Verb Tense Consistency: Grammar Rules

Verb tense consistency refers to keeping the same tense throughout a clause. We don’t want to have one time period being described in two different tenses. If you have two or more time periods, start a new clause or a new sentence.

Take this sentence with problematic tense consistency, for example:

Mark finished his essay, tidies his room, and went out for supper.

Finished and went are in the past tense, but tidies is in the present tense. Mark’s actions shift from the past to the present and back again, which is not logical unless you are Dr. Who. We could fix this in a couple of different ways:

Mark finished his essay, tidied his room, and went out for supper.

Or:

Mark finished his essay and went out for supper, and now he is tidying his room.

In the second example, Mark’s past actions are described in the first clause, and his present actions are described in a new clause, complete with its own subject and verb.

Verb Tense Agreement Will Keep You in the Present (Or the Past)

Now consider the errant time shift in this sentence:

The winds along the coast blow the trees over when the weather got bad.

Here, it is unclear whether this weather is wreaking havoc in the past or present. To ensure verb consistency, the writer must choose one or the other:

The winds along the coast blow the trees over when the weather gets bad.

Or:

The winds along the coast blew the trees over when the weather got bad.

Consistent verb tense is especially important when showing cause and effect over time, and when a secondary action requires you start a new clause:

I’m eating the cake that I made this morning.

The verb agreement in this sentence is logical because the cake must be made before it can be eaten. I’m eating the cake is a clause unto itself; the word that signals a new clause, complete with its own subject (I) and verb (made). If you pay close attention to verb tense agreement, you will find that your writing can be easily understood by your readers.

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