verb tense : Common Errors in English

About verb tense

If the situation being described is an ongoing or current one, thepresent tense is needed, even in a past-tense context: “Last week sheadmitted that she is really a brunette” (not “was”).Pairs of verbs that go together logically have to be kept in the sametense. “Patricia described her trip to China and writes that the GreatWall really impressed her.” Since “described” is in the past tense, andthe writing contains her descriptions, “writes”should be “wrote."Lots of people get into trouble with sentences that describe a hypothetical situation in the past: “If he wouldhave packed his own suitcase, he would have noticed that the cat was init.” That first “would have”should be a simple “had”: “If he had packedhis own suitcase he would have noticed that the cat was in it.” Also“The game would have been more fun if we had [not “would have”] won.”This sort of construction consists of two parts: a hypothetical cause inthe past and its logical effect. The hypothetical cause needs to be putinto the past tense: “had.” Only the effect is made conditional: “wouldhave.” Note that in the second example above the effect is referred tobefore the cause.Students summarizing the plot of a play, movie, or novel are oftenunfamiliar with the tradition of doing so in the present tense: “Hesterembroiders an ‘A’ on her dress.” Think of the events in a piece offiction as happening whenever you read them—they exist in an eternalpresent even if they are narrated in the past tense. Even those who arefamiliar with this pattern get tripped up when they begin to discuss thehistorical or biographical context of a work, properly using the pasttense, and forget to shift back to the present when they return to plotsummary. Here’s how it’s done correctly: “Mark Twain’s days on theMississippi were long past when he wrote Huckleberry Finn; but Huck’slove for life on the river clearly reflects his youthful experience as asteamboat pilot.” The verb “reflects” is in the present tense. Often theauthor’s activity in writing is rendered in the present tense aswell: “Twain depicts Pap as a disgusting drunk.” What about when you arecomparing events that occur at two different times in the samenarrative? You still have to stick to the present: “Tom puts Jim througha lot of unnecessary misery before telling him that he is free.” Justremember when you go from English to your history class that you have toshift back to the past tense for narrating historical events: “Napoleonlost the battle of Waterloo."
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