What is Consistent Verb Tense? – Definition & Examples

Consistent verb tense means to use verbs that are in the same tense unless you are signalling a change in time. This lesson will review the basic verb tenses and some situations that cause problems for consistent verb tense.

When Did That Happen?

‘Inconsistent verb tense’ is a common correction that students and writers get back on their work. But what does that mean? It means that it is unclear when the action you are describing is happening.

As you might already know, a verb is an action word. Words like ‘run,’ ‘climb,’ and ‘kick’ are all common examples of verbs. Every sentence has at least two basic parts: the subject, which is typically a noun (person, place, thing, or idea) that is doing an action, and the verb, which is the action that the subject is doing.

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Verb tense refers to when the action of the verb is happening. English has multiple ways of writing a verb to show its tense. And when a writer switches verb tense without indicating a change in when the events are happening, that is when we get inconsistent verb tense. So, let’s take a closer look at this, starting with a brief review of the verb tenses.

Verb Tenses

Verb tenses are shown in two ways. The first is to change the verb itself, such as adding ‘-ed’ to show past tense. The other is to use an additional verb, like ‘has,’ which are known as auxiliary verbs. There are close to thirty different verb tenses in English, but we are going to look at the six basic ones.

These six basic tenses are divided into simple tenses, which are the basic tenses used when no other conditions are present, and perfect tenses, which describe an action that started before some other event or action. These two groups are then divided into past, present, and future:

Type Example
Simple Past: They walked
Past Perfect: They had walked
Simple Present: They walk
Present Perfect: They have walked
Simple Future: They will walk
Future Perfect: They will have walked

Keep these tenses in mind as we now turn our attention to maintaining consistent verb tense.

Verb tenses indicate when in time an action is happening.
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Consistent Tense

The best way to learn consistent verb tense is to look at some examples of sentences that do not follow the rules. For example, let’s take a look at this:

  • As Jane cleans her living room, her dog barked.

Do you see the problem here? The first verb, ‘cleans,’ is in present tense, and the second verb, ‘barked,’ is in past tense. However, the context of the sentence indicates both actions are happening at the same time. So, when is this happening, in the present or past? Are we in a time warp?

How do we fix this? Well, first we need to figure out when this is actually happening, which is often up to the writer. If the writer meant for this to happen in the past, it would look like this:

  • As Jane cleaned her room, her dog barked.

If it was intended to be in the present tense, it would look like this:

  • As Jane cleans her room, her dog barks.

Either of these is correct, it just depends on when the writer wanted the actions to be happening.

Switching Tense

In our previous example, the writer had clearly just made a mistake as she wanted to indicate the actions were happening at the same time. But what if you want to indicate a shift in time? Let’s take a look at this example:

  • World War II started in 1939 and historians consider it a turning point in world history.

Our first verb, ‘started’ is in past tense because it describes an action that happened in the past, 1939. ‘Consider,’ our second verb, is in present because it describes what historians think today. Both of these verb tenses accurately describe when the action happens, but including them in the same sentence makes for an awkward and confusing shift.

When making a deliberate shift like this, it is usually better to break up your sentence:

  • World War II started in 1939. Historians consider it a turning point in world history.

Lesson Summary

A verb is an action word, and verb tense describes when the action is happening. There are six basic verb tenses, divided into past, present, and future and simple and perfect forms. Inconsistent verb tense happens when the verb tense abruptly shifts in the middle of a sentence. Actions happening at the same time should have the same tense. If a shift in tense is needed, the actions should be divided into separate sentences.

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