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04/02/2014 11:18 am ET Updated Apr 02, 2014

The Art Of Using Correct Verb Tenses In Your Writing

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By Writer's Relief Staff:

Enforcing consistent verb tense in your writing is crucial. Nothing makes an editor’s brain hurt more than trying to read through distracting or confusing verb tenses. If one sentence has so many varying tenses that readers don’t know if you’re coming or going, you can be sure your work is going to end up in the editor’s reject pile.

But choosing the right verb tense isn’t always easy. Let’s start with the basics:

The Simple form (aka stick-figure art)
Past: I drew.
Present: I draw.
Future: I will draw.

Jake drew a picture of Mary.

So simple and easy, you’re probably thinking: Thanks, Captain Obvious. So let’s take it up a notch. What if you want to imply action that ends in a specific time frame? Then, you would use the Perfect form:

The Perfect form (aka Michelangelo’s David)
Past perfect: I had drawn.
Present perfect: I have drawn.
Future perfect: I will have drawn.

Yesterday, Jake had drawn a picture of Mary that accentuated her crow’s-feet.

Perfect! You created art and used the verb tense correctly. What more could a writer want? To keep the action ongoing within each time frame, you say? Then you want the Progressive form:

The Progressive form (aka Munch’s The Scream)
Past progressive: I was drawing.
Present progressive: I am drawing.
Future progressive: I will be drawing.

As Jake was drawing a picture of Mary, she noticed it was unflattering.

But what if you want to be perfect and progressive—impossible? Not so! Just because you’re creating art doesn’t mean you’re not going to (or haven’t already) run out of ink. Use the Perfect Progressive tense, and voilà!:

The Perfect Progressive form (aka Picasso’s Old Guitarist)
Past perfect progressive: I had been drawing.
Present perfect progressive: I have been drawing.
Future perfect progressive: I will have been drawing.

Jake had been drawing a picture of Mary, until she broke all of his charcoal pencils.

Choosing the proper verb tense can be tricky, but easier than the tough time Jake will have getting Mary to forgive him. Using our handy examples, you’ll be an expert on verb tense in no time.

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