By Chris Cherry
Verb tenses let your reader know when an action is occurring. As a general rule, tenses should be consistent within your sentences.
INCORRECT: I watched the movie while Kim is eating lunch.
CORRECT: I watched the movie while Kim ate lunch.
The blue words are past tense, while the red words are in present tense. Mixing tenses in sentences can lead to confusion if done incorrectly.
You should also keep your tenses consistent within your essay as well. If you don’t, you will make your essay hard to follow. Take this paragraph:
Vincent Van Gogh was one of the greatest artists that ever lived. He died when he was only 37, but manages to create over 2000 works of art. In fact, he paints most of his most famous works in the last two years of his life. He does this even though he faced many serious mental health issues. He was truly remarkable.
When you’re writing your essay, figure out when the things that you’re writing about are happening. Then stick with that tense. In this case, Vincent Van Gogh lived in the past, so everything should be in the past tense.
Here’s a correct version:
Vincent Van Gogh was one of the greatest artists that ever lived. He died when he was only 37, but managed to create over 2000 works of art. Even more impressive, he painted the majority of his most famous works in the last two years of his life. He did this even though he faced many serious mental health issues. He was truly remarkable.
However, sometimes you do need to mix tenses when you’re talking about events that occurred in different times. In this case, it’s important to clearly indicate when things are happening. Look at the following paragraph:
On September 7, 1977, the Voyager 1 probe was shot into space. Right now, it is leaving the solar system. It is the farthest human-made object from Earth. When it leaves the solar system for good, it will be the first human made object that will travel in deep space.
All the underlined phrases indicate when the events of the sentences are happening. Notice how the third sentence doesn’t need its own time indicator? That’s because the last sentence had one and your reader will assume that you’re staying in that time unless you indicate otherwise.
Not sure which tense is the correct one to express when something is happening? Here’s a quick rundown.