Editing,  Grammar

Grammar Lesson: Verb Tenses

Knowing which verb tenses to use can get tricky. If someone were to you ask you which tense you used for a specific action in your manuscript, would you know how to answer?

I’m writing the action in first-person point of view, present continuous tense.

She wrote the action in third-person point of view, past simple tense.

And you will have written the action in second-person point of view, future perfect tense.

Say whaaaaaat?

Which verb tense do I use

The importance of tenses

Knowing which verb tense to use is incredibly important in fiction. Why? Because if the wrong tense is used, it will leave the reader feeling confused and can pull them from the story. That’s the last thing you want, trust me!

Firstly, you must be consistent in your use of tense. When you sit down to write your manuscript, one of the first decisions you’ll make is which main verb tense to write in — present, past or future tense. On the whole, most fiction is written in either present tense or past tense.

However, nine tenses exist, not three.

So what are the different verb tenses and how do you know which to use?

The types of verb tenses

The nine tenses are:

  • Present simple
  • Present continuous
  • Present perfect
  • Past simple
  • Past continuous
  • Past perfect
  • Future simple
  • Future continuous
  • Future perfect

You’ll notice that each of the main verb tenses (present, past and future) is followed by either simple, continuous or perfect.

What do these terms mean? Keep reading to find out.

Determining which verb tense to use

A particular verb’s tense will tell the reader when a specific action takes place and must take into consideration the main verb tense you’re writing in.

So if the specific action you’re expressing is:

  • happening now, then use simple tense
  • still occurring, then use continuous tense
  • has already occurred, then use perfect tense

Combine this expression of the action with the main verb tense you are using and you’ve determined the tense you need to use.

For example, if I’m writing in past tense and am expressing an action that has already occurred, then I need to write in past perfect tense.

Constructing the verb

Knowing which tense to use is all well and good, but how do you apply that to the verb you’re writing?

Let’s use the verb ‘to see’ as an example and apply it to the three main verb tenses.

Present tense

  • Present simple tense: I see (happening now)
  • Present continuous tense: I am seeing (still occurring)
  • Present perfect tense: I have seen (already occurred)

Past tense

  • Past simple tense: I saw (happening now)
  • Past continuous tense: I was seeing (still occurring)
  • Past perfect tense: I had seen (already occurred)

Future tense

  • Future simple tense: I shall see (happening now)
  • Future continuous tense: I shall be seeing (still occurring)
  • Future perfect tense: I shall have seen (already occurred)

Need more help?

If you’re still confused, never fear! Download this handy PDF in which I’ve outlined clear step-by-step instructions for determining the verb tense you need to use.

Verb tense document