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Tense Consistency

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Tense Consistency

Before the snowstorm started, we need to insulate the pipes, so they didn't freeze like they will next year.

Was that sentence a little confusing? If you found yourself rereading it to understand it, it's probably because the sentence lacks tense consistency. The past, present, and future tenses are all mixed up within one messy sentence.

This was an exaggerated example, but most tense consistency mistakes are less noticeable. Even if it's not directly noticed, though, verb tense consistency can make a big difference in the flow of your writing. To learn about the rules and the importance of tense consistency, just keep reading.

What is the Meaning of Tense Consistency?

To start off the discussion, here's the full definition of tense consistency.

Verb tense consistency is maintaining the same verb tense within a clause, sentence, or paragraph.

Tense consistency means that the timing of each expression in writing stays the same. This can make the timing of events clearer to a reader and help to maintain a constant tone.

Refresher: Verb Tenses

If you learned English as a second language, you know that English verb tenses get complicated. So, before diving further into tense consistency, here's a reminder of the main verb tenses in English.

Verb tense refers to the form that a verb takes to represent time. The three primary verb tenses are past, present, and future.

Past, present, and future are the most important tense distinctions. But of course, verb tenses get more complicated than that. These are some examples of the more complex verb tenses in English grammar.

PastPresentFuture
Simpleyou walkedyou walkyou will walk
Progressiveyou were walkingyou are walkingyou will be walking
Perfectyou had walkedyou have walkedyou will have walked
Perfect Progressiveyou had been walkingyou have been walkingyou will have been walking

The progressive tense is also referred to as continuous. The future tense is also cued with words like going to and about to.

The distinctions between simple, progressive, perfect, and perfect progressive play a role in tense consistency, but the most important distinctions to remember are those between past, present, and future. With these in mind, you're ready to jump into tense consistency!

What is the Importance of Tense Consistency?

Tense Consistency, Past Present Future Timeline, StudySmarterThe timeline of tense, image from flaticon

So, you're clear on the differences between verb tenses, but what difference does verb tense consistency make in writing?

  • Tense consistency sets the timeline of your writing.Maintaining a clear timeline makes your writing more understandable. An unclear timeline can be confusing and hard for a reader to follow. You'll see some examples of this later.
  • Tense consistency makes your writing flow more logically.Writing with tense consistency involves organizing sentences and paragraphs in a way that keeps the timeline clear. This means grouping sentences together based on their verb tenses. The result is logically-organized and focused writing.
  • Tense consistency adds clarity to your writing.On top of organizing your sentences and paragraphs, writing with tense consistency involves tweaking your wording to maintain the timeline. This makes the purpose of your writing clearer and easier to follow.

The effect that verb tense has on the timing, logic, and clarity of your writing highlights the importance of learning to write with tense consistency!

Tense Consistency Examples

The best way to demonstrate the importance of tense consistency is to show tense in-consistency. These examples go over inconsistencies, including the effect they have on a sentence and the best ways to fix them.

Inconsistency: She grabbed the stapler and throws it at the cockroach on the wall.

This sentence uses both the verb grabbed in the past simple tense and the verb throws in the present simple tense. To make this more consistent, we could either change grabbed to its present-tense form or change throws to its past-tense form.

Correction: She grabs the stapler and throws it at the cockroach on the wall.

Correction: She grabbed the stapler and threw it at the cockroach on the wall.

Tense Consistency, Stapler, StudySmarter."She grabbed the stapler and threw it at the cockroach on the wall" has consistent verb tense.

That was a pretty simple and easy fix. The inconsistency was very noticeable because it took place in the same clause. This example takes it up a notch by bringing the inconsistency to the sentence level.

Inconsistency: If they had known that you were in town, they would reserve an extra seat at the restaurant for you.

This tense inconsistency is a little less clear. If you read the sentence out loud, it probably doesn't sound totally wrong. If you read carefully, though, you'll notice that had known is in the past perfect tense, while reserve is in the present simple tense. The best way to fix this inconsistency would be to change the form of reserve to past perfect in order to match had known.

Correction: If they had known that you were in town, they would have reserved an extra seat at the restaurant for you.

The words were and would in this sentence—you were in town and they would reserve—don't provide information about the tense of these verbs. These signal the subjunctive mood, which describes events that haven't really happened.

The last two examples involve a tense inconsistency between the past and present tenses. This example throws the future tense into the mix.

Inconsistency: I will leave Santa Fe at 6 a.m. so that I arrived in Colorado Springs before it got dark.

In this sentence, will leave is in the future tense, but arrived and got in the next clause are in the past tense. To make the verb tenses consistent, we could change will leave to the past tense, or we could change arrived and got to the future tense.

Correction: I left Santa Fe at 6 a.m. so that I arrived in Colorado Springs before it got dark.

Correction: I will leave Santa Fe at 6 a.m. so that I arrive in Colorado Springs before it gets dark.

Hold on. The verbs arrive and gets in the second correction look like their present-tense forms, not their future-tense forms. What's going on? Well, sometimes the present-tense verb forms can have a future-tense meaning. Think about the sentence I'm going to Europe next year. The expression I'm going to Europe looks like the present progressive tense, but you can tell from the context that the speaker hasn't gone to Europe yet. This is just another complex tense distinction in English!

Tense Consistency Rules

Now you've seen some examples of the difference tense consistency can make, but what are the real rules here? How can you improve the tense consistency in your own writing?

Does Tense Always Have To Be Consistent?

Is tense consistency always the answer? The short answer is no. In some circumstances, tense inconsistency makes more sense than tense consistency. Tense consistency is not necessary in these situations:

  • When a change in verb tense maintains the timeline of events better than a consistent tense.
  • When quoting outside materials.

Here's a closer look at these situations. In this example, a difference in verb tense makes the sentence clearer than tense consistency.

You're about to bowl a perfect game, just like Zarita did last month!

In the first clause, about to bowl is in the future tense, but in the second clause, did is in the past tense. Should one of these verbs change to make the tense consistent? This is what that would look like:

You're about to bowl a perfect game, just like Zarita will last month!

You bowled a perfect game, just like Zarita did last month!

Unlike the examples above, these changes in verb tense change the meaning of the sentence. With complete tense consistency, the sentence doesn't communicate its intended meaning anymore. The difference in tense is necessary for the sentence to make sense!

Verb tense inconsistency is also okay in quotes. When directly quoting an outside source, it's best to avoid changing anything inside the quotation marks, even if it keeps the tense consistent with your writing. It's also best to avoid changing the tense of your writing to match the quote, because this can cause more tense inconsistency in your own writing. Take a look at this example:

Virginia Woolf was an insightful and influential figure in women's emancipation and education. In her 1929 essay "A Room of One's Own," she wrote, “There is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”1

The paragraph introduces the quote in the past tense with was and wrote, and then the quote itself is in the present tense with is and can set.

The purpose of a direct quote is to show exactly what someone said. Because of this, you wouldn't want to change anything, including the verb tense, inside of the quotation marks. But you could still try to make the tense more consistent. What if you changed the beginning of the paragraph to present tense to match the quote?

Virginia Woolf is an insightful and influential figure in women's emancipation and education. In her 1929 essay A Room of One's Own, she writes ...

This doesn't sound incorrect, but it makes the paragraph a little misleading. Virginia Woolf died in 1941, but the present tense of these sentences implies that she is still alive. The paragraph is much clearer when the writer leaves the first two sentences in the past tense!

Even though tense consistency improves writing as a general rule, it doesn't apply in every situation. As you can see in the examples above, sometimes an inconsistency in verb tense makes for a clearer sentence.

Verb Tense Consistency in Paragraphs

At the paragraph level, verb tense consistency is pretty simple. The key is to choose a tense and stick with it. Maintaining the tense you chose initially through the paragraph will make the paragraph—and the entire work—more readable.

Here are some general rules for verb tense consistency in essay paragraphs.

  • Argumentation in an essay is usually in the present tense. This goes for the persuasive element in rhetorical analysis, argumentation, synthesis, and other essay styles. The evidence at hand suggests that a later start to the school day greatly benefits both students and teachers.
  • The results of a study are usually described in the past tense.This is generally because any study being reported has already been completed. Using the past tense makes the most sense for the timeline.Gleason's 1958 study made use of the Wug Test, which revealed interesting patterns in child language development.

Use your best judgment when writing paragraphs. Try to establish a tense and maintain it through the paragraph, but don't be afraid to create a tense inconsistency if it makes for a clearer paragraph!

Improving Tense Consistency

Checking your verb tense consistency as you write is a great way to improve your writing. To do this, follow these basic steps after you write a paragraph:

  1. Look back at your paragraph and underline all of the verbs.
  2. Make a note of the tense of each verb.
  3. If there are lots of tense changes in the paragraph, change some of them to match the others, or separate the different tenses into different clauses, sentences, or paragraphs.

Follow these steps in your writing, and your paragraphs will be more consistent and readable!

Tense Consistency - Key takeaways

  • Verb tense consistency is maintaining the same verb tense within a clause, sentence, or paragraph.
  • Tense consistency improves your writing by setting the timeline, creating a logical flow, and adding clarity.
  • Tense consistency is not always necessary; sometimes an inconsistency in tense makes more sense than consistency, like in direct quotes.
  • Use your best judgment for tense consistency in your own writing. Use the verb tense that creates the clearest and most logical sentences.
  • To improve your tense consistency, underline all of the verbs in your paragraph, make a note of the tense of each verb, and then organize and tweak the verbs to keep the tense consistent.

Frequently Asked Questions about Tense Consistency

Follow these basic steps to check and improve your tense consistency.


  1. Look back at your paragraph and underline all of the verbs.
  2. Make a note of the tense of each verb.
  3. If there are lots of tense changes in the paragraph, change some of them to match the others, or separate the sentences that contain different tenses.

Even though tense consistency improves writing as a general rule, it doesn't apply in every situation. Sometimes an inconsistency in verb tense makes for a clearer sentence, like in direct quotes.

Tense consistency improves your writing by setting the timeline, creating a logical flow, and adding clarity.

Keeping the verb tense consistent makes the essay more readable. Organizing the tenses into their own sentences and paragraphs also helps the essay to flow more logically.

Verb tense consistency is maintaining the same verb tense within a clause, sentence, or paragraph.

Final Tense Consistency Quiz

Question

This is an example of which verb tense?


I was going to the library.

Show answer

Answer

past progressive

Show question

Question

This is an example of which verb tense?


They will lock the doors at midnight.

Show answer

Answer

future simple

Show question

Question

What is tense consistency?

Show answer

Answer

Verb tense consistency is maintaining the same verb tense within a clause, sentence, or paragraph.

Show question

Question

True or false: tense does not always need to be consistent.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

Tense consistency is not necessary in which of the following situations?

Show answer

Answer

When directly quoting an outside source

Show question

Question

True or False: The results of a study are usually described in the present tense.

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

True or False: Argumentation in an essay is usually in the present tense.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

How would you correct this verb tense inconsistency? (Hint: there is more than one right answer!)


I went to the store as soon as Adam gets home.

Show answer

Answer

1. I went to the store as soon as Adam got home.


2. I'll go to the store as soon as Adam gets home.

Show question

Question

How would you correct this verb tense inconsistency? (Hint: there is more than one right answer!)


She stares at her phone while walking and fell down the stairs.

Show answer

Answer

1. She stared at her phone while walking and fell down the stairs.


2. She stares at her phone while walking and falls down the stairs.

Show question

Question

Should this verb tense consistency be corrected or left as is?


Jackie visited our friend in the hospital today, I'm visiting him today, and Chase will visit him tomorrow.

Show answer

Answer

Leave it as is

Show question

Question

Should this verb tense consistency be corrected or left as is?


I went to the movies at 8, but first I'm going out for dinner at 6.

Show answer

Answer

Correct it

Show question

Question

What is verb tense?


Show answer

Answer

The form that a verb takes to represent time 


Show question

Question

What are the primary verb tenses in English?


Show answer

Answer

Past, present, and future 


Show question

Question

“You sang” is in the simple past tense. Put it in the perfect progressive past tense. 


Show answer

Answer

You had been signing. 


Show question

Question

“You will jump” is in the simple future tense. What does it look like in the perfect future tense?


Show answer

Answer

You will have jumped


Show question

Question

“You are cleaning” is in the progressive future present tense. Put it in the simple past tense. 


Show answer

Answer

You cleaned. 


Show question

Question

Are the verb tenses in this sentence consistent or inconsistent?

She snatched my phone and texts my boyfriend. 


Show answer

Answer

Inconsistent


Show question

Question

What is another name for the progressive tense?


Show answer

Answer

Perfect


Show question

Question

Are the verb tense in this passage consistent or inconsistent?

My flight left Miami at 8 am. I ate breakfast on the plane, and then I took a nap. After I landed in New York, I got into a cab that took me home. 


Show answer

Answer

Consistent



Show question

Question

Wendy needs to include a quote from an outside source in her essay, but the verb tenses in the quote are inconsistent. What should she do?


Show answer

Answer

Nothing. She should include the quote exactly as it is. 


Show question

Question

Megan is writing an essay in which she argues for healthier food in the school cafeteria. What verb tense should she use for an effective argument?


Show answer

Answer

Past 


Show question

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