Verb Tense

Posted: February 20th, 2014, 10:02 am   By: brittany.corners

“That guy is tense. Tension is a killer. I used to be in a barbershop quartet in Skokie, Illinois. The baritone was this guy named Kip Diskin—big fat guy. I mean, like, orca fat.”—Keyser Söze, a criminal mastermind whose greatest evil may be his attitude toward the obese

Usual Suspect Stephen Baldwin (even when he’s handcuffed to Morpheus) can tell you: all good writers need to understand the basics of verb tense. Simply put, tense indicates when something happens. According to the Chicago Manual of Style, tense “shows the time in which an act, state, or condition occurs or occurred.”

English traditionally has three tenses: present, past, and future. Because we don’t have space this week to deal with the differences between regular and irregular verb forms, we will stick mostly with rules for regular forms here.

Present: this tense drops the “to” from a verb’s infinitive form to use the verb’s stem (adding an “-s” for the third-person singular).

  • Example: Norman Golden II really likes to remind crooks that he is their worst nightmare.

Past: past tense is formed by inflection, such as adding “-ed” to the end of a verb stem. Inflection can be complicated to explain—especially when dealing with irregular verbs—so we have to save the details for another week.

  • Example: The ghost of Jimi Hendrix vomited on his own lap when Nordic Thunder said, “Pain is temporary, air guitar is forever.”

Future: this tense is formed by placing “will” (or less commonly, “shall”) in front of a verb’s stem. Some grammar nerds argue that this is not a true tense, because you’re just slapping a helping verb onto your verb stem. Don’t listen to those lunatics.

  • Example: We expect that a dejected Todd Akin will explain to the newspaper that he will not attend this year’s convention of the National Organization for Women.

Usage Guidelines

In your work for, stick with present tense: it enhances the clarity and immediacy of your message.