Verbs are tricky. In fact, they can be downright difficult to comprehend. When learning a new language, verbs and their conjugations are arguably the hardest part to master. As such, it won't come as a surprise that many of us choose the incorrect verb form from time to time.
Overcoming verb tense errors isn't merely an issue of mastering the ins and outs of a language; they can confuse the reader and misconstrue your intended meaning. With that in mind, let's explore some common verb mistakes and how to avoid them.
One of the best ways to confuse your readers is with inconsistent verb forms. If you're sitting down to write a short story, make a conscious decision to set it in the past or present tense, and then stick with it.
If you'd like to take on a storytelling tone, and perhaps appoint a narrator, the past tense could be a nice option for you. On the other hand, the present tense can create a nice connection with your readers, making them feel like they're living in the present moment of the story.
Present Perfect Tense
My friend works there.
My friend worked there.
Present Perfect Continuous Tense
My friend is working there.
My friend has been working there.
So, what's the difference between, "My friend works there" and, "My friend is working there"? The difference is slight. "My friend works there" tells us it's a habitual action. Beyond that, it is a statement of fact.
"My friend is working there" refers to an action taking place right now. It's continuous, or ongoing, at this very moment. This leaves room for interpretation, as it's not to say the friend will be working there tomorrow or next week.
Past Perfect Tense
I walked the dog.
I had walked the dog.
Past Continuous Tense
Past Perfect Continuous Tense
I was walking the dog.
I had been walking the dog.
Notice the addition of the word "continuous" in the bottom two rows? All that means is the action was taking place in the past at a continuous rate. It was ongoing. Think of it like this: in the past, I walked the dog. Even before that, I had walked the dog. It's kind of like varying degrees of past tense.
If you mention something that happened in the past and then want to reference something that happened even earlier than that, be sure to use the past perfect tense. If you think you'll run into past tense mistakes, consider writing your story in the present tense.
Sometimes, we write the way we speak. And, in our everyday speech, it's easy to slip by with the wrong tense. However, the written word lives on forever (and faces the possibility of being dissected by book clubs and lit classes everywhere). Take a look at this example:
"Gracie! Get down here right now!" Nana yelled. Nana was a fierce drill sergeant and is always nagging me about punctuality.
Did you catch it? Is there anything wrong with that sentence? Well, is Nana dead or alive? Is she an active sergeant or a retired sergeant? If she's alive and well, and still active duty, you wouldn't say, "Nana 'was' a fierce drill sergeant."
Rather, you'd use the verb "is." Also, note the change in tense again from "yelled" (simple past) to "is always nagging" (present continuous). This bit of text would do well to remain in the simple past or present tense.
The past tense isn't impossible to master. If you find yourself second guessing yourself to the point where it's interfering with your love of writing, give things a try in the present tense.
Let's think back to the past continuous tense. That's the tense that indicates something happened in the past, at a continuous rate. The past continuous tense is something along the lines of, "I was walking the dog." The past perfect continuous tense is something along the lines of, "I had been walking the dog."
The trouble with the past continuous tense is, if it wasn't an ongoing affair in the past, all those helping verbs and -ing words are only going to make your prose appear cumbersome. Take a look at these two examples:
One isn't "right" and one isn't "wrong." It's just a matter of whether or not you want to signify a continuous event. So, had this man finished tampering with the alarm system before Nora walked into the kitchen? Or was he continuously tampering with the alarm system?
Let's end things with a little bit of conversation. It's important to watch your tenses around dialogue tags. Take a look at this example:
Much to my surprise, he sat down next to me. Turning, I look him square in the eye. "Don't you dare talk to me like that," I said.
Notice how, initially, we were telling the tale in the past tense ("he sat"). Then, we moved into the present tense ("I look"). Finally, the tag at the end of the dialogue switches to the past tense ("I said"). This bit of text would do well to remain in either the past or present tense for consistency.
One thing we've learned is if you start in one tense, you should generally remain in that tense. However, the future tense likes to play by a different set of rules. Take a look at this example. See if you can spot the error:
From the standpoint of uniformity, you might think this is the proper construct. "Will hire" is in the future tense, so shouldn't the subordinate clause also be in the future tense? Not in this case. The proper construct is:
When the verb in the main clause is in the future tense, the verb in the subordinate clause should shift to the present tense.
How does that feel? Are you a little bit more confident in your verb tenses? Truth is, the more you enjoy the words of esteemed writers who have a firm grasp on the English language, the more you'll use the proper verb tense in your own writing. It'll be natural.