Verb Tenses – General

This handout is available for download in DOCX format and PDF format.

 

Use of the correct verb tense allows you to express clearly the time relationships among your ideas. When deciding which verb tense to use, aim for consistency, simplicity, and clarity. Whenever possible, keep verbs in the same tense (consistency), and use either the simple present or the past tense (simplicity). Above all, choose the verb tense that most clearly expresses the idea you want to convey (clarity). In general, use the present tense to describe actions and states of being that are still true in the present; use the past tense to describe actions or states of being that occurred exclusively in the past.

The guidelines below are a great place to start for general information on how to use tense across many disciplines. For more details on discipline-specific conventions, see handouts “Verb Tenses—Literature” and “Verb Tenses—Science.”

Present Tense

Use the present tense to make generalizations about your topic or the views of scholars:

Use the present tense to cite an author or source (except in science writing, where past tense is used): (Note: Whether or not the author is still living is not relevant to selection of tense!)

Past Tense

Use the past tense to describe actions or states of being that occurred exclusively in the past:

Present and Past Tense Together

At times you will use both present and past tense to show shifts in time relationships. Use present tense for those ideas/observations that are considered timeless and past tense for actions occurring in the past:

Credit: Adapted from “Verb Tense,” Hamilton University Writing Center. 16 October 2017, https://www.hamilton.edu/academics/centers/writing/writing-resources/verb-tense.