Verb tense is often a simple error to spot on English multiple choice problems, but when it comes to harder problems, you really should know the ins and outs of verb tense.
It’s easy to spot errors like “I will play basketball yesterday.” We know that such a sentence is logically impossible, and to fix it, we simply change the future tense to the past tense: “I played basketball yesterday.”
Many problems, however, aren’t so simple. To master these, it’s best to learn the different tenses in English–the ones most often tested on the ACT–and their functions.
First, let’s take a look at the simple tenses:
Simple Present: The man runs. (He’s running right now)
Simple Past: The man ran yesterday. (He ran in the past)
Simple Future: The man will run tomorrow. (He will run in the future)
You may be thinking “duh,” but it helps to organize your knowledge of tenses–even the easy ones.
Here are the perfect tenses. The perfect tenses are a bit more complicated.
Present Perfect: I have practiced, so I am ready for the recital.
The present perfect often indicates something that you have just done, or something that you did in the past and may continue to do or are doing at the moment. Think of this example where we use present perfect vs. past: John (worked / has worked) at the coffee shop for three years. Notice that “worked” would tell us that John no longer works at the coffee shop; he’s talking about three years of his life that have already passed. If we use “has worked,” though, it suggests that John has worked at the shop for three years and continues to work there.
Past Perfect: I had practiced, so I played well at the recital.
The past perfect is used to indicate an action that occurred before another action in the past. Notice that both the practicing and the recital took place in the past, but we want to communicate the order of events: practicing took place before the recital. Thus, we use the past perfect for the practicing, and the simple past for the “playing well.”
Future Perfect: I will have practiced, so I will play well in the recital.
The future perfect is used to indicate an action that took place before another action in the future. We know that the practicing and the recital will both take place in the future; I will certainly practice before the recital but haven’t done so yet. This example sentence suggests that I have made a prediction about events in the future. It’s like saying: “Don’t worry about me. By the time the recital comes around, I will have practiced, and I will be great.”
Now that we know the tenses, let’s explore what some tense problems might look like.
Here’s an example to get us started:
Without a doubt, one of the most interesting things about our trip to Paris next May was the change from speaking in English to speaking in French.
Here, we have to figure out the true tense of the sentence from a tense cue, “Our trip to Paris next May.” If the trip happens next May, then it will take place in the future. Thus, we cannot speak of the trip in past tense with the verb “was,” so you need to change that “was” to “will be.”
Here’s another example that tests something different while still testing knowledge of tenses:
When he claimed that he had spoke to the dignitary, Ken neglected to mention that the correspondence had been conducted chiefly through her secretary.
The problem here is not with the kind of tense used, but the improper application of that tense. The author wants to use the past perfect of “speak,” but says “had spoke” instead of “had spoken.” In all the perfect tenses, we must use the past participle of the word, which does not always look like the past tense of a word. The past participle of speak is “spoken.” The past participle of drink is “drunk.” The past participle of swim is “swum.” If any of these surprise you, review a list of irregular English verbs to fortify yourself against these nitpicky tense questions.