Tense up!

Another problem we see cropping up in papers is verb tense consistency — it might seem obvious, but surprisingly, this mistake is made more often than you might think.

A real-life example from a student:

“Bonfires were lit to praise the sun because the days were getting shorter and the sun appeared to get weaker…”

Ok, so what’s the problem? If we are going to use were lit and were getting then let’s say was appearing (use was, not were, since sun is singular and bonfires and days are plural).

A better way to phrase this sentence would be:

Bonfires were lit to praise the sun because the days were getting shorter and the sun was appearing to weaken.

That just sounds so much better and now our tenses are consistent.

For more practice grab a paper and pencil (yes, I know it’s July) and try your hand at the Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL) Tense Consistency Exercise. Answers are included and there are four different exercises.

Sometimes it is appropriate to shift your verb tenses within a paragraph. This depends on what is being written and how the information is conveyed. There is a great example of correct tense shift in the first example of OWL Exercise 4. Can you find the two instances where the present tense is used correctly? The rest of the paragraph examples are more challenging — see if you can do them without peeking at the answers!

Verb tense consistency can be trickier than you think. It always helps to read your writing aloud — it will often reveal inconsistencies that you did not realize existed.

Home educators: What writing curriculum are you using this year? Do you have time to correct and provide constructive feedback on your student’s work without becoming frustrated? If not, we would be delighted to help. Please contact us to design a custom package to meet your individual needs.

Happy Writing!