How to use tenses

  • When writing, it’s important to use the correct form of a verb.
  • The verb is the part of a sentence that shows the tense - it shows when something is happening.
  • Verbs come in three main tenses - past tense, present tense and future tense.
Find out how to use tenses

Past tense

Most novels are written in the past tense. Readers are more familiar with this tense because they are used to being told a story that has already taken place.

For most verbs you add an ‘ed’ at the end of the word to change it to the past tense - for example, ‘she talks’ becomes ‘she talked’. However, there are some irregular verbs where the whole word changes in the past tense. For example:

  • I choose - I chose
  • They build - they built
  • She swims - she swam

It’s also important to make sure you use the right word for the past tense of the verb ‘to be’.

  • Use ‘was’ when you’re writing about a single person - ‘I was, he was, she was’.
  • Use ‘were’ for more than one person and for direct address - ‘We were, they were, you were’.

Present tense

The present tense is used when writing about something that is happening at that moment. Sometimes a fiction writer may use the present tense to make their writing more immediate, as in this example from The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger:

‘It’s hard being left behind. I wait for Henry, not knowing where he is, wondering if he’s okay. It’s hard to be the one who stays.’

It is also common for essays to be written in the present tense. For example:

‘Stevenson suggests that man is inherently evil by showing the changes in Jekyll’s character as he develops from a friendly, kind and well-mannered gentleman into a violent criminal.’

However, if you are writing about the writer of the text when they are no longer alive, you can use the past tense. For example:

'Dickens was interested in those characters on the edges of society.'

Future tense

The future tense is often used in speech, for example when planning a future event:

‘We will meet at 5 pm at the museum.’

In writing, it could also be used to talk about something that hasn’t happened yet. You might use the future tense when writing an introduction to a scientific report or essay, to let readers know what you will be discussing. For example:

‘In this report, I will be covering the details of the experiment and my findings.’

The future tense might also be used to create an impact in a piece of non-fiction writing. For example, in a persuasive speech:

‘Should we let them control our lives? No! We shall find ways to fight back.’

Remember

When writing be aware of your verb tense. Carelessly switching from one tense to another can confuse the reader. For example:

‘He could hear a pin drop. He picks up the pen. He began to write.’

However, changing the tense deliberately can have a positive impact on your reader. For example, if you were writing a persuasive speech you may swap from the past tense to the present tense to force your listeners to think about taking action:

‘We have slowly been destroying our world. Take action today to stop this destruction.’

Finally, always proofread your work to make sure your tense and meaning is clear.

Be aware of the impact that changing tenses may have on a reader

Quiz

Find out how much you know about tenses in this short quiz!

Where next?

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