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What are Verbs?

Although many writers feel confident they know how to use verbs correctly, it can be helpful to review some of the most common verb usage mistakes. There are additionally special considerations regarding verb tense in academic writing.

What is verb tense?

Verbs indicate actions or states of being in the past, present, or future using tenses. Verb tense identifies the time of action described in a sentence. Helping verbs, such as be and have, also work to create verb tenses, such as the future tense. For a full list and descriptions of verb tenses, see the following chapters. Here are a few of the most common tenses:

Verb tense   Sample verb Sample sentence with the verb in bold
past tense walked Yesterday, they walked to the laundromat.
present tense walks Achara walks to school.
present progressive tense are walking Sara and Kimmy are walking to a cafe.
present perfect tense has walked Sumita has walked to the corner store twice already.
future tense will walk Next weekend, they will walk to the farmer’s market.

Maintaining consistent verb tense

Sometimes without realizing it we may shift tense as we write.  This can be jarring or confusing for the reader. it is important to use the same verb tense consistently and to avoid shifting from one tense to another unless there is a good reason for the tense shift. Review these examples of consistent and inconsistent verb tenses.

Sample sentence with the verbs in bold Explanation
The crowd starts cheering as Melina approached the finish line. Inconsistent tense: The verb starts is in present tense, but the verb approached is in past tense.
The crowd started cheering as Melina approached the finish line. Consistent tense: The verbs started and approached are both in past tense.
The crowd starts cheering as Melina approaches the finish line. Consistent tense: The verbs starts and approaches are both in present tense.

In some cases, we need to use different tenses in the same sentence. If the time frame for each action or state is different, a tense shift is appropriate. The following explains an appropriate shift in verb tense:

Sample sentence with the verbs in bold Explanation
When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a firefighter, but now I am studying computer science. Appropriate shift in verb tense: The verb wanted is in past tense to describe a past feeling, whereas the verb am studying is in present progressive tense to describe an ongoing present action.



Exercise 1: Edit the following paragraph by correcting any cases of inconsistent verb tense.

In the Middle Ages, most people lived in villages and work as agricultural laborers, or peasants. Every village has a “lord,” and the peasants worked on his land. Much of what they produce go to the lord and his family. What little food was leftover goes to support the peasants’ families. In return for their labor, the lord offers them protection. A peasant’s day usually began before sunrise and involves long hours of backbreaking work, which includes plowing the land, planting seeds, and cutting crops for harvesting. The working life of a peasant in the Middle Ages is usually demanding and exhausting.

Past and present tense in academic essays

In academic writing, as in other situations, we generally use past tense for historical events and present tense for present conditions. There is one convention, though, that might not seem intuitive.  Academic writing uses the present tense for ideas that come alive in the present as we read them, even if they were written down in the past. This is called the literary present. It is as if the conversation that takes place about issues in books and essays is always going on, and writers continue to voice their opinions now through their recorded words. So, if we write about a study, we would say, “The researchers conclude that…” If we write about a newspaper opinion piece, we would say, “The author maintains that…”

If we shift, however, to talking about a past action or condition during a past time period, we should switch to the past tense. For example, let’s say we are analyzing Barack Obama’s memoir Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. We might write, “Obama describes his upbringing by a white mother after his father returned to Kenya.”

Exercise 2: For each sentence below, decide whether the verb should be in simple past or simple present tense to best fit the meaning.

  1. The Dust Bowl (is, was) a name given to a period of very destructive dust storms that occurred in the United States during the 1930s.
  2. Historians today (consider, considered) the Dust Bowl to be one of the worst weather events in American history.
  3. The Dust Bowl mostly (affects, affected) the states of Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico.
  4. John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath (describes, described) a family’s flight from the Dust Bowl to California.
  5. Dust storms (continue, continued, will continue) to affect the region, but hopefully they will not be as destructive as the storms of the 1930s.





“Verbs” was adapted from “13.6: Verb Tense ” of  How Arguments Work – A Guide to Writing and Analyzing Texts in College (Mills), used according to creative commons CC BY-SA 4.0.


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Verbs Copyright © 2023 by University of New Mexico is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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