What Is Verb Tense and Why Does It Matter?

August 29, 2022
5 min read

Verb tense determines how a verb is expressed in relation to time. Is the action or state of being currently happening? Did it occur yesterday, or will it happen at a later date? That’s the question verb tense answers. 

Consider these sentences:

  • Haley walks down the street. (present tense)
  • Haley walked down the street. (past tense)
  • Haley will walk down the street. (future tense)

Using the correct verbs is essential to communicating your meaning and creating the context for your message. Below, Poised explains verb tenses and voices in more detail. 

What Is Verb Tense?

Verb tense allows you to write or speak a verb to communicate when an action occurred. There are three primary tense forms concerning when an action or state of being takes place. An action or state of being can occur in the present, past, or future. The specific time of the action informs the way you write the verb tense.

For example, you would write, “I fell in love with science that day,” to show that your emotional transformation happened somewhere in the past. You would say "I am falling in love with science" or “I will fall in love with science" to indicate that it occurs in the present or the future, respectively.

Typically, the verb will appear slightly different depending on the tense. Sometimes, you’ll need to use a helping verb to complete a grammatically correct sentence.

Before we go any deeper into verb tense, let's review specifically what a verb is. A verb is a word in a sentence that indicates an action, an occurrence, or a state of being. A sentence cannot be complete without at least one verb. Verbs are part of a sentence's predicate, which is the section that gives us information about the subject.

Remember that tense refers to the period in which a sentence's action happens. It's simple enough to remember three verb tenses, but as with many things in the English language, there are caveats to consider. Past, present, and future are the three essential verb tenses, but each one has its own variations and sub-tenses.

In that light, there are 12 total English verb tenses. It's essential to categorize each of these as a tense form of its primary time span.

What Is the Present Tense?

The present tense has four sub-tenses: present simple, present continuous, present perfect simple, and present perfect continuous.

  • Simple present: Refers to an action that occurs regularly. "The dentist's office closes at 2 p.m. every day.” 
  • Present continuous: When the action is currently happening and is ongoing. "The train is traveling fast." 

Things start to get a bit tricky with the other two present sub-tenses.

  • Present perfect simple: An action took place at an unspecified time in the past. "He has said that statement before." 
  • Present perfect continuous: A past event that is still happening. "Jenny has been playing basketball since last night."

What Is the Past Tense?

As with the present tense, there are four sub-tenses of the past tense. Notice the identical terminology except that the word present is replaced by the word past.

Here are some example sentences:

  • Simple Past: The action occurred in the past. “His grandfather played football in college."
  • Past continuous: One action happened while another action was already in play. "My aunt was working as a paramedic when she broke her arm."
  • Past perfect simple: One action begins just after another action has finished. "He had just laid his son down for a nap when the notification appeared on his phone."
  • Past perfect continuous: One action was happening for a specific time before another action emerged. "They had been deliberating for an hour when they called for a break."

What Is the Future Tense?

Finally, the future tense has four of its own sub-tenses. These are relatively easy to remember since they follow the same pattern as the other verb tenses.

  • Simple Future: The action will take place in the future. "They are going to approve the bill."
  • Future continuous: The action will happen at some point in the future and be ongoing. "He will be running the country one day."
  • Future perfect: One action will cease before another action begins. "George will have spoken to Sarah before the conference."
  • Future perfect continuous: One action will happen for a specific time before another action starts. "Rosemary will have been singing for five years before she records her first record."

What Is Verb Voice?

Simply put, verb voice describes the relationship between the subject and the action of a sentence. The active voice suggests the subject is doing the action (Barry clinches the stone in his hand.) The passive voice indicates the action is occurring to the subject. The subject would generally be the object of the main verb.

An infinitive is a basic verb with “to.” A form of “to be” must serve as a helping verb in addition to a past participle for a sentence to be written in the passive voice. In the majority of passive voice sentences, the subject appears after the verb with the word "by" between the subject and verb (The stone was clinched by Steve.). 

Let’s take a closer look at the passive and active voice:

What Is Passive Voice?

Using the passive voice in writing or speaking means that something that is typically acted upon by the subject of a sentence is acted upon by the object of a sentence. Whatever is performing the action is not the sentence's grammatical subject.

Review these sentences written in the passive verb form:

  • The reservations for the restaurant were made by Peter.
  • The TV show is being watched by the whole family.
  • Those cupcakes were designed at the local artisan bakery.
  • The emerald was discovered by the man with the brown boots.
  • The smartwatch was lost in the couch cushions by him.
  • The treats were eaten by the dog.
  • The dishes are always done by Veronica.

As you can probably tell, the passive voice can be a bit awkward. This verb form is necessary for some formal writing, and it’s occasionally necessary for informal writing. It’s usually best to stick with the active voice for clear and concise business communication

What Is Active Voice?

In a sentence written in the active voice, the subject performs the action of the sentence, and the subject always precedes the verb. The active voice is widely considered to be clearer and more concise. It’s almost always preferable to the passive voice when it comes to delivering a message to an audience. 

Let's look at these updated example sentences that were changed to the active voice:

  • Peter made the reservations for the restaurant.
  • The whole family is watching the TV show.
  • The local artisan bakers designed those cupcakes.
  • He lost the smartwatch in the couch cushions.
  • The dog ate the treats.
  • Veronica always does the dishes.

Why Do Verb Tense and Voice Matter?

The verb tense with which you write or speak dictates when the action or the state of being in a sentence occurs. There is a big difference between saying that "Laura opened the mail before jumping with joy" and "Laura always opens the mail and jumps with joy." Since you don't want to describe a single time in two different tenses, keeping verb tense consistent throughout a clause is essential.

Additionally, the voice you choose to write and speak is essential. Remember that using the active voice will help you communicate your message more concisely and clearly unless you’re writing scientific, medical, technical, or other formal content. Writing in the passive voice changes the form of the verb, among other elements, and can muddy up your message. 

The Right Verbs Make Your Communication More Effective

Verbs are the most variable component of a sentence, and every element of a sentence is related to the verb in one way or another. The specific verbs you use significantly impact your performance as a communicator. 

Expand your vocabulary and replace some generic verbs with more impactful ones. You’ll notice a major difference in how well you can engage your audience!

The Right Verbs Help You Avoid Confusion

It's also important to be mindful that you’re using the correct form of verbs when writing and speaking. Using the incorrect form of a verb, or a verb that is too general, can confuse your audience and harm your message.

Here are a few examples:

Incorrect: The argument negatively effected Robert.

Correct: The argument negatively affected Robert.

Incorrect: Oscar lied his book on the floor.

Correct: Oscar laid his book on the floor.

Incorrect: Corrine sets down in her favorite chair.

Correct: Corrine sits down in her favorite chair.

Even Better: Corrine daydreams in her favorite chair.

In the last sentence, we learn more information about Corrine because the verb is more specific. Communicating that she daydreams in her favorite chair reveals more about her situation. 

Get Real-Time Communication Coaching

Knowing how to write and speak the correct verb tenses and voices for the situation is critical for communicating clearly. After all, people need to know when your verbs are taking place!

As you continue to improve as a communicator, look into an AI-powered coach like Poised. The software will give you feedback on various metrics, including your most frequent words, filler word usage, empathy, confidence, and many others. You’ll get real-time tips without anyone knowing you’re using the coach!


Verb Tense | American Psychological Association

Passive Voice | Britannica Dictionary

Verb Form and Rhetorical Function in Science Writing: A Study of MS Theses in Biology, Chemistry, and Physics | ScienceDirect

Infinitive | Purdue Online Writing Lab

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