Learn how to choose between present tense vs. past tense when writing fiction and non-fiction works.
Verb tenses are one of the biggest English grammar rules that language learners must master. With many different verb tenses, learning the different nuances can feel challenging. Yet mastery is possible, and it starts with understanding the difference between present tense vs. past tense.
This guide will cover both of these tenses and how they show up in sentences. It will also discuss the different conjugations that go with these tenses.
What Is Present Tense?
Present tense is the English verb tense that shows action that is currently happening or continually happening. It has a sense of immediacy. Typically, this tense has the base form of the verb if the subject is plural and the base form of the verb plus an “s” if the subject is singular.
Here are some example sentences with simple present tense verbs:
- She jumps over the stream.
- The children climb on the playground equipment.
- They go to the store after school.
These sentences are examples of simple present tense. However, there are three additional present tense conjugations you should know.
Present Perfect Tense
The present perfect tense combines the helping verb “have” or “has” with the simple past tense form of the verb. This tense implies action that happened in the past and continues to the present.
Here are some example sentences:
- I have read that novel before.
- She has worked towards her goal of getting a degree.
- The baby has cried because he is hungry.
Present Continuous Tense
Present continuous tense shows action that is happening right now and, most likely, continuing into the future. It pairs a state of being verb with the verb and the suffix -ing. This shows action in real-time.
Here are some examples:
- I am reading my favorite novel right now.
- She is moving towards her goal of getting a degree.
- The baby is crying because he is hungry.
Present Perfect Continuous Tense
When you pair “have” or “has” with a state of being verb and the verb itself with an -ing suffix, you have present perfect continuous. This shows an action that happened in the past and continues now and probably in the future as well.
Here are the previous sentences in this tense:
- I have been reading my favorite novel since last month.
- She has been moving towards her goal of getting a degree for over three years.
- The baby had been crying because he was hungry, but now he is crying because he is mad.
Use of Present Tense
Present tense is common in dialogue because you're describing things that are happening right now in the present moment. This tense is also the more common one to use in academic writing.
This tense also works well in fiction writing told from a first-person or second-person point of view. Present tense novels are not as common as past-tense novels, but they do grab the reader's attention because of this change.
What Is Past Tense?
Simple past tense is the verb tense that shows action that occurred some time in the past. It doesn't matter if it was last week, last night or last year, if it was in the past, this is the tense that applies to past events. With regular verbs, you form the simple past tense by taking the base form of the verb and adding -ed.
Here are some example sentences:
- The dog went to the vet for his checkup.
- The family skied down the slope together.
- The mother and daughter shopped until they dropped.
these are simple past tense sentences, but there are additional verb tenses that are part of the past tense category.
Past Continuous Tense
The past continuous tense pairs the past tense of “was” or “were” with the verb followed by -ing. This shows ongoing action that happened in the past.
Here are the same sentences, but changed into past continuous tense:
- The dog was going to the vet for his checkup.
- The family was skiing down the slope together.
- The mother and daughter were shopping for a long time.
Past Perfect Tense
The past perfect tense pairs the word “had” with the past tense verb. This tense shows action that was completed before a specific time in the past.
Changing the example sentences again, this is how they look with past perfect tense:
- The dog had gone to the vet for his checkup yesterday.
- The family had skied down the slope together last week.
- The mother and daughter had shopped until they dropped on Black Friday.
Past Perfect Continuous
Finally, past perfect continuous pairs “had been” with the root verb plus -ing. This shows an action that started in the past, continued for a while, then ended also in the past.
Here are the example sentences again, but this time with past perfect continuous:
- The dog had been going to the vet, but his owner had to go home when the car got a flat tire.
- The family had been skiing down the slope together when they crashed into a laughing pile.
- The mother and daughter had been shopping when they got an important phone call.
When to Use Past Tense
Past tense is the tense you will use any time you are discussing things that happened in the past. It is also the more common tense to use in fiction writing or in tales written from the third-person POV.
Present Tense Vs. Past Tense – Consistency Is Key
When you are writing, the key to using the present tense and past tense correctly is to be consistent. Sometimes the use is obvious, such as when you are talking about current or past events, but other times it is not.
In fiction writing, make sure you keep the tense the same throughout the story, except for when writing dialogue. If you start the story in past tense, keep it in past tense.
On the other hand, if you try your hand at a present-tense narrative, make sure you do not dip into the past tense. It must stay the same, or you will confuse your readers. Keep in mind that the present perfect form of the verb is actually a present tense form, even though it uses past tense conjugation.
The Final Word: Present Tense Vs. Past Tense
Differentiating between present tense vs. past tense can get tricky, especially with different conjugations that fall into these categories. Present tense conjugations explain actions that happen in the current moment, while past tense conjugations explain actions that happened in the past. If you practice consistency in your writing, you will be able to use them properly each time.
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