Using Verb Tenses in Sequence

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Using verb tenses in sequence correctly is often difficult, especially for people whose mother tongue is not English. The situation is further complicated by the fact that context, idiom and style play as large a role in determining tense sequence as do grammatical rules.

In order to determine the correct verb sequence, you must be able to identify independent and dependent clauses. The sequence of tenses in complex sentences is normally determined by the tense of the verb in the independent clause. In compound sentences, the tense that fits the logic of the sentence should be used.

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, present progressive, present perfect and present perfect progressive. When any of these tenses are used in an independent clause, the verb in the dependent clause can be a present tense, past tense or future tense verb, as in the following examples:

  • Joe waits patiently while Bridget books the tickets.

The simple present tense is used in both the independent clause (Joe waits patiently) and the dependent clause (while Bridget books the tickets).

  • 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, while the verb of 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 family.

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

  • Even though the coroner has been examining the corpse 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 examining the corpse since early this morning) is 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 an independent clause is in the past tense, the verb in the dependent clause is normally in a past tense as well. The past tenses are the simple past, past progressive, past perfect and past perfect progressive.

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

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

  • Miriam arrived at 5 p.m. but Whitaker had closed the store.

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

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

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

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

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

  • After she had learned 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 act of feeling independent.

If the action in a dependent clause occurs at the same time as the action in the independent clause, the tenses generally match. For example, if the simple past is used in the independent clause, the simple past is also used in the dependent clause.

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

  • Lena was telling a story about her most recent exploits when a tree branch broke the living room window.

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

  • When the fire alarm rang, Jesse was writing a progress report for her latest project.

This sentence describes actions (rang and was writing) that took place sometime in the past and emphasizes the continuing nature of the action (was writing) that took place in the independent clause.

One of the most common reasons for verb sequence errors arises from the confusion between the present perfect (has walked) and the past perfect (had walked). Although both tenses convey a sense of something happening in the past, the present perfect is categorized as a present tense verb.

One of the easiest ways to determine if the perfect tenses are used correctly is to look at the auxiliary verb. Remember that has is a present tense auxiliary and had and have are past tense auxiliaries. The future tense auxiliary is will have.

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