Verb Tense

Learning Objectives

  • Identify and use the correct verb tense in a sentence

Writing and storytelling are not bound by the rules of time. We can take the action back to yesterday or 100 years ago, then suddenly leap to the present or future at any moment. In order to keep the audience from getting confused, though, we must be careful in how we use verb tense. When writing, maintain one consistent verb tense—usually the simple past or present, unless there is a specific reason to switch.

Two hands holding alarm clocks displaying two different times.

Figure 1. The only circumstance in which it is appropriate to use different verb tenses within the same sentence is when describing two different time periods.

  • For instance: The sentence “Jane runs to the store then stopped at the gym,” would be incorrect because the tenses are inconsistent. The correct wording would be, “Jane runs to the store then stops at the gym.” Or, alternately, “Jane ran to the store then stopped at the gym.”

When can you change tenses in the middle of your writing? Only when describing two different periods of time.

  • For instance: “Marco stops and smells the daisies he planted yesterday.” In this case, Marco is in the present but we are also describing an action he took in the past.

Try It

Workshop: Verb Tense Consistency

1. Open your Working Document template and find the “Verb Tense Consistency” heading.

2. Look at the passage below. The verb tenses are inconsistent. Please edit the passage so the verbs are all in the past tense. Highlight the changes you make.

Denzel watched the sun drop into the horizon and wondered what to do next. He knows he should kayak to the next island before the tide got too high or the sky too dark, but he didn’t have the energy to move from that depressing spot. His dog Fearless trots to his side and dropped something from his mouth. Clank! Startled, Denzel looks down, and sees an ancient bottle, with a note trapped inside its murky glass.

3. Find the “Verb Tense Consistency” heading.

4. Look at the passage below. The verb tenses are inconsistent. Please edit the passage so the verbs are all in the present tense. Highlight the changes you make.

The sign hanging from the front window of Murph’s Corner Market made Louisa’s mouth water: “Fresh strawberries.” She cannot resist, so she pulled open the front door and a bell jingles as she walks in. The smell of fresh coffee from the serve-yourself urns, full and ready for the morning rush that will start within the hour, fills her nostrils. It was the smell of the work day. It is the smell of ambition. It is the smell of the city. Louisa paused, her endearingly crooked teeth showing beneath a grin, to savor the moment. Little did she know that destiny is about to tap her on the left shoulder.

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