending in -ing)|
In the active example of the future tense, the representative is specified as the person who will pick up the computer. In this case, the owners of the computer know to look out for a specific person who represents this company.
In the active example of the future tense, we do not know who will pick up the computer, just that it will be picked up.
Use this tense if you do not want to specify who will pick up the computer.
|Modals (can, could, be able to, may, might, must, will, would)|
In the active tense example of the modal verb, the second person pronoun, you, is directly addressed as the person who can use the computer.
In the passive tense example of the modal verb, no single person is addressed. Therefore, the computer can be used by anyone.
Active Verb Tenses
|Present or Action Condition||General Truths|
|Non-action; Habitual Action||Future Time|
|Activity in Progress||Verbs of Perception|
|Completed Action||Completed Condition|
|Past Action that took place over a period of time||Past Action interrupted by another|
|With will/won't — Activity or event that will or won't exist or happen in the future||With going to — future in relation to circumstances in the present|
|With verbs of state that begin in the past and lead up to and include the present||To express habitual or continued action|
|With events occurring at an indefinite or unspecified time in the past — with ever, never, before|
|Present Perfect Progressive|
|To express duration of an action that began in the past, has continued into the present, and may continue into the future|
|To describe a past event or condition completed before another event in the past||In reported speech|
|To express action that will be completed by or before a specified time in the future|
Verb Tense Consistency
Throughout this document, example sentences with nonstandard or inconsistent usage have verbs in red.
Controlling shifts in verb tense
Writing often involves telling stories. Sometimes we narrate a story as our main purpose in writing; sometimes we include brief anecdotes or hypothetical scenarios as illustrations or reference points in an essay.
Even an essay that does not explicitly tell a story involves implied time frames for the actions discussed and states described. Changes in verb tense help readers understand the temporal relationships among various narrated events. But unnecessary or inconsistent shifts in tense can cause confusion.
Generally, writers maintain one tense for the main discourse and indicate changes in time frame by changing tense relative to that primary tense, which is usually either simple past or simple present. Even apparently non-narrative writing should employ verb tenses consistently and clearly.
General guideline: Do not shift from one tense to another if the time frame for each action or state is the same.
Explains is present tense, referring to a current state; asked is past, but should be present (ask) because the students are currently continuing to ask questions during the lecture period.
CORRECTED: The instructor explains the diagram to students who ask questions during the lecture.
Darkened and sprang up are past tense verbs; announces is present but should be past (announced) to maintain consistency within the time frame.
CORRECTED: About noon the sky darkened, a breeze sprang up, and a low rumble announced the approaching storm.
Walk is present 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.
Love is present tense, referring to a current state (they still love it now;) built is past, referring to an action completed before the current time frame (they are not still building it.)
Began is past tense, referring to an action completed before the current time frame; had reached is past perfect, referring to action from a time frame before that of another past event (the action of reaching was completed before the action of beginning.)
Are installing is present progressive, referring to an ongoing action in the current time frame (the workers are still installing, and have not finished;) will need is future, referring to action expected to begin after the current time frame (the concert will start in the future, and that's when it will need amplification.)
Controlling shifts in a paragraph or essay
General guideline: Establish a primary tense for the main discourse, and use occasional shifts to other tenses to indicate changes in time frame.
- 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.
Using other tenses in conjunction with simple tenses
It is not always easy (or especially helpful) to try to distinguish perfect and/or progressive tenses from simple ones in isolation, for example, the difference between simple past progressive ("She was eating an apple") and present perfect progressive ("She has been eating an apple"). Distinguishing these sentences in isolation is possible, but the differences between them make clear sense only in the context of other sentences since the time-distinctions suggested by different tenses are relative to the time frame implied by the verb tenses in surrounding sentences or clauses.
Example 1: Simple past narration with perfect and progressive elements
On the day in question...
By the time Tom noticed the doorbell, it had already rung three times. As usual, he had been listening to loud music on his stereo. He turned the stereo down and stood up to answer the door. An old man was standing on the steps. The man began to speak slowly, asking for directions.
In this example, the progressive verbs had been listening and was standing suggest action underway at the time some other action took place. The stereo-listening was underway when the doorbell rang. The standing on the steps was underway when the door was opened. The past perfect progressive verb had been listening suggests action that began in the time frame prior to the main narrative time frame and that was still underway as another action began.
If the primary narration is in the present tense, then the present progressive or present perfect progressive is used to indicate action that is or has been underway as some other action begins. This narrative style might be used to describe a scene from a novel, movie, or play, since action in fictional narratives is conventionally treated as always present. For example, we refer to the scene in Hamlet in which the prince first speaks (present) to the ghost of his dead father or the final scene in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, which takes place (present) the day after Mookie has smashed (present perfect) the pizzeria window. If the example narrative above were a scene in a play, movie, or novel, it might appear as follows.
Example 2: Simple present narration with perfect and progressive elements
In this scene...
By the time Tom notices the doorbell, it has already rung three times. As usual, he has been listening to loud music on his stereo. He turns the stereo down and stands up to answer the door. An old man is standing on the steps. The man begins to speak slowly, asking for directions.
In this example as in the first one, the progressive verbs has been listening and is standing indicate action underway as some other action takes place. The present perfect progressive verb has been listening suggests action that began in the time frame prior to the main narrative time frame and that is still underway as another action begins. The remaining tense relationships parallel those in the first example.
In all of these cases, the progressive or -ing part of the verb merely indicates ongoing action, that is, action underway as another action occurs. The general comments about tense relationships apply to simple and perfect tenses, regardless of whether there is a progressive element involved.
It is possible to imagine a narrative based on a future time frame as well, for example, the predictions of a psychic or futurist. If the example narrative above were spoken by a psychic, it might appear as follows.
Example 3: Simple future narration with perfect and progressive elements
Sometime in the future...
By the time Tom notices the doorbell, it will have already rung three times. As usual, he will have been listening to loud music on his stereo. He will turn the stereo down and will stand up to answer the door. An old man will be standing on the steps. The man will begin to speak slowly, asking for directions.
In this example as in the first two, the progressive verbs will have been listening and will be standing indicate ongoing action. The future perfect progressive verb will have been listening suggests action that will begin in the time frame prior to the main narrative time frame and that will still be underway when another action begins. The verb notices here is in present-tense form, but the rest of the sentence and the full context of the narrative cue us to understand that it refers to future time. The remaining tense relationships parallel those in the first two examples.
General guidelines for use of perfect tenses
In general the use of perfect tenses is determined by their relationship to the tense of the primary narration. If the primary narration is in simple past, then action initiated before the time frame of the primary narration is described in past perfect. If the primary narration is in simple present, then action initiated before the time frame of the primary narration is described in present perfect. If the primary narration is in simple future, then action initiated before the time frame of the primary narration is described in future perfect.
Past primary narration corresponds to Past Perfect (had + past participle) for earlier time frames
Present primary narration corresponds to Present Perfect (has or have + past participle) for earlier time frames
Future primary narration corresponds to Future Perfect (will have + past participle) for earlier time frames
The present perfect is also used to narrate action that began in real life in the past but is not completed, that is, may continue or may be repeated in the present or future. For example: "I have run in four marathons" (implication: "so far... I may run in others"). This usage is distinct from the simple past, which is used for action that was completed in the past without possible continuation or repetition in the present or future. For example: "Before injuring my leg, I ran in four marathons" (implication: "My injury prevents me from running in any more marathons").
Time-orienting words and phrases like before, after, by the time, and others—when used to relate two or more actions in time—can be good indicators of the need for a perfect-tense verb in a sentence.
- By the time the Senator finished (past) his speech, the audience had lost (past perfect) interest.
- By the time the Senator finishes (present: habitual action) his speech, the audience has lost (present perfect) interest.
- By the time the Senator finishes (present: suggesting future time) his speech, the audience will have lost (future perfect) interest.
- After everyone had finished (past perfect) the main course, we offered (past) our guests dessert.
- After everyone has finished (present perfect) the main course, we offer (present: habitual action) our guests dessert.
- After everyone has finished (present perfect) the main course, we will offer (future: specific one-time action) our guests dessert.
- Long before the sun rose (past), the birds had arrived (past perfect) at the feeder.
- Long before the sun rises (present: habitual action), the birds have arrived (present perfect) at the feeder.
- Long before the sun rises (present: suggesting future time), the birds will have arrived (future perfect) at the feeder.
The main tense in this first sample is past. Tense shifts are inappropriate and are indicated in bold.
(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.
(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.
Click here for exercises on verb tense.
Verbs with Helpers
1. Recent Past (Present Perfect)
A conjugation of Have + [VERB+ed] describes an action that began in the past and continues into the present or that occurred in the recent past.
- The child has finished the candy.
- I have gone to college for one year.
- He has worked hard all day.
2. Distant Past (Past Perfect)
Had + [VERB+ed] describes actions that began and ended in the past.
- Mike had promised to repair Joe's bike.
- I had eaten dinner before he came.
3. Present Continuous Action (Present Progressive)
Is + [VERB+ing] shows action that is in progress now or is going to happen in the future.
- I am taking Spanish this semester.
- He is getting ready for the party this evening.
- Next week they are going to Florida.
4. Past Continuous Action (Past Progressive)
Was + [VERB+ing] shows action that was in progress at a certain time in the past.
- Yesterday I was working in the garden.
- He was smoking a pack a day before he quit.
- The dogs were barking all night.
5. Other helping verbs (Modals)
[HELPER] + [VERB], such as CAN, WILL, SHALL, MAY, COULD, WOULD, SHOULD, MIGHT, MUST keep the same form. They do not change to agree with the subject.
he | can do that assignment easily.
There are also modal phrases (some of which don't change form), such as:
- COULD HAVE + Verb
- WOULD HAVE + Verb
- MUST HAVE + Verb
(Not could "of" or would "of")
- I could have won the prize if I had entered the contest.
- He must have bought the ticket already.
- USED TO + Verb
- HAVE TO + Verb
- HAVE GOT TO + Verb
- BE ABLE TO + Verb
- OUGHT TO + Verb
- BE SUPPOSED TO + Verb
- I used to think that all dogs have fleas.
- I am supposed to come back next week.