How to Use Tenses in Writing

Verb tense helps you clarify your wrting.

The tense of your writing allows you to frame your story in a specific time frame, describing past events, future events or even events that are occurring at the moment of the writing. Proper tense use helps you clarify your writing, improving the accuracy of your writing while alerting your reader to specific transitions of time within your writing. Additionally, verb tense can be used to indicate different types of writing, differentiating between proposals and research papers.

Determine which time frame you will be writing in. Remember that past tense refers to a perspective where your narrator is describing events that happened in the past and present tense describes events that are occurring at the time of the writing. Use future tense to describe the future, possibly in the sense of a prophetic statement or to describe an action that you intend to perform.

Consider the purpose of your writing. Remember that most writing occurs in either past or present tense, with the exception of proposal writing, which usually occurs in future tense. For instance, if you intend to write a story where your primary narrator is living the story as the story develops, you should be using present tense throughout your narration. Understand that your tense will shift during dialogue, or if the perspective of your narrator changes during your story.

Keep your narration consistent throughout your story but be aware that your tense will change in dialogue as your characters refer to other time frames. As an example, if your character, whose narration is present tense, begins telling someone a story that happened to them in the past, your dialogue will switch to past tense. Use tense shifts to denote specific changes in narration, such as when a character takes over the narration to tell a story from the past or predicts something about the future. Avoid random or unintended tense shifts, as they can become confusing and ambiguous for your reader.

Be aware of your tense usage and how it affects the meaning of your sentences. Remember to keep your sentences clear and direct to their intended meaning. Avoid ambiguous sentences by paying close attention to the implications of the words you use and asking yourself what a sentence seems to suggest. For instance, the past tense sentence “John built cars for a living” implies that John is retired, while the past perfect statement “John had built cars for a living” implies that he is still working at building cars.

Kristyn Hammond has been teaching freshman college composition at the university level since 2010. She has experience teaching developmental writing, freshman composition, and freshman composition and research. She currently resides in Central Texas where she works for a small university in the Texas A&M system of schools.