Tense In Essays

 Verb Tense Consistency

There are three main verb forms for showing time or tense:

   Simple Tense

  • does not use auxiliary verbs

  • refers to specific time period during which

                   something happens
                    something happened and is over
                     something will happen

             Simple present (action goes on now):  I sit

            Simple past:  (action happened and is over):   I sat

            Simple future  (action will happen):   I will sit



    Perfect Tense

  • uses have, has, or had as auxiliary verb
  • allows action to continue over time

             Present perfect (action happened and may still be going on):   I have sat

            Past perfect (action happened before something happened in the past):  I had sat

            Future perfect (action will be considered in the future, by which time it will have already happened):                                                                                                                                      I will have sat


    Progressive Tense 

  • uses is, are, was, or were as auxiliary verb with -ing ending on main verb
  • focuses on “progress” of action

             Present progressive (action is in progress right now):   I am sitting

            Past: progressive (action was in progress in the past):  I was sitting

            Future progressive (action will be in progress in the future):  I will be sitting


Each of the above tenses denotes a specific time for an action or event to take place.  Writers should be careful to use the exact tense needed to describe, narrate, or explain. 

In general . . .

  • Do not switch from one tense to another unless the timing of an action demands that you do.

  • Keep verb  tense consistent in sentences, paragraphs, and essays.


 Verb tense consistency on the sentence level

  • Keep tenses consistent within sentences. 

  • Do not change tenses when there is no time change for the action.





Since there is no indication that the actions happened apart from one another., there is no reason to shift the tense of the second verb.


 Note another example. 







The above sentence means that Mary walks into a room at times.  The action is habitual present.  The second action happens when the first one does.  Therefore, the second verb should be present as well.


 Change tense only when there is a need to do so.
 Usually, the timing of actions within a sentence will dictate when the tense must change.



 The first action will take place in the future; therefore, the second one will as well.




  The second action took place in the past; the first action occurred before the past action.  Therefore, the first action requires the past perfect tense (had + verb).


Verb tense consistency on the paragraph level

  • Generally, establish a primary tense and keep tenses consistent from sentence to sentence. 

  • Do not shift tenses between sentences unless there is a time change that must be shown.



    All actions in the above paragraph happen in the present except for the future possibility dependent upon a
     present action taking place: " If a cat sees the bird, the catwill kill it."




     All of the actions in the above paragraph happen in the past except for the possibility dependent upon
     one action taking place:  "If a cat saw the bird, the cat would kill it." 


Verb tense consistency on the essay level 

   1.  Use present tense when writing essays about

  • your own ideas 
  • factual topics
  • the action in a specific movie, play, or book

          YOUR OWN IDEAS








NOTE:  When quoting from a work, maintain the present tense in your own writing, while keeping the original tense of the quoted material.

         EXAMPLE (quoted material is shown in  blue)



     2. Use past tense when writing about

  • past events
  • completed studies or findings,  arguments presented in scientific literature




 Note the justified use of present tense in the last sentence (shown in blue).




    3. Use future tense when writing about

  • an event that will occur in the future.




  Remember . . .

  • Change tense ONLY when something in the content of your essay demands that you do so for clarity.

 Note how the following example incorporates  tense change as needed to clarify several time periods.





This is a really good question, and it demonstrates your interest in writing the most effective essay possible; so I commend you for asking. The short answer is that it depends on the type of essay you will be writing. The general rule for all essays--and any other type of writing--is to pick a tense and stay consistent. Shifting verb tenses is one of the most distracting things for a reader to endure; write in one tense and change tenses only to indicate a shift in time or some dramatic purpose.

Narrative essays are a bit of an exception to the rule because they tell a story, and the nature of storytelling is to shift sometimes between the past, present, and future. Again the key to this is to start in one tense and use it consistently until you have a reason to shift in time. 

The Purdue Online Writing Lab is an excellent tool for all kinds of grammar and writing issues, and these are their exact recommendations:

  • Rely on past tense to narrate events and to refer to an author or an author's ideas as historical entities (biographical information about a historical figure or narration of developments in an author's ideas over time).
  • Use present tense to state facts, to refer to perpetual or habitual actions, and to discuss your own ideas or those expressed by an author in a particular work. Also use present tense to describe action in a literary work, movie, or other fictional narrative. Occasionally, for dramatic effect, you may wish to narrate an event in present tense as though it were happening now. If you do, use present tense consistently throughout the narrative, making shifts only where appropriate.
  • Future action may be expressed in a variety of ways, including the use of will, shall, is going to, are about to, tomorrow and other adverbs of time, and a wide range of contextual cues.

For most descriptive, argumentative, and expository (informative) essays (which covers nearly every possibility), use present tense throughout, changing only when it is appropriate for effect or to enhance meaning. Happy writing!


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