Student Learning Service

Improving Your Writing

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Improving Your Writing

Verb Tenses

A verb is an action word, and the tense of the verb conveys when the action happens. For example, ‘will go’ is the verb ‘to go’ in the future tense. Likewise ‘went’ is the verb ‘to go’ in the past tense. There are many different tenses, but here are a few things to look out for in academic writing.

Correct Forms in the Past Tense

Sometimes, fluent English speakers get verb tenses a bit muddled – because English is a highly irregular language. Also in spoken informal English, people sometimes use verb forms that are considered to be incorrect in Standard English. An example of this would be: ‘I seen him’. [The political correctness of expecting everyone to use Standard English is currently being debated. We at the Student Learning Service agree with the point made by Christine Sinclair, which is that students deserve to master Standard English in light of the fact that ‘Standard English is the dominant dialect and the one used by the most powerful people in the UK.’ (Grammar: A Friendly Approach, Open University Press, 2007, p. 22)]

If in doubt about the correct past participle for a verb, consult a good dictionary that gives examples of usage.

Layers of the Past Tense

There are several tenses which express action happening in the past. This is necessary because sometimes we write about a sequence of events in the past, some of which happened further back in the past than others. For example: Napoleon changed those countries which he had conquered. When we read this sentence, we understand that first he conquered countries, and then he changed them.

Conditional Structures

There are several ways of expressing a ‘what if’ scenario, which vary depending on the time frame.

For those who are interested, there are three major conditional structures, using the following verb tenses:

Note that a sentence doesn’t always have to have the ‘if’ clause first. Many sentences will begin with the ‘then’ clause. Either way round, the rules are the same. Therefore both of these sentences are correct: