Problems with Verbs

Writers sometimes use an incorrect tense or don't know how to use the past participle forms of irregular verbs. Using verb tenses imprecisely or inconsistently can also distract a reader and block communication.

Illogical Time Sequence

Recognize time sequences in your writing and choose verb tenses that logically reflect that sequence. Sometimes the choice of a verb tense affects your meaning.

Kelsey worked at the library for a year.

As the previous sentence shows, the past tense indicates a completed action. Kelsey no longer works at the library.

Kelsey has worked at the library for a year.

Here, the present perfect tense indicates that a past action is continuing in the present. Kelsey is still working at the library.

Kelsey had worked at the library for a year.

In this sentence, the past perfect tense indicates that something else happened after Kelsey's year at the library. For example, Kelsey had worked at the library for a year when she was asked to take over technology development.

When to use the perfect tense

Learn to use the perfect tenses when they are appropriate to your meaning. Don't limit yourself to the simple past tense when writing about past action. In the following sentences, a perfect tense should have been used to establish a clear time sequence.

The car wash stood where the sandwich shop was. (no)

All the things you told me, I heard before. (no)

In the first sentence, since the sandwich shop was in the location before the car wash—they can't occupy the same space at the same time—past perfect should be used for the second verb.

The car wash stood where the sandwich shop had been.

The logic of the second sentence dictates that heard should be in the past perfect tense. The word before is an obvious clue that the hearing took place before the telling, even though both actions were completed in the past.

All the things you told me, I had heard before.

Faulty if clauses

The past perfect tense should also be used in a subjunctive past tense “ if clause.”

If she had thought of it, she would have called you.

A common error is to use the conditional would have or could have in both clauses. Would have and could have should be used only in the clause that states the consequences.

If I had wanted to, I would have made cookies.

not If I would have wanted to, I would have made cookies.

If we had brought matches, we could have made a bonfire.

not If we would have brought matches, we could have made a bonfire.

Inconsistency in tenses

Another common error is illogically mixing tenses in a sentence or in a piece of writing. Choose the verb tense you want to use in your sentence or in your essay. Then make sure that all verbs are consistent, either by being in the same tense or by reflecting past and future times in relation to your main tense.

Roberto went into the market, walks over to the produce section, and picks through the tomatoes. (inconsistent tenses)

In the preceding sentence there is no logical reason to move from the past tense ( went) to the present tense ( walks, picks). Use the past tense or the present tense—not both. Rewrite the sentence using consistent tenses.

Roberto went into the market, walked over to the produce section, and picked through the tomatoes. (consistent tenses)

Look at the verb tenses in this group of sentences.

This new program will pay its own way. It specified that anyone who wanted to use the service has to pay a fee. People who refused to do so won't receive the benefits. (inconsistent tenses)

Notice that the changes in tense between sentences are not related to a clear time sequence. A rewritten version of this piece shows a more consistent, logical use of tenses.

This new program will pay its own way. It specifies that anyone who wants to use the service has to pay a fee. People who refuse to do so won't receive the benefits. (consistent tenses)

In this version, all verb tenses except the first ( will pay) and last ( won't receive = will not receive) are in the present tense. The future tense is correctly used for the first and last verbs because these verbs indicate future consequences.

Irregular verbs

Even when you understand the correct uses of verb tenses, you can run into trouble with irregular verbs. Irregular verbs form the past tense and past participle in a variety of ways (as shown in Table 1), not by adding -d or -ed as regular verbs do.

Table 1. Tenses of Regular and Irregular Verbs
 

Regular Verbs

Irregular Verbs

Present:

talk, joke

say, bite

Past:

talked, joked

said, bit

Past participle:

have talked, have joked

have said, have bitten


Irregular verbs cause errors because people aren't sure about the correct past and past participle forms. Which is it: “I drunk the beer” or “I drank the beer”? Table 2 is a list of common irregular verbs with their past tenses and past participles. However, there are many others, so when you aren't sure about a verb, check the dictionary. The entry will include the verb's principal parts: present, past, and past participle.

Table 2. Common Irregular Verbs

Present Tense

Past Tense

Past Participle

be

was, were

(have) been

beat

beat

(have) beaten, beat

begin

began

(have) begun

blow

blew

(have) blown

break

broke

(have) broken

bring

brought

(have) brought

catch

caught

(have) caught

choose

chose

(have) chosen

come

came

(have) come

dig

dug

(have) dug

dive

dived, dove

(have) dived

do

did

(have) done

draw

drew

(have) drawn

dream

dreamed, dreamt

(have) dreamed, dreamt

drink

drank

(have) drunk

drive

drove

(have) driven

eat

ate

(have) eaten

fly

flew

(have) flown

forget

forgot

(have) forgotten

freeze

froze

(have) frozen

get

got

(have) gotten

go

went

(have) gone

grow

grew

(have) grown

hang (an object)

hung

(have) hung

hang (a person)

hanged

(have) hanged

lay

laid

(have) laid

lead

led

(have) led

lend

lent

(have) lent

lie (recline)

lay

(have) lain

light

lighted, lit

(have) lighted, lit

ride

rode

(have) ridden

ring

rang

(have) rung

run

ran

(have) run

see

saw

(have) seen

set

set

(have) set

shake

shook

(have) shaken

shine (emit light)

shone

(have) shone

shine (make shiny)

shone, shined

(have) shone, shined

sing

sang

(have) sung

sink

sank, sunk

(have) sunk

slay

slew

(have) slain

speed

sped

(have) sped

spring

sprang, sprung

(have) sprung

steal

stole

(have) stolen

swear

swore

(have) sworn

swim

swam

(have) swum

take

took

(have) taken

tear

tore

(have) torn

wake

waked, woke

(have) waked, woke, woken

wear

wore

(have) worn

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