Hello everyone! I’m Mr Ng Guo Liang, an English Language Curriculum Specialist and Teacher at Lil’ but Mighty!
Before we delve into the blog post proper, I’d like you to have a look at the paragraph below:
What struck you as you were reading the above paragraph? Did you find some parts to be weird and perhaps a little illogical? Did you find that it was a little difficult to read it smoothly and understand it? If you did, and can explain why it sounded strange, very good! If you cannot quite explain why it sounded so strange, I hope that by the end of this post, you’d be able to.
For those of you who have not yet read my previous post on verbs, here is a quick recap of what was shared on verbs and verb form changes:
A verb is any word that can change its form based on three conditions:
The number of subjects it has
Its position in a sentence
We also focused on the first condition in the last post (do read the previous post to learn about subject-verb agreement), and in this post, we will be looking at how verbs can change forms to reflect tenses.
The reason why that first paragraph you read at the start of this post was confusing is because the verbs in that paragraph did not reflect the correct tense. (I will revisit that paragraph at the end of this blog post)
What is ‘tense’? In English, we use tenses to indicate if an event has already happened or is happening now, or to indicate whether or not something is still true at the time of the statement.
So when we say that verbs can change their forms to show tense, we mean that the verbs can change their forms to indicate if something has happened, or to indicate the truth of a particular statement at the time of writing. I will provide some simple examples below to illustrate what you have just read.
English has two main tenses: Present and Past.
The present tense is used to indicate that something is still happening now or that something is still true now. Let’s look at these three examples:Using the present tense in the first sentence shows that the person is currently feeling happy. In the second example, it is still true that the person’s name is John and his name has not changed, while the present tense in the third sentence indicates that Mark is still writing as we speak.
The past tense is used to indicate that something has already happened in the past or that something is no longer true at the time of writing. Let’s see what happens when I change the tenses for each of the sentences that we looked at before:
In the first instance, the person felt happy but is no longer happy now. For the second sentence, it is no longer true that the person’s name is John. He probably wishes to be called by a different name now. Using the past tense in the last sentence indicates that Mark is no longer writing now.
So always remember: verbs can change forms based on whether or not things have happened or if they are still true. When a verb changes its form to indicate these things, we say that the tense has changed (either present or past tense).
Now that you have a better idea of what tenses are and what they are used for, we can now revisit that first paragraph you read at the start of this post and analyse what went wrong. Try identifying the tense errors and see if you can explain why each of them is wrong before checking the answers.
For ease of reference and analysis, I’ll highlight the verbs for you so that we can focus on them:
Let’s look at the errors one clause at a time. In English, a clause is one unit of a subject and its verb. So when analysing the errors, I’ll focus on one pair of subject and verb at a time:
By this point, you should already know that for all the errors, they are wrong because the wrong tense was used. In the clause above, the past tense verb ‘looked’ should have been used. Why? Because earlier on in the sentence, ‘In the previous entry’ was mentioned; which gives us a big clue that whatever we are talking about now happened in the past and should be reflected in the verb.
In this clause, what we are dealing with is not whether or not something has happened, but the truth of a statement. Here, the present tense verb ‘are’ should be used. Think about the nature of verbs; if we use the verb ‘were’, it would mean that the nature of verbs and the way they work and function in English is different today — and this is definitely not true. Since the nature of verbs is still the same as we speak today, we should use the present tense ‘are’.
In this error, the subject ‘we’ actually has two verbs joined by ‘and’ – ‘looked’ (which we corrected earlier) and ‘focused’. In such instances, the verbs should be in the same tense. The phrase ‘In the previous entry’ further establishes for us that the event we are mentioning happened in the past. Hence, the past tense verb ‘focused’ should have been used instead.
Here, similar to the second error we corrected earlier, we should consider the truth of the statement; if we use the past tense verb ‘could’, it would mean that it is no longer true that verb forms can change now. Since verbs still change their forms based on the number of subjects they have, we should use the present tense verb ‘can’ instead.
In this error, we are once again looking at the truth of the statement. The subject ‘they’ refers to the verb forms mentioned earlier in the same sentence. We know that it is still true that verb forms will change based on the number of subjects they have. If we use the past tense verb ‘had’, it would mean this is no longer true, which would clearly be wrong. Hence, the present tense ‘have’ should be used instead.
This is perhaps the easiest of the errors in the paragraph because ‘today’ tells us that you are reading this post now in the present. As such, the present tense verb ‘are’ should be used instead.
Were you able to find all the errors and explain why they are wrong on your own? If you were able to, great job! If you could not do it for all of them, good try, and I hope that after reading the answers and explanations, you now better understand why they are wrong.
Before I end the post, let’s have a quick recap of the important things we learnt today:
English has two main tenses: Present and Past.
The present tense is used to indicate that something is still happening now or that something is still true now
The past tense is used to indicate that something has already happened in the past or that something is no longer true at the time of writing.
This brings us to the end of this post. I hope that you now have a better understanding of how verbs can change forms to reflect tenses, and when each tense should be used and in what situations.
This is the second entry in this series of blog posts on verbs and verb forms. In the last and final post in the series, we will explore the final condition that can cause verbs to change forms: their position in clauses. Until then, on behalf of the Lil’ but Mighty family, stay happy, stay safe, and stay healthy!