Verb Tense and Subject-Verb Agreement

Verb Tense Guide


I.  Consistency

            Verb tenses tell readers when actions are taking place. Careful and accurate use of tenses is important so that your reader doesn’t get confused. When you're talking about the same event (or group of events), make sure you stick to a single general tense--past, present, or future.

Not: "I opened the door, and Mike is standing there."

But: "I opened the door, and Mike was standing there."

(Mike was there when I opened the door, but he isn't still standing there, is he? Both these events happened in the past and are now over.)

If you absolutely must refer to more than one time period in one sentence (or in one paragraph, for that matter), it’s okay to use more than one tense, but be as clear as possible about which events happen when. Make sure you use the appropriate tense for each action.

Not: "He tells the truth, and he tells it again, but he chooses to lie."

But: "He told the truth at first, and he will tell it again, but now he chooses to lie."

(The first version implies that he tells the truth and lies all at the same time.)

II.  Historical Present

When you write about literary and artistic works, use present-tense verbs.

As Eudora Welty notes, "learning stamps you with its moments." "Childhood's learning," she continues, "is made up of moments. It isn't steady. It's a pulse."

Plot synopsis (summary) should be in the present tense (even if the story is told in past tense).

Not: "Hamlet had doubts, and couldn't bring himself to act."

But: "Hamlet has doubts, and can't bring himself to act."

Use present tense for eternal truths.

Not: "Beauty was in the eye of the beholder."

But: "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."

(Always has been, always will be--it just is!)

Also use present tense to introduce quotes and paraphrases of an author's words.

Not: "The first line of Moby Dick was 'Call me Ishmael."'

But: "The first line of Moby Dick is 'Call me Ishmael."'

(Melville didn't change the line; it is and always will be "Call me Ishmael.")

III. Subject/Verb Agreement

            A verb should agree in person and number with its subject. The following sentences contain subject-verb agreement errors:   

Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon Days recount the history of a mythical Minnesota town. (Use singular verbs with titles because the title refers to a single entity: a book, poem, play, etc.)

The stories from this humorous book captures small-town American life. (Do not allow phrases or clauses that come between a subject and a verb to affect the number of a verb.) 

In the printed version of the stories, Keillor's warm voice and infectious laugh is missing, his infrequent verbal slips do not occur, and the sound effects are missing. (Use a plural verb with a compound subject.) 

Dorothy of the Chatterbox Café, along with Ralph of Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery, appear in the book. (Do not allow phrases or clauses, such as along with or including, that come between a subject and a verb to affect the number of a verb.)

Neither Dorothy nor Ralph serve customers with modern efficiency. (After a compound subject with or, nor, either...or, neither...nor, make the verb agree in number and person with the nearer part of the subject.)

IV. Editing Strategies

V. An Overview of Verb Tenses

Simple Tenses:  Generally used to express relatively simple time relations.

Simple Past

Completed Action

Completed Condition

  • We visited the museum yesterday.
  • The weather was rainy last week.

Simple Present

Present Action or Condition

General Truths

Non-action; Habitual Action

Future Time

  • I hear you.
  • Here comes the bus.
  • There are thirty days in September.
  • I like music.
  • I run on Tuesdays and Sundays.
  • The train leaves at 4:00 p.m.


With will/won't -- Activity or event that will or won't exist or happen in the future

With going to -- future in relation to circumstances in the present

  • I'll get up late tomorrow.
  • I won't get up early.
  • I'm going to get something to eat.


Perfect Tenses (a form of ‘have’ + past participle):  Generally used to express an action that was or will be completed by the time of another action.

Past Perfect

To describe a past event or condition completed before another event in the past

In reported speech

  • When I arrived home, he had already called.
  • Jane said that she had gone to the movies.


Present Perfect

With verbs of state that begin in the past and lead up to and include the present

To express habitual or continued action

With events occurring at an indefinite or unspecified time in the past -- with ever, never, before

  • He has lived here for many years.
  • He has worn glasses all his life.
  • Have you ever been to Tokyo before?


Future perfect

To express action that will be completed by or before a specified time in the future

  • By next month we will have finished this job.


Progressive Tenses (a form of ‘be’ + present participle):  generally used to indicate actions in progress.  

Past Progressive

Past Action that took place over a period of time

Past Action interrupted by another

  • They were climbing for twenty-seven days.
  • We were eating dinner when she told me.

Present Progressive

Activity in Progress

Verbs of Perception

  • I am playing soccer now.
  • He is feeling sad.

Future Progressive

To describe actions ongoing in the future.

  • She will be dancing at midnight.

Past Perfect Progressive

To indicate that a continuing action in the past began before another past action began or interrupted the first action.

  • I had been running before I started to jog.

Present Perfect Progressive

To express duration of an action that began in the past, has continued into the present, and may continue into the future

  • David has been working for two hours, and he hasn't finished yet.

Future Perfect Progressive

To indicate a continuing action that will be completed at some specified time in the future.

  • I will have been studying grammar for two years by the end of this semester.