7 Common Verb Tense Mistakes

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. It's common for people to accidentally choose an incorrect verb form. Overcoming verb tense errors isn't merely an issue of mastering the ins and outs of a language. Such mistakes can easily lead to miscommunication. With that in mind, explore seven common verb mistakes and how to avoid them.

Example Common Verb Tense Mistakes Example Common Verb Tense Mistakes
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1. Using Inconsistent Verb Forms

One of the best ways to confuse your readers is with inconsistent verb forms. This verb tense error involves using a verb tense that is not correct within the sentence or larger context in which it is used.

  • inconsistent verb usage - We were on the way to school. Suddenly, the sky turns dark. ("Were" is past tense and "turns" is present tense, so the verb tense is inconsistent.)
  • consistent verb usage - We were on the way to school. Suddenly, the sky turned dark. (Both "were" and "turned" are past tense forms, so the verb tense is consistent.)

It's important to avoid switching back and forth between tenses. For example, 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.

2. Confusing the Present Tense Forms

The present tense has some intimidating labels that represent different forms of present tense verbs. There are four different present tense verb forms. They are very similar but are not interchangeable. Here's the skinny on when to use each present tense form, along with sample sentences featuring a form of the verb "to work" that illustrate correct usage.

Present Tense Verb FormWhen to UseSample Sentence
simple present tensecurrent or habitual actionsMy friend works there.
present perfect tenseconnects the past to the present
My friend has worked there.
present continuous tense
discussing something that is in progress right now
My friend is working there.
present perfect continuous tense
an ongoing action that has not been completed
My friend has been working there.

In the world of verb conjugation, the words continuous and progressive are used interchangeably. Present continuous tense means the same thing as present progressive tense.

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 that it is a habitual action. The friend is not just there for a few days as a temporary worker; she is an employee. 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. The second option leaves room for interpretation, as it's not to say the friend will be working there tomorrow or next week.

3. Confusing the Past Tense Forms

Just like present tense verbs have multiple forms, so do past tense verbs. Mixing them up is a common error. It sounds pretty heavy. In truth, it's not too difficult. They're phrases people use day in and day out, without even thinking about verb conjugation. The table below explains when to use each form along with a sample sentence featuring the verb "to walk."

Past Tense Verb Form
When to Use
Sample Sentence
simple past tense
action completed in the past
I walked the dog.
past perfect tense
action that was done at some point in the past
I had walked the dog.
past continuous tense
action that was in progress in the past, but is over
I was walking the dog.
past perfect continuous tense
previously ongoing action that ceased without being complete
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.

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4. Switching in and out of Present and Past Tense

Sometimes, people write the same way they speak. In everyday speech, it's easy to slip up and utter a word in the wrong tense. Chances are that the person with whom you are speaking will figure out what you mean. But, when you are writing, it is important to avoid the mistake of switching between the present and past tenses. After all, the written word lives on forever.

  • switching tenses - "Gracie! Get down here right now!" Nana yelled. Nana was a fierce drill sergeant and is always nagging me about punctuality.
  • consistent tense -"Gracie, get down here right now!" Nana yelled. Nana had been a fierce drill sergeant and always had nagged me about punctuality.

The text in the first bulleted item has several issues associated with switching tenses. Did you catch them?

  • First, is Nana dead or alive? Is she an active sergeant or a retired sergeant? If she's alive and well, and still on active duty, the word "was" would be wrong. Instead, the word "is" would be correct. If she's alive and well, but no longer a drill sergeant, you'd need to say that she "had been" a fierce drill sergeant.
  • Also, note the change in tense again from the word yelled (simple past) to "is always nagging" (present continuous). This bit of text would do well to remain in the same tense as the other verbs in the passage.

The past tense isn't impossible to master. The key is to pick one tense and avoid switching in and out of it.

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5. Misusing the Past Continuous Tense

Think back to the past continuous tense. That's the tense that indicates something happened in the past, on a continuous basis. The past continuous tense is something along the lines of, "I was walking the dog." The past perfect continuous tense is would be "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.

  • simple past tense - He tampered with the alarm system before Nora walked into the kitchen.
  • past continuous tense - He was tampering with the alarm system before Nora walked into the kitchen.
  • past perfect continuous tense - He had been tampering with the alarm system before Nora walked into the kitchen.

With the examples above, none are wrong as written. Choosing the correct option is 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? Or, when he saw Nora, did he stop and do something else? Choose the option that correctly conveys what you mean.

6. Switching Tenses Around Dialogue Tags

It's important to watch your tenses around dialogue tags. Take a look at this example:

  • switching tenses in dialogue - 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.
  • consistent tense in dialogue - Much to my surprise, he sat down next to me. Turning, I looked him square in the eye. "Don't you dare talk to me like that," I said.

Notice how, initially, the tale was being told in the past tense (he sat). Then, it moves into the present tense (I look). Finally, the tag at the end of the dialogue switches back to the past tense (I said). This bit of text would do well to remain in either the past or present tense for consistency, as illustrated by the bottom example above.

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7. Altering the Future Tense Forms

Of course, English is a language of exceptions. So far, these verb tense error examples have made it clear that you should generally remain in the tense that you start with. However, the future tense likes to play by a different set of rules.

  • incorrect usage - I will hire you full-time when your degree will be complete.
  • correct usage - I will hire you full-time when your degree is complete.

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. When the verb in the main clause is in the future tense, the verb in the subordinate clause should actually shift to the present tense.

Verbal Victory: Overcoming Verb Tense Errors

How does that feel? Are you a little bit more confident in your ability to work with verb tenses? Truth is, the more you enjoy the words of esteemed writers who have a firm grasp of the English language, the more you'll use the proper verb tense in your own writing. It'll become natural. Boost your confidence by learning more about how to conjugate verbs.

Now that you're knowledgeable about verb tenses, it's time to move on to another aspect of grammar. Guess which part of speech verbs love most? Well, there are two components of a sentence that must always walk hand in hand — the subject and the verb. Ready to carry on while the two live in harmony? Check out the rules of subject-verb agreement.