Verbs in context
Everything that we write has a context. In that respect, it is vital to establish and maintain consistency in terms of time and place. We do that in three ways:
- We decide on the amount of information (data) that is needed
- We develop a sequence (order) in which to present the information
- We decide the best verb to use; this choice depends on the message the writer is trying to give – deciding on the message’s purpose causes writers the most problems.
Here are three examples of the same paragraph written in different ways. Read all three examples and think about the effect verb choice has on the overall context / meaning.
Note: fictitious references
Using the present tense (historical present) and simple present gives the paragraph an immediacy that would be missing if the writer chose to write in the past tense, for example. We are left with the idea that this is the situation now.
Placing the reported literature into the past and present perfect affects the readers’ connection with the paragraph. Interestingly, given the particular choice of tenses above, we can anticipate that the writer will go on to talk about what the situation is today.
The historical present helps the reader to engage more meaningfully with the ideas of other authors. After the opening sentence, using primarily the present continuous means the author is drawing the readers’ attention to the fact that global and local patterns of agriculture are changing, which is the main idea of the paragraph.
Moving from verb tense to verb tense while maintaining correct subject-verb agreement
- Knowing the verb tenses is a necessity. Therefore, if you need to review the forms of the English tenses, this is a good time to do so.
- Key verb tenses in academic writing are simple present, simple past, and present perfect, with some use of present continuous and present perfect continuous.
- Think about the purpose of your writing. Is it exposition, narration, description, or argumentation? When you know your purpose, you can make logical choices about moving among tenses in your paragraphs.
The exercise on this page gives three examples of tenses on the same piece of writing.
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