Verb Tense

Verbs take different forms, called tenses, to indicate functions in time. Below is a brief review of the basics, along with some features of tense that can help you control your writing and avoid errors in tense shifts (see Tense Shifts below).

Here are the simple tenses, along with two types of examples, regular and irregular verbs:

  • regular verb: meaning that a regular -ed can be added to the end of it
  • irregular verb: meaning that it takes a different kind of form in some tenses
Simple Tenses Regular Verb Example Irregular Verb Example
Simple Past I walked. He wrote.
Simple Present I walk. He writes.
Simple Future I will walk. He will write.
Notice that the future tense requires the addition of an auxiliary verb, also called a helping verb. “Will” is the most common auxiliary for creating future tense, but “shall” can also be used in certain circumstances, depending on emphasis and person/point-of-view, as shown in the table below:
Person/POV Standard Strong Emphasis/Demand
First Person I shall go. I will go.
Second Person You will go. You shall go.
Third Person He will go. He shall go.

Exercise 1

Complete the following sentences by selecting the correct form of the verb in simple present, simple past, or simple future tenses.

  1. The Dust Bowl (is, was, will be) 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, will consider) The Dust Bowl to be one of the worst weather of events in American history.
  3. The Dust Bowl mostly (affects, affected, will affect) the states of Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico.
  4. Dust storms (continue, continued, will continue) to occur in these dry regions, but not to the devastating degree of the 1930s.
  5. The dust storms during The Dust Bowl (cause, caused, will cause) irreparable damage to farms and the environment for a period of several years.
  6. When early settlers (move, moved, will move) into this area, they (remove, removed, will remove) the natural prairie grasses in order to plant crops and graze their cattle.
  7. They did not (realize, realized, will realize) that the grasses kept the soil in place.
  8. There (is, was, will be) also a severe drought that (affects, affected, will affect) the region.
  9. The worst dust storm (happens, happened, will happen) on April 14, 1935, a day called Black Sunday.
  10. The Dust Bowl era finally came to end in 1939 when the rains (arrive, arrived, will arrive).
  11. Dust storms (continue, continued, will continue) to affect the region, but hopefully they will not be as destructive as the storms of the 1930s.

Irregular verbs can be tricky, and students sometimes need to double-check them when editing, so the following table can provide some help:

Simple Present Simple Past Simple Present Simple Past
be was, were lose lost
become became make made
begin began mean meant
blow blew meet met
break broke pay paid
bring brought put put
build built quit quit
burst burst read read
buy bought ride rode
catch caught ring rang
choose chose rise rose
come came run ran
cut cut say said
dive dove (dived) see saw
do did seek sought
draw drew sell sold
drink drank send sent
drive drove set set
eat ate shake shook
fall fell shine shone (shined)
feed fed shrink shrank (shrunk)
feel felt sing sang
fight fought sit sat
find found sleep slept
fly flew speak spoke
forget forgot spend spent
forgive forgave spring sprang
freeze froze stand stood
get got steal stole
give gave strike struck
go went swim swam
grow grew swing swung
have had take took
hear heard teach taught
hide hid tear tore
hold held tell told
hurt hurt think thought
keep kept throw threw
know knew understand understood
lay laid wake woke
lead led wear wore
leave left win won
let let wind wound

Here are examples of an irregular verb in use:

Present Tense: Lauren keeps all her letters.
Past Tense: Lauren kept all her letters.
Future Tense: Lauren will keep all her letters.


Exercise 2

Complete the following sentences by selecting the correct form of the irregular verb in simple present, simple past, or simple future tense.

  1. Marina finally (forgived, forgave, will forgive) her sister for snooping around her room.
  2. The house (shook, shaked, shakes) as the airplane rumbled overhead.
  3. I (buyed, bought, buy) several items of clothing at the thrift store on Wednesday.
  4. She (put, putted, puts) the lotion in her shopping basket and proceeded to the checkout line.
  5. The prized goose (layed, laid, lay) several golden eggs last night.
  6. Mr. Batista (teached, taught, taughted) the class how to use correct punctuation.
  7. I (drink, drank, will drink) several glasses of sparkling cider instead of champagne on New Year’s Eve next year.
  8. Although Hector (growed, grew, grows) three inches in one year, we still called him “Little Hector.”
  9. Yesterday our tour guide (lead, led, will lead) us through the maze of people in Times Square.
  10. The rock band (burst, bursted, bursts) onto the music scene with their catchy songs.

Exercise 3

Write a sentence using the correct form of the verb tense shown below.

  1. Throw (past)
  2. Paint (simple present)
  3. Smile (future)
  4. Tell (past)
  5. Share (simple present)


Note that a verb takes a tense form when functioning in a sentence, or when it is put to use grammatically with the subject to help form the predicate, which is called conjugation. But verbs can appear in a sentence without functioning with the subject–without being conjugated. A verb that has not yet been conjugated is called an infinitive, and it will appear with the word to in front of it, and without any other changes. When we want to express the notion of a verb without putting it to use with a subject, we use its infinitive. But infinitives will never be the functioning verb of a sentence. Examples of verbs in their infinitive forms:

  • to walk
  • to write
  • to draw
  • to be
  • to feel
  • to defenestrate

In the following sentence, notice the difference between the functioning verb and the infinitive.

I loved to draw maps as a child.

The subject is I, and the functioning verb is loved, which is a conjugated form (here, the simple past tense) of the verb to love. But this sentence also includes another verb, which is in its infinitive form: to draw. As noted above, infinitives do not grammatically connect to the subject (do not predicate of the subject), so they can never be the functioning verb in a sentence. This is handy to know when identifying functioning verbs in your writing: if the word to is right in front of a verb, it is never the functioning verb.

Also note that an infinitive is not a prepositional phrase, grammatically speaking, so confusing the two is wrong. But since neither can contain the functioning verb, if your only goal is to find the functioning verb, you can safely ignore both without distinguishing them.


Exercise 4

Identify the infinitives in the following sentences (and see if you can distinguish between infinitives and prepositional phrases):

  1. I hate to say this, but I kind of liked that movie.
  2. The trolls come out at night to dance in the moonlight.
  3. To live a happy and meaningful life should be my goal.
  4. She goes to work to make money.
  5. To be or not to be, that is the question.

Other Uses for Present Tense

Present tense has a few other uses than simply expressing the present:

  1. Habitual Present: Present tense can be used to express actions that keep continuing. Examples:
  • I run the store.
  • She talks a lot.


  1. Future Present: Present tense can be used to express events scheduled to take place in the future. Examples:
  • We leave in the morning.
  • The train arrives in three hours.


  1. Historical or Literary Present: Descriptions of events in history or within literature are sometimes expressed in present tense. This is a stylistic choice—not a grammatical rule. Examples:
  • As soon as Lincoln is shot, the hunt for his assassin begins.
  • Hamlet questions the meaning of life.


Other Tenses

Some tenses allow you to indicate a more specific kind of time than the simple tenses. These are called perfect tenses and progressive tenses, as seen below with examples:

Perfect Tenses Regular Verb Example Irregular Verb Example
Past Perfect I had walked. He had written.
Present Perfect I have walked. He has written.
Future Perfect I will have walked. He will have written.


Progressive Tense Regular Verb Example Irregular Verb Example
Past Progressive I was walking. He was writing.
Present Progressive I am walking. He is writing.
Future Progressive I will be walking. He will be writing.
Past Perfect Progressive I had been walking. He had been writing.
Present Perfect Progressive I have been walking. He has been writing.
Future Perfect Progressive I will have been walking. He will have been writing.

Exercise 5

Using one sentence for each of the tenses listed below, discuss the action of taking a test, using the verb to take.

  • Past Perfect
  • Present Perfect
  • Future Perfect
  • Past Progressive
  • Present Progressive

Tense Shifts

A common error in writing is to shift between different tenses. The most common tense shifts occur between past and present tense, as in the following example:

The professor walked into the classroom, and then he looks around and says, “Someone is missing.”

Notice that the sentence begins in past tense (“walked”) but then shifts to present tense (“looks” and “says”). Tense should be consistent as a general rule, so either of the following would be good corrections:

  • The professor walked into the classroom, and then he looked around and said, “Someone is missing.”
  • The professor walks into the classroom, and then he looks around and says, “Someone is missing.”


Exercise 6

Edit the following paragraph by correcting the 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.

Writing at Work

Read the following excerpt from a work e-mail:

I would like to highlight an important concern that comes up after our meeting last week. During the meeting, we agree to conduct a series of interviews over the next several months in which we hired new customer service representatives. Before we do that, however, I would like to review your experiences with the Customer Relationship Management Program. Please suggest a convenient time next week for us to meet so that we can discuss this important matter.

The inconsistent tense in the e-mail will very likely distract the reader from its overall point. Most likely, your coworkers will not correct your verb tenses or call attention to grammatical errors, but it is important to keep in mind that errors such as these do have a subtle negative impact in the workplace.


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