Tenses refer to the conjugation of verbs to show when the action takes place compared to the current moment. Tenses play an important role in written content by showing when events happen and conveying the order and passage of time.
There are three main tenses in English: Present, Past and Future.
Each of these main tenses has additional aspects like perfect, continuous, and perfect continuous to add more context about time. Proper conjugation is used to show specific timing and order of events.
Skillful use of tenses helps writing flow smoothly and keeps the timeline clear. Tenses show if the action is happening right now, has already happened, or will happen later. This provides a sense of time order for readers.
Writers intentionally choose tenses not just to be accurate but also for their effect. A mix of tenses may be used together in certain writing types like explanation and persuasion. Understanding the details of tenses gives writers control over the time experience of their content.
The present tense refers to verbs that express actions or states of being in the current moment. This includes actions happening right now, habitual or repeated actions, and universal truths.
Present tense verbs are conjugated into their present form by adding suffixes like -s, -es, and -ies to the base form for third person singular subjects (he/she/it). For other pronouns (I, you, we, they), the base verb form is used without modification in the present tense.
Some primary uses of the present tense include describing:
- Actions occurring at the current moment
- Repeated actions or habits
- General truths
- Scheduled future events soon to happen
The present tense brings a sense of rapidness and closeness to writing. It conveys that the action or state of being is happening right now, rather than being complete or to come in the future. This engages readers by allowing them to visualize or experience the dynamics of the present moment as they read.
When to Use Present Tense
Use the present tense when writing about
● Events happening now
The baby is crying right now.
● Repeated actions or habits
He brushes his teeth twice a day.
● General truths
Plants need sunlight to grow.
● Scheduled events in the near future
Her flight leaves tonight at 8 pm.
● Something that is always true
White Sauce Pasta is my favorite food.
Examples of Present Tense
- I am typing an essay now.
- Cats purr when they are happy.
- Water freezes at 32° Fahrenheit.
As students engage with the present tense, they can enhance their writing skills further with the help of a paraphrasing tool. This tool helps rewrite sentences and keep the right tense. It can help students better understand the present tense and how to use it.
The past tense refers to verbs that express actions or states of being that have already been completed or occurred in the past.
Past tense verbs are conjugated by adding the suffix -ed to regular verbs or using the irregular past form for irregular verbs (like “went” for “go”). This grammar construction clearly establishes that the action occurred before the current moment.
Some primary uses of the past tense include describing:
- Completed actions that happened in the past
- Historical events
- Habitual or repeated actions in the past
- Sequences of events in chronological narrative order
- Conditional situations or hypotheticals
Using the past tense allows writers to create separation between the past events being described and the present moment. This provides useful narrative context by indicating the order that events happened and conveying that they are completed.
When to Use Past Tense
Use the past tense when writing about
● Events that have already occurred
She took a vacation to Hawaii last June.
● Historical facts
World War II ended in 1945.
● Completed actions within a stated time frame
He washed the dishes after dinner.
● Habits or repeated actions in the past
She called her mother every Sunday.
Examples of Past Tense
- Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876.
- We went to the movie theater last weekend.
- I studied all night for the test.
The future tense refers to verbs that express actions or states of being that have not occurred yet and will happen later.
Future tense verbs use the word “will” before the base form of the verb. This construction marks the action as following the present moment in time.
Some primary uses of the future tense include describing
- Events expected to occur later
- Predictions or guesses about future happenings
- Plans, schedules, or intended future actions
- Universal truths that will be perpetually true moving forward
The future tense conveys excitement and creates an expectation in the reader of what is to come. It is useful for discussing imagined situations, making promises, and adding suspense about future events.
When to Use Future Tense
Use the future tense when writing about
● Events that will happen later
She will get a promotion next month.
It will snow tomorrow.
● Scheduled/planned events
We will meet at 6 pm for dinner.
● Something that will happen as a natural course
The apples will ripen in a few weeks.
Examples of Future Tense
- We will celebrate her birthday next week.
- He will finish his novel when he finds time.
- Experts predict that sea levels will rise over the next century.
Tense Choices for Different Types of Writing
Narrative writing tells a story and is typically written in the past tense. For example:
“James went to the store yesterday. He bought some milk and eggs but realized he had forgotten his wallet as he got to the register. Embarrassed, James apologized to the clerk and went back home to retrieve his wallet.”
Using the past tense allows the writer to clearly narrate a sequence of events that have already occurred. The narrative unfolds for readers in chronological order using the past tense.
Expository writing explains ideas, opinions, or information. It can use a mix of tenses:
“Computer coding is becoming an essential skill in today’s job market. While some basic coding languages have been around for decades, new platforms and languages emerged in the 2000s and 2010s. In the coming decades, coding will likely be as fundamental as reading or writing for many professions.”
Expository writing uses the present tense to discuss facts and describe current or habitual situations. Past tense can recount historical events. Future tense is used to make predictions. The combination allows for an informative explanation.
Descriptive writing uses rich sensory details to paint a picture with words. It is mainly written in the present tense:
“The ocean stretches out to the horizon, its cool blue waters shimmering under the bright sun. Seagulls glide lazily overhead while white sands bake in the heat.”
Present tense lets readers feel immersed in the scene as it unfolds before their eyes. The description feels vibrant and immediate.
Improve your descriptive writing with a reword tool. Using this tool can help make your descriptions better, so they clearly show the present time just like the shiny ocean and flying seagulls. It adds more detail to your writing.
Persuasive writing aims to convince readers to agree with a certain opinion or point of view. A mix of tenses is common:
“For decades, scientists have warned that climate change threatens ecosystems around the world. Increased storms, heat waves and melting glaciers in recent years reveal those threats are no longer distant. Action must be taken now before it is too late to reverse the damage.”
Persuasive writing uses past tense to provide background information. Present tense describes current evidence. Future tense urges readers to take action to create change. This drives the argument forward persuasively.
Understanding when to use different tenses allows writers to clearly convey when events occur and tailor the timing to the type of writing. While narrative writing primarily relies on past tense, the other types of writing use a flexible mix of tenses to achieve their goals. Keeping the basic functions of present, past and future tense in mind helps writers intentionally choose the best tense for the job.
When would I use the present perfect tense?
Use present perfect to express an action that started in the past but continues or repeats up to the present. For example, “She has lived in Dublin for 5 years” or “I have seen that movie twice.”
Can I use present and past tense together in a sentence?
You can use both tenses in one sentence when one action occurs in the present and the other occurred in the past. For example, “She has danced ever since she was a little girl.”
Is it okay to shift tenses in a story?
Tense shifts are permissible if done intentionally for effect. For example, switching to present tense during a key dramatic scene in a past tense story. But in general, consistency is best.
Should research papers be in the present or past tense?
Research papers are usually written in past tense to discuss completed research: “The study found that…” But present tense can also be used: “The data shows that…”
Can I use the future tense in an essay?
Yes, future tense is appropriate in essays to make predictions, discuss plans, etc. Just don’t overuse it. Present and past tenses are more common in essay writing.