There are three standard tenses in English: past, present and future. All three of these tenses have simple and more complex forms. For now we’ll just focus on the simple present (things happening now), the simple past (things that happened before), and the simple future (things that will happen later).
- Simple Present: work(s)
- Simple Past: worked
- Simple Future: will work
The singular third person requires a slightly different present then other persons. Look at the tables below to see the correct tenses for each person:
|I||verb + ed||verb||will verb|
|We||verb + ed||verb||will verb|
|You||verb + ed||verb||will verb|
|He, She, It||verb + ed||verb + s (or es)||will verb|
|They||verb + ed||verb||will verb|
Let’s look at the verb to walk for an example:
|He, She, It||walked||walks||will walk|
There are a lot of irregular verbs. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of memorization involved in keeping them straight. This video shows a few of the irregular verbs you’ll have to use the most often (to be, to have, to do, and to say):
Here are the tables for to be and to have for a quick reference:
|He, She, It||was||is||will be|
|He, She, It||had||has||will have|
The basic idea behind sentence agreement is pretty simple: all the parts of your sentence should match (or agree). Verbs need to agree with their subjects in number (singular or plural) and in person (first, second, or third). In order to check agreement, you simply need to find the verb and ask who or what is doing the action of that verb, for example:
- I really am (first-person singular) vs. We really are (first-person plural)
- The boy sings (third-person singular) vs. The boys sing (third-person plural)
Compound subjects are plural, and their verbs should agree. Look at the following sentence for an example:
A pencil, a backpack, and a notebook were issued to each student.
Verbs will never agree with nouns that are in phrases. To make verbs agree with their subjects, follow this example:
The direction of the three plays is the topic of my talk.
The subject of “my talk” is the direction, not plays, so the verb should be singular.
In the English language, verbs usually come after subjects. But when this order is reversed, the writer must make the verb agree with the subject, not with a noun that happens to precede it. For example:
Beside the house stand sheds filled with tools.
The subject is sheds; it is plural, so the verb must be stand.
One of the most common mistakes in writing is a lack of tense consistency. Writers often start a sentence in one tense but ended up in another. Look back at that sentence. Do you see the error? The first verb start is in the present tense, but ended is in the past tense. The correct version of the sentence would be “Writers often start a sentence in one tense but end up in another.”
These mistakes often occur when writers change their minds halfway through writing the sentence, or when they come back and make changes but only end up changing half the sentence. It is very important to maintain a consistent tense, not just in a sentence but across paragraphs and pages. Decide if something happened, is happening, or will happen and then stick with that choice.