Writing Essentials

10 Verb Tense

All starting writers struggle with verb tenses. More specifically, they tend to struggle with keeping the tenses consistent, especially in long documents.

If you’ve ever received feedback from a professor about “inconsistent tense” or “passive voice,” then something is probably wrong with your verbs. Keeping verb tenses consistent will ensure your audience knows whether an event happened in the past, present, or future.

In this chapter, we will briefly review verbs, discuss different verb tenses, and finish off by discussing how to avoid the passive voice and nominalizations.

The basics

Verbs perform two tasks. First, they are the action of the sentence. They tell the reader what sort of action you, someone, or something, did.

I walked to the store.

In the above example, the verb “walked” tells the reader what kind of action brought you to the store. We know the person didn’t run, skip, or saunter to the store; they walked.

Second, verbs tell the audience when something happened. This is where verb tenses come in. In the same example, “walked” is in the past tense so we know the event happened in the past. There are three main tenses: present, past, and future. However, within those three tenses are several more.

In your writing, you will mostly be using simple present, simple past and simple future. The issue that most people run into, though, is being consistent with their verb tenses.

Maintaining consistent verb tense

Consistent verb tense means the same verb tense is used throughout a sentence or a paragraph. As you write and revise, make sure you use the same verb tense consistently and avoid shifting from one tense to another, unless there is a good reason for it.

Let’s look at an example. In the following box, can you see how the tense is inconsistent?

We will submit the report after I finished my section.

There are two different verb tenses being used here: simple future (will submit) and simple past (finished). Let’s fix this problem by keeping the tenses consistent.

Simple Future: We will submit the report after I finish my section
Simple Past: We submitted the report after I finished my section

As you can see, there are two ways to fix this problem. While both are now grammatically correct, the one you use will depend on what information you are trying to convey.

Now, in some cases, clear communication will call for different tenses. Look at the following example:

When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a firefighter, but now I am studying computer science.

In the above example, the writer talks about a past desire and their present situation. Whenever the time frame for each action or state is different, a tense shift is appropriate.

In the professional world,  your coworkers will most likely not correct your verb tenses or call attention to grammatical errors, but keep in mind that these errors do have a subtle negative impact in the workplace, just as they do when applying for jobs and communicating with clients. If you keep making small mistakes like this, the receiver of your message may assume you do not pay attention to little details.

Simplifying verbs

Another issue that writers have is overcomplicating their verbs with extra words. In almost every instance, if you realize you can simplify your writing by taking out words, that is the best option. In regards to verbs, the issue typically stems from writers using passive voice and nominalizations in their writing.

Active voice and passive voice

Even when writers have consistent verb tenses, they often overcomplicate their writing by expressing the action in as many words as possible. One way they do this is by using the passive voice. Consider the following sentences, for instance. Which would you prefer to read?


The candidate cannot be supported by our membership.


Our members cannot support the candidate.

Most readers would prefer the second option. Why? Here, the active voice construction on the right uses two fewer words to communicate the same meaning. As a result, it is more direct than the passive voice construction. How does it do that?

First, let’s define the two terms. Active voice is a sentence structure where the subject carries out the action. Passive voice is a sentence structure where the subject receives the action.

Essentially, the difference comes down to the subject and verb. Who is the subject of the passive voice sentence? It’s not “the candidate” because the action of the sentence is not being done by them. The subject is “our membership”  because they are the ones doing the supporting.

In the active voice sentence, “members” has been moved to the start of the sentence. It is clear that they are doing the action.

Both sentences are valid grammatically. You could use either format in your writing and the reader would understand what you are saying. However, the active voice is generally the better one to use since active sentences tend to be shorter, more precise, and easier to understand.

There are legitimate uses of the passive voice though. When you want to deemphasize the doer of the action, passive voice is a good choice. Look at the example below.

Ten late arrivals were recorded this month.

In this example, the passive voice above doesn’t place blame or credit, so it can be more diplomatic in some contexts. Passive voice also allows the writer to avoid personal references or personal pronouns (he, she, they) to create a more objective tone. Additionally, there are situations where the doer of the action is unknown, as in the following example.

Graffiti was painted on the side of our building last night.

We don’t know who created the graffiti, so a passive form is useful here.

However, keep in mind that overusing the passive voice sounds unnatural and appears as an attempt to extend the word count or sound fancier and objective. Most readers prefer the active voice because the passive voice is either too wordy or too vague.


Another issue that overcomplicates writing is when writers turn the main action they describe into nouns, a process called nominalization. This involves taking a verb and adding a suffix such as -ant, -ent, -ion, -tion, -sion, -ence, -ance, or -ing, as well as adding forms of other verbs, such as “to make” or “to give.” Nominalization may also require articles (thea, or an) before the action nouns. Consider the following comparisons of nominalized-verb sentences with simplified verb forms:


The committee had a discussion about the new budget constraints.


The committee discussed the new budget constraints.

We will make a recommendation to proceed with the investment option. We will recommend proceeding with the investment option.
They handed down a judgment that the offer wasn’t worth their time. They judged that the offer wasn’t worth their time.
The regulator will grant approval of the new process within the week. The regulator will approve the new process within the week.
He always gives me advice on what to say to the media. He always advises me on what to say to the media.
She’s giving your application a pass because of all the errors in it. She’s passing on your application because of all the errors in it.

You can tell that the simplified sentences have greater impact than those that use nominalizations. In all of the nominalization examples, more words are required to communicate the same meaning. When writing contains all three issues we’ve discussed (inconsistent verb tense, passive voice, and nominalizations), it becomes muddled and lacks the clarity that is expected in professional writing.

Parallelism (or parallel structure)

When constructing sentences, all parts need to work in parallel.

To understand parallel structure, let’s first look at an example of faulty parallelism.

We need to buy apples, oranges, and I love bananas most.

Reading that quickly or even reading it aloud, you might not immediately notice the problem. However, if we break this sentence into three, the problem becomes clear immediately:

    • We need to buy apples. (Good)
    • We need to buy oranges. (Good)
    • We need to buy I love bananas most. (Problem)

That last example clearly doesn’t work; it should read “We need to buy bananas” or “We need to buy bananas, which I love most.”

Good sentence structure demands that all parts in a sentence (often in a list) work together in parallel structure.

Here’s an example of parallel structure working in a bullet list:

The engineer has identified four causes of the mechanical breakdown:

    • low-quality materials,
    • infrequent maintenance,
    • inadequate lubrication, and
    • heat stress.

That bullet list works in parallel. The way to check is to lead into each bullet list with text that would make each line a complete sentence. Watch how:

The problem was low-quality materials. (Good)

The problem was infrequent maintenance. (Good)

The problem was inadequate lubrication. (Good)

The problem was heat stress. (Good)

All four of those sentences begin with the same three words, followed by the text from one line in the bullet list. This proves you have parallel structure in your bullet list.


Key Takeaways

  • Verb tense helps you express when an event takes place.
  • Maintaining consistency among verb tenses  in your writing will ensure your communication is clear. While there are 12 different tenses in English, the three you will be using the most are simple present, simple past, and simple future.
  • A more direct style of writing is almost always preferable. Therefore, it is often to best to avoid the passive voice and nominalizations.


Grammarly. (2021, January 14). Verb tenses. https://www.grammarly.com/blog/verb-tenses/


This chapter was adapted from Effective Professional Communication: A Rhetorical Approach by Rebekah Bennetch, Corey Owen, and Zachary Keesey, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Bennetch, Owen, and Keesey adapted their chapter from Business Communications for Fashion by Anna Cappuccitti (on openpress.usask.ca). It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Bennetch, Owen, and Keesey adapted their chapter also adapted their chapter from Business Communication for Success by the University of Minnesota (on University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing). It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License



Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Professional Writing Today Copyright © 2022 by Sam Schechter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book