Identifying Errors of Verb Tense

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  • 0:07 Verb Tense Errors
  • 0:49 Six Verb Tenses
  • 3:31 Common Verb Tense Errors
  • 5:27 How to Edit for Verb…
  • 7:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Bonn

Amy has taught college and law school writing courses and has a master's degree in English and a law degree.

In order to identify verb tense errors, you'll need to learn about the six verb tenses and how they differ. Once you know how to look for them, problematic shifts in verb tenses can be spotted and avoided easily.

Verb Tense Errors

Sometimes people make errors in their writing because they never quite learned particular grammar rules. Sometimes people make errors in their writing because they're trying to express such complicated ideas, it becomes tough to express those ideas clearly. And sometimes, people make errors in their writing because they just get a little bit sloppy.

Those last kinds of errors - the sloppy ones - are among the most frustrating for teachers to find in students' writing. Most verb tense errors boil down to those sloppy types of errors. Luckily, these kinds of errors are pretty easy to fix with some careful, thorough proofreading. In this lesson, we'll talk about the types of situations that commonly lead to verb tense errors so that you can be extra careful about avoiding them.

Six Verb Tenses

You're no doubt familiar with the present, past and future tenses of verbs. As a reminder, a verb is a word that expresses an action or occurrence. Verb tense refers to the way a verb is formed to communicate when an action or occurrence takes place. You may not be aware, though, that there are six verb tenses.

The present tense is among the easiest tenses to understand. A verb in the present tense expresses an action or occurrence happening right now. A past tense verb shows an action or occurrence that happened in the past. A future tense verb expresses an action or occurrence that will happen in the future.

Examples of these simple tenses would be:

I study.

I studied, and

I will study.

There are three additional tenses, referred to as perfect tenses, and they allow us to communicate that an action or occurrence has just recently happened or continues to happen, or place that action or occurrence in relation to a separate action or occurrence.

The present perfect tense shows that an action or occurrence has just taken place or is continuing to happen. We form the present perfect tense of a verb by combining the present tense form of the verb 'to have' with the past participle of the verb in question. Note that a past participle is a form of a verb that usually ends with -ed or -d. Some irregular verbs don't follow the typical pattern that most verbs do. Irregular verbs have past participles that end with -t, -en, -n or -ne.

An example of a sentence containing a verb in the present perfect tense would be, 'I have studied.' The sentence, 'I have lived in Chicago for three years,' demonstrates how the present perfect tense can be used to show that an action is continuing to happen.

The past perfect tense shows that an action or occurrence took place before another action also in the past. We form the past perfect tense of a verb by combining the past tense form of the verb 'to have' with the past participle of the verb in question. Here's an example: 'I had studied.' The sentence, 'I had finished my essay when my roommate came home,' shows how the past perfect tense can be used to show that one action had already happened before another action in the past took place.

Our final tense, the future perfect tense, shows that an action or occurrence will have taken place by a certain time or before another future event. We form the future perfect tense of a verb by combining the future tense of the verb 'to have' with the past participle of the verb in question. Here's an example: 'I will have studied.'

The sentence 'I will have graduated college by next spring,' demonstrates how the future perfect tense can be used to show that one action will have already happened by a certain point in the future.

Common Verb Tense Errors

So, now that we've reviewed the six verb tenses, what do we need to know about verb tense errors and how to spot and avoid them? The most important thing to remember is to keep your verb tenses consistent. If you are telling a story that happened in the past and you're using the past tense, it's important not to slip into the present tense - or any other tense - here and there, even if you want to give the sense of immediacy to what you're telling.

A common assignment that many high school and college students encounter is a narrative essay, in which the writer will be asked to relate a personal story. Some writers choose to use the present tense to convey a sense of immediacy or excitement.

That can be tricky, however, because a very, very common mistake student writers make is lapsing back into the past tense occasionally throughout the narrative. While it's technically okay to write a story using the present tense, the key rule will still apply: keep your verb tense consistent. Don't ever switch back and forth between the past and present tense.

Sometimes, consistency problems with verb tense arise within a single sentence. Perhaps you want to explain a common, everyday practice by using the present tense. For example, you might say, 'In the main office, the receptionist takes your name.' Trouble might arise, however, when you add an additional action to the mix: 'In the main office, the receptionist takes your name and will ask you to take a seat.' This sentence may sound okay at first, but take a look at the verb tenses used. Our first verb, 'takes,' is in the present tense, but the second verb, 'will ask,' is in the future tense.

We could solve it by putting both verbs in the present tense or both of them in the future tense. For example, you could use the present tense to say, 'In the main office, the receptionist takes your name and asks you to take a seat.' Or, you could use the future tense to say, 'In the main office, the receptionist will take your name and will ask you to take a seat.' Just be sure that you've been consistent with your verb tense when you are relating actions or occurrences within the same time frame.

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