Verbs can be in the present tense, present progressive tense, past tense, past progressive, present perfect, or past perfect. According to Martha Kolln, author of Rhetorical Grammar, there are two grammatical features of verbs that are especially useful: tense and agency, which will be discussed later in the pages on passive voice.

It’s important to understand tense because you want to be consistent with your verb tenses in your writing. It’s a common mistake to shift tenses without realizing it. This discussion of tenses can increase your “tense awareness,” which will lead to fewer errors.

Let’s take the verb to eat as an example and see how it looks in the different tenses with the subject I.



present tense (present point in time)

I eat dinner.

present progressive (present action of limited duration)

I am eating dinner.

past tense (specific point in the past)

I ate dinner yesterday.

past progressive (past action of limited duration)

I was eating.

present perfect (completed action from a point in the past ending at or near present)

I have eaten dinner.

past perfect (past action completed before another action also in the past)

I had just eaten dinner when the phone rang.

When it comes to verb tenses, it’s important to be consistent and to be aware of any shifts. If you shift, there needs to be a reason for the shift. Also, APA will often require past tense in your essays, while MLA requires present tense, even if the words have been written in the past. For example, to set up a quote in APA, you might write something like this:

Smith (2009) wrote, “This verb stuff is really confusing” (p. 10).

In MLA, you would set up the same quote with a present tense verb, like this:

Smith writes, “This verb stuff is really confusing” (10).

For a more in-depth explanation of APA recommendations for verb tense usage in literature reviews and research papers, go to: Verb Tense Shift.

Grumble... Applaud... Please give us your feedback!