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English 7-8

What Tense Should I Use?

Do teachers constantly correct your grammar and tell you to stick to the same tense? In this post, we explain the rules around tenses and which tenses you should be using for formal and imaginative writing.

When writing, do you ask yourself, “What tense should I use?”  Do you want to help your child overcome these difficulties, but don’t know where to start? Don’t worry! Matrix is here to help.

In this post, we’ll explain these conventions in plain English and give you some practical methods for successfully applying them.


What tense should I use?

At Matrix we’ve learned that if you’re a junior student, it’s quite normal to take some time to apply all the formalities of academic writing for high school. This is especially true for those students, or students whose parents, are non-native speakers.

Because of this,

one of the most fundamental questions that arise for junior students is “which tense should I use?”

So, if this is you, don’t worry – you’re not alone! What we’ll do now is show you which tenses to use and when to use them!


What are tenses?

Tenses are one of the most basic elements of language and inform the reader or listener of the time and sequence of events.

Understanding when to use which tense and how to use that tense consistently is a key English skill and fundamental to any piece of writing for the sake of clarity and style.

In this post we’ll explain some basic rules around two key elements of the use of tense:

  1. Choosing the right tense
  2. Using tenses consistently and ensuring agreement.

Rather than covering all tenses, in this article, we’ll just focus on the basic conventions of tenses — the rules and methods that have been established by usage over a long period of time. First, we’ll look at which tenses to use in academic writing such as school essays and formal written assignments. Then we’ll look at the most common tenses used in composing  creative writing.


What are the right tenses for academic writing?

There are a number of simple conventions that govern the use of tense in academic writing. The basic idea is to keep it simple!

While academic writing can be creative and engaging, its main purpose is to argue a case persuasively and clearly, rather than to dazzle with interesting language. This is why the most commonly used tense in academia is the Present Simple Tense.

Indeed, pretty much this entire article is composed in present simple tense.

Take, for example, these two simple opening statements from two essays about Shakespeare’s tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. The first focuses on themes, while the second focuses on values. Please note, the main verbs in the statements have been bolded and are in the present simple tense. Where we have made an intentional error to explain what not to do, that word or example will be marked with an asterisk (*).

  1.  “William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet explores a variety of themes such as forbidden love, arranged marriage and teenage rebellion.”
  2.  “In his romantic tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare employs a variety of language techniques such as simile, metaphor and rhyme to reveal the values of his time.”

Present simple tense might seem an odd choice in some ways. It makes the subject seem active in the present, which is a bit odd in the case of Shakespeare. After all, he’s been dead since 1616!

This is, however, an accepted convention of academic writing.

That’s why we write: “In sonnet 12, Shakespeare uses…” rather than “*used”!

Remember, it is also important that you continue to use the same tense throughout your writing and ensure that your use of language is consistent grammatically. This means that if you are uncertain about what form of the verb to use you should try to use your common sense based on your knowledge of the language. If you get stuck, don’t be afraid to consult a dictionary, grammar text, or website. If in doubt, ask you teacher!



Learn how to apply these skills

To develop these skills, you’ll need to practise them carefully to make sure that they become a habit. If you want to get expert help for your child, learn more about our Year 10 English Term Course, and book a free trial lesson!


What are the different types of verbs?

As you’ll know, there are different types of verbs in English: those that follow a regular pattern and those that don’t. These are called:

  • Regular verbs: they follow a pattern when they change tense or number
  • Irregular verbs: they don’t follow a pattern

English contains many irregular verbs – verbs that don’t seem to follow rules like “wrote” rather than “*writed”. This can be very confusing if you’re a non-native speakers.

But most of the operative verbs – the most important verb in a phrase or sentence – used in academic writing will be regular verbs. These will all follow the same pattern. This is what we call conjugation. You conjugate a verb when you change it from its base form: for example, explore →  explored → will explore.

Sound a little complex? Don’t worry, it’s not really that hard. To help you understand, let’s consider the present tense forms – conjugations –  of the verb “explore,” which is a regular verb:

1st person singular: I explore
2nd person singular: You explore
3rd person singular: He / she / it explore(s)
1st person plural: We explore
2nd person plural: You explore
3rd person plural: They explore

Fortunately, as you can see in the example above, conjugating regular verbs in English is very simple.

The subject of the verb (the person or thing doing the action) will determine which form the verb takes. In regular verbs, this only changes in the 3rd person singular.

The form of the verb used must be in agreement with the subject of the sentence – in other words, it must be the right form for the right person. This is usually easy to check, as most of the time the subject and verb are close together in the sentence. If you look at our earlier examples, you’ll see that was the case with them.

If the subject and verb are separated in the sentence, with other words between, you might try to consider them outside of the sentence and then work out which form the verb should be.


Choosing the right tense needn’t be hard.

So, how do you do this?

If we take another look at Statement 1 from above, we can see that the subject of the verb is actually the play “Romeo and Juliet.” This time, the subject and person of the verb has been identified.

“William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (subject) explores (3rd person singular verb) a variety of themes such as forbidden love, arranged marriage and teenage rebellion.”

As the subject is not a person, but a thing, we would refer to the text as “it.” That’s why we’d use the third person singular:

“It (Romeo and Juliet) explores a variety of themes such as forbidden love, arranged marriage and teenage rebellion.”

Statement 2 also uses the same form of the verb because, even though Shakespeare is the subject in that example, we still refer to him in the third person singular. This means the verb has the same form as that for Statement 1.

“In his romantic tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare employs a variety of language techniques such as simile, metaphor and rhyme to reveal the values of his time.”

The same rules apply when you’re describing a plot or summarising something.

Let’s have a look.


Using tense in plot outlines and summaries

We also use the present simple when we outline the plot of a story or summarise scenes in a story or play.

This is an accepted convention that you will find used almost universally – a quick look at the plot summaries of texts on Wikipedia or movies on Rotten Tomatoes will confirm this!

The use of present simple tense gives the story summary a kind of momentum and energy. It also keeps things simple by describing events in chronological order. By describing events in the order in which they occur, we avoid the need for past tenses or other variations. If you do this, you’ll produce a straight-forward, linear (that is, starting at the beginning and moving forward towards the end) plot summary that makes it much easier to follow the story. This is because it ensures that things are explained one after the other!

Let’s take a look at some examples of plot summaries you can find on the web. These two examples of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet are from The first example is an overall plot outline, while the second example is a summary of the opening scenes. In both examples, the verbs have been bolded. They are consistently in the present tense.


1. Romeo and Juliet plot outline

An age-old vendetta between two powerful families erupts into bloodshed. A group of masked Montagues risk further conflict by gatecrashing a Capulet party. A young lovesick Romeo Montague falls instantly in love with Juliet Capulet, who is due to marry her father’s choice, Count Paris. With the help of Juliet’s nurse, the women arrange for the couple to marry the next day, but Romeo’s attempt to halt a street fight leads to the death of Juliet’s own cousin, Tybalt, for which Romeo is banished.


2. Romeo and Juliet ACT 1 summary

Romeo and Juliet begins as the Chorus introduces two feuding families of Verona: the Capulets and the Montagues. On a hot summer’s day, the young men of each faction fight until the Prince of Verona intercedes and threatens to banish them. Soon after, the head of the Capulet family plans a feast. His goal is to introduce his daughter Juliet to a Count named Paris who seeks to marry Juliet.

As you can see, both of these examples not only use the present simple tense, but they use it consistently!

This consistency of tense gives a natural flow to the description of events. If we were to change the tense in any of these sentences, it might only affect the stylistic consistency of the work. However, in the worst case it could create confusion as to the order of events!

Consider the following example in which one verb has been changed:

An age-old vendetta between two powerful families erupts into bloodshed. A group of masked Montagues risked further conflict by gatecrashing a Capulet party.

Not only does the change cause the piece to flow less smoothly, it leaves us wondering whether the change of tense was intentional, and what it means.

In this case, we might be inclined to think that the second sentence refers to events that occurred before the first: did the bloodshed erupt after or because the masked Montagues risked further conflict?

While we might still logically work out the sequence of events, the lack of consistency in the use of tense can confuse the reader. If it happens frequently it will make the work seem sloppy.

But what if you’re writing a creative? Do the same rules apply? Let’s have a look!


How do I chose tenses for my fiction writing?

Fiction writing allows us to use the full suite of tenses that the language has to offer – we can write in past, present or future if we wish; first, second, or third person. Yet, unless we intend our work to convey the confused ramblings of a madman, we need to be consistent in the way we use the tenses we choose!

The first trick is to pick a tense and stick to it. Most fiction is composed in the past simple tense, though the present simple tense is also common and has gained in popularity in recent decades. Take a look at the opening lines of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, in which the verbs have been bolded once again.

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury.

As you will recognise this style is the most common in literature. This tense can be used to discuss events immediate and recent events or events more distant in the past, such as Jem breaking his arm.

Another common tense is the present simple. This gives a story a much more immediate feel, as if the events are happening in real time.

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, is a popular recent example of writing in the present simple tense. Let’s have a look at an example from it.

Again, the verbs have been bolded, including two uses of the present participle (seeking, finding), which is consistent with the use of present tense.

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress.

Once you have begun a story in a particular tense, it is important to stick to that tense! You want to avoid confusion about what is happening and when it is happening.

It is certainly possible to use more than one tense in a sentence, but these are usually in agreement with the general tense of the story. So, in a narrative written in the past simple, we might use the past perfect – when an action has been completed in the past – as well:

He had been to the shops before he left for work.

In this example, we have the past perfect (had been) to indicate that the visit to the shops took place before the protagonist left for work (past simple). More complex arrangements are possible, but the choice of other tenses will always be determined by the general tense of the story.

It is possible to write in an unconventional manner and change the overall tense in a story. But this needs to be done in a consistent, logical and structured manner.

You might, for example, alternate between events that happened in the past and those happening in the present, switching tense where appropriate. But be careful, this can be somewhat jarring for the reader. And if the story switches too often, it can become confusing and annoying.

Even more confusing is when the tense changes repeatedly within a single paragraph! This is a very common error made by students.

Let’s take a gander at an example:

*John closed the window and stepped away from the light. He picked up the smoking gun from the table and put it into his jacket pocket. Suddenly, a terrible noise erupts from the stairwell, and John runs to the door to see what is happening.

In this deliberately poor and simplistic example, the story makes an awkward and sudden shift from the past simple into the present simple. This is a common error for junior story writers, who often change to the present tense when describing action. While this may be considered a radical or edgy stylistic choice (!) by the writer, for most readers it is annoying and confusing to switch tense frequently. This is especially the case if it happens multiple times in a single paragraph.

*John closed the window and stepped away from the light. He picked up the smoking gun from the table and put it into his jacket pocket. Suddenly, a terrible noise erupted from the stairwell, and John ran to the door to see what was happening.


Written by Benjamin Cornford

Benjamin Cornford has a PhD in Early Medieval Italian history from the University of Cambridge and a Masters of Creative Writing from UTS. He has published poetry and short stories and is currently raising two young boys. He is at present working on a volume of poetry. He has taught at Matrix since 2012.


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