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Using Verb Tenses in Sequence


Using verbs in correct sequence is often difficult, especially for those people whose cradle tongue is not English or whose cradle tongue does not uses a similar tense system. The situation is further complicated by the fact that context, idiom, and style play as large a role in determining tense sequence as grammatical rules.

In order to determine correct verb sequence, you must be able to identify independent and dependent clauses. The sequence of tenses in complex sentences is usually determined by the tense of the verb in the independent clause. (In compound sentences, use the tenses that fit the logic of the sentence.)

Present Tenses in Sequence

In general, present tenses may be followed by a wide variety of tenses as long as the sequence fits the logic of the sentence.

The four present tenses are the simple present, the present progressive, the present perfect, and the present perfect progressive. When these tenses are used in an independent clause, the verb in the dependent clause can be a present tense verb, a past tense verb or a future tense verb, as in the following sentences.

Deborah waits patiently while Bridget books the tickets.

The simple present tense is used in both the independent clause and the dependent clause.

They have not delivered the documents we need.

The verb of the independent clause "They have not delivered the documents" is in the present perfect tense. The verb in the dependent clause "we need" is in the simple present tense. The simple future could also be used in the dependent clause ("we will need").

I have been relying on my Christmas bonus to pay for the gifts I buy for my large family.

In this sentence the compound verb of the independent clause ("I have been relying on my Christmas bonus to pay for the gift") is in the present perfect progressive. The simple predicate of the dependent clause ("I buy for my large family") is in the simple present ("buy"). The simple future could also be used ("will buy").

Even though the coroner has been carefully examining the corpse discovered in Sutherland's Gully since early this morning, we still do not know the cause of death.

In this sentence the compound verb of the independent clause ("we still do not know the cause of death") is in the simple present tense. The simple predicate of the dependent clause ("Even though the coroner has been carefully examining the corpse discovered in Sutherland's Gully since early this morning") in the present perfect progressive tense ("has been . . . examining").

The government has cut university budgets; consequently, the dean has increased the size of most classes.

In this compound sentence, both predicates are in the present perfect. The simple future could also be used in the second independent clause ("consequently, the dean will increase the size of most classes") if the writer wants to suggest that the dean's action will take place in the future.

Past Tenses in Sequence

When the verb in the independent clause is the past tense, the verb in the dependent clause is usually in a past tense as well. The past tenses are the simple past, the past progressive, the past perfect, and the past perfect progressive.

The verb in dependent clause should accurately reflect the temporal relationship of the two clauses.

If the action in the dependent clause occurred before action in the independent clause, the past perfect is usually the most appropriate tense for the dependent clause, as in the following sentences.

Miriam arrived at 5:00 p.m. but Mr. Whitaker had closed the store.

The action of dependent clause ("but Mr. Whitaker had closed the store") is described with a past perfect tense ("had closed") because the act of closing takes place before the act of arriving. The simple predicate of the independent clause ("by the time Miriam arrived") is in the simple past.

After we located the restaurant that Christian had raved about, we ate supper there every Friday.

Since actions of the second dependent clause ("that Christian had raved about") precedes the other actions in the sentence, the past perfect is most appropriate verb tense.

We fed the elephant oats for a week because it had eaten all the hay.

In this sentence, both actions take place in the past, but the action of the independent clause (the feeding oats) follows the action of dependent clause (the eating of the hay) and as a result, the predicate of the dependent clause is in the past perfect ("had eaten").

After she had learnedd to drive, Alice felt more independent.

In this example the predicate of the dependent clause is in the past perfect ("had learned") because the act of learning preceded the independent clause's the act of feeling independent.

If the action in the dependent clause, occurs at the same time as the action in the independent clause, the tense usually match. So if the simple past is used in the independent clause, the simple past may also used in the dependent clause.

When the verb of the independent clause is one of the progressive tenses, the simple past is usually the most appropriate tense for the dependent clause, as in the following sentences:

Lena was telling a story about the exploits of a red cow when a tree branch broke the parlour window.

Here the action "was telling" took place in the past and continued for some time in the past. The breaking of the window is described in the simple past.

When the recess bell rang, Jesse was writing a long division problem on the blackboard.

This sentence describes actions ("ran" and "was writing") that took place sometime in the past, and emphasis the continuing nature of the action that takes place in the independent clause ("was writing").

One of the most common source of verb sequence error arises from a confusion of the present perfect ("has walked") and the past perfect ("had walked"). Both tense convey a sense of pastness, but the present perfect is categorised as a present tense verb.

One of the easiest ways of determining whether you've used the perfect tenses correctly is to examine the auxiliary verb. Remember "has" and "have" are present tense auxiliaries and "had" is a past tense auxiliary. The future tense auxiliary is "will."


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