last changed 19 March 2003
An important text-level skill is the ability to use verb tenses (past or present) consistently throughout a long passage. Many pupils are still developing this ability at KS3.
What is the difference between tense and time?
Usually, the link between tense and time is very simple:
But sometimes a verb in one tense describes a situation in a different time:
We shall look at some of these special rules for choosing tenses below.
The underlined forms are all compound tenses:
:Compound tenses are easy to recognise:
The terms 'perfect' and 'continuous' are traditional but not very illuminating; 'perfect' hints at the 'completion' of the action (and not its perfection!), and 'continuous' at its continuation. The meaning of the perfect is discussed briefly below.
The three compound tenses may be basically present or past tense:
Some frequently asked questions:
We normally choose the tense according to the time of the situation we are describing.
This description uses exclusively past tenses to show that the situation described existed in the past, and exists no longer.
This description uses exclusively present tenses to show that the situation described still exists at the time of writing.
In one piece of writing we may describe a number of separate 'worlds' in time; for example, a letter may describe both the events of yesterday and the plans for tomorrow, and so different tenses will be used.
The tense choice normally reflects the time of the described situation relative to the time of writing.
But there are situations where other principles influence our choice of tense:
These special cases are where problems of inconsistency are likely to arise.
The choice of tense provides a time framework for the "world" being described. The chosen tense must be maintained when describing the same world. For example, take this simple report:
In this sentence we can distinguish three different worlds:
If this report was extended, it would be important to maintain these tense choices in order to keep the three worlds separate from each other.
Shifts of tense may be confusing, when they are inconsistent - i.e. when the tense used for one "world" changes for no reason.
Consistency is often a problem at KS3. In the next example all the finite verbs are highlighted; the three past tense verbs are underlined, and the present tense verbs are bold.
Consistency is especially difficult when the writer is describing an imaginary world using either present tenses and will or past tenses and would. This difficulty can be seen in the examples of KS3 writing.
Future time is described by verbs in the present tense:
Will take is often thought of as "future tense" but this use of the auxiliary is only one way of expressing future time, and in any case the auxiliary verb will is present tense. (Its past tense is would - click here for evidence.) All these expressions of future time combine with other present-tense verbs, just as we should expect if they themselves were basically present-tense verbs:
Has taken is called the 'present perfect' because its first verb, has, is in the present tense. It counts as a basic present tense, not a past tense, although it describes an event in the past.
The simple past tense would have been:
If you compare this with the present perfect:
you will see that the effect is quite different, although the difference is quite hard to explain. The difference is roughly like this:
Fortunately native speakers of English apply this distinction efficiently in everyday speech so it should not raise problems in writing; but it is important to be aware of it when teaching tense and time because it shows that past time does not necessarily require a past tense. The choice of tense depends on how the writer views the event: as basically in the present world, or as basically in an earlier world.
The present perfect is also different from the past perfect:
This counts as a basic past tense combination, because had is past tense. This is used to show that the event is relevant to some earlier world or merely that it happened before this earlier world:
KS3 writers are often asked to describe imaginary situations, so they often have to use tense to distinguish an imaginary world from the real world.
We use different tenses to describe imagined situations according to whether they are likely, possible or no longer possible:
Stories are normally written in the past tense:
But a deliberate choice can be made to tell a story in the present tense:
The vivid present conveys a sense of immediacy. It is rare in KS3 writing so this is an area where explicit instruction and help may be needed.
There is a convention allowing use of the present tense to describe an author's ideas and writing, or to describe the world the writer described, even though the writing took place in the past and the author may be long dead:
This convention is not self-evident to inexperienced writers, and has to be learned. This KS3 writer has adopted the convention successfully:
The tense of a verb in a subordinate clause may be 'attracted' to the past tense of a main clause. For example,
The only reason for the past tense was is that didn't is past tense - otherwise we would expect today is Tuesday, since it is obviously still true.
Similarly, present tenses shift to past if they are reported by a past-tense verb:
This pattern is called backshift, and is likely to cause problems of consistency at KS3.
The word would is the past tense of will. If you doubt this, consider the following facts: