Friday, July 18, 2008

(8) Verb Tense

Verbs designate time in most English sentences. Broadly, verbs denote past, present, and future tenses, but many verb forms exist, including perfect tenses. Writers should be careful with consistent verb tense and be familiar with a wide variety of irregular forms. [EDIT]

Verbs are some of the most complex aspects of the English language. The system that guides verb use has some strong patterns that work for most writers without the need to raise our knowledge of the system to the conscious level. But the irregularities cause us the greatest problems, such as irregular verb forms.

Consult a reference if you have basic problems with verb tense; I recommend this on-line source:

Irregular verb forms (such as “lie” and “lay”) can be difficult, but as we become familiar with these words, most people develop expertise with the irregularities; consult a reference, including:

Research (See Constance Weaver’s Teaching Grammar in Context from 1996) shows that verb use is one of the most significant markers for readers as they make judgments about the writer. When a writer exhibits careless verb use, readers assume the writing and the content of the writing are questionable.

As noted above, writers must be careful to use the conventional verb form at all times, including distinctions between perennial problem verbs “lie” and “lay” (see the link above for help).

Two key issues of concern are using the appropriate verb tense for the context of the writing and maintaining consistent verb tense (avoiding verb tense shift).

(8.CT) Conventions govern what verb tense a writer chooses in different writing contexts. Consider the following guidelines:

Prefer present and present perfect verb tenses when referring to passages or actions from published text in nonfiction, fiction, and poetry:

The speaker in Atwood’s poem emphasizes her focus near the middle of the poem: “A word after a word/ after a word is power” (ll. 24-25).

“’Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught,’” Steven Pinker—early in his argument about the language instinct—quotes from Oscar Wilde (19).

Darl and Jewel struggle with their relationships, both between them as brothers and with their affection for their mother, Addie.

Billy Pilgrims swings back and forth between the past and the present throughout the novel.

Prefer past tense forms when writing about historical events. As well, conventions for writing about drama require past tense verb forms when writing about the action of a play:

Jefferson spoke and wrote in support of a separation between church and state.

(8.TS) A key marker for sophisticated writing is purposeful control of the verb tense throughout a composition. Careless and purposeless shifts in the verb tense suggest a lack of writer expertise and control.


“There is no such thing as a culturally deprived kid,” argued Ellison (2003, p. 547). Here, a man of letters recognized something that contrasts with our assumptions today: Too often we attempt to address the educational problems of children from poverty with workshops, programs, and classroom practices that maintain a deficit view of those children and their lives. “Let’s not play these kids cheap; let’s find out what they have,” Ellison countered. “What do they have that is a strength?” (p. 548). For Ellison, who left college and gained his full education as a writer by reading and writing, the purpose of education was clear: “Education is a matter of building bridges, it seems to me” (p. 548). And why build a bridge to something that is broken, something that is lacking?—we might imagine him asking those who see children from poverty as incomplete, passively waiting for schools and teachers to fill in those gaps.

* Here, since Ellison made an actual speech, but the text is published as an essay, I chose to use past tense verbs in the discussion of Ellison’s speech, but maintain present tense in the original text. This shows purposeful shifts in verb tense.