Common Errors in Using Verb Tenses​

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People often mix their tenses or use the wrong verb form when speaking. Although these errors may be overlooked in conversation, they are painfully evident in written communication. They often confuse the reader and affect the tone of the message. Study the following incorrect and correct sentences:

1. Use the correct verb form with each tense.

IncorrectHe checked on the order and has went to pick it up.

Correct: He checked on the order and has gone to pick it up. (Gone is the past participle of the verb to go and is the correct form to use with the auxiliary verb has. Went is the past tense form and is incorrect.)

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IncorrectI done the work last night and handed it in this morning.

Correct: I did the work last night and handed it in this morning. (Done, the past participle, is incorrect—the verb should be in the simple past tense did.)

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Incorrect: Barb and Louise have ordered the tickets, wrote their friends about the concert, and gave away pictures of the band.

Correct: Barb and Louise have ordered the tickets, written their friends about the concert, and given away pictures of the band. (The auxiliary verb have requires the past participle for each verb in this sentence—have ordered, [have] written, [have] given. Wrote and gave are past tense forms of the verbs and are incorrect.)

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Incorrect: The book is fascinating reading. It provided a detailed study of how cultures were created.

Correct: The book is fascinating reading. It provides a detailed study of how cultures are created. (The writer refers to the book in the present tense in the first sentence. All references that follow should also be in the literary or historical present tense.)

2. When describing two events in the past that did not occur at the same time, use the past perfect tense to refer to the event or action in the more distant past.

Incorrect: I suddenly remembered (past) that I left (more distant past) my purse at the office.

Correct: I suddenly remembered (past) that I had left (past perfect) my purse at the office. (Because leaving the purse at the office preceded remembering the fact, the past perfect form of had left should be used.)

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Incorrect: Apartments now existed (past) where a city dump was (more distant past). (Using the past tense for both verbs suggests that the apartments and city dump are there together.)

Correct: Apartments now existed (past) where a city dump had been (past perfect). (The past perfect makes it clear that the city dump preceded the apartments.)

3. Do not use would have in “if clauses” that express the earlier of two past actions. Use the past perfect.

Incorrect: If he would have thought of it, he would have asked you to ride with us.

Correct: If he had thought of it, he would have asked you to ride with us.

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Incorrect: If I would have studied harder, I’d have passed the course.

Correct: If I had studied harder, I’d have passed the course.

4. Use the present infinitive (to play, to see, etc.) to express action following another action.

Incorrect: I was disappointed because I had hoped to have gone with you. (Did the speaker hope to have gone or to go?)

Correct: If he had thought of it, he would have asked you to ride with us.

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Incorrect: If I would have studied harder, I’d have passed the course.

Correct: If I had studied harder, I’d have passed the course.

5. Use the perfect infinitive (to have written, to have seen, etc.) to express action before another action.

Correct: He was happy to have seen Ralph. (The speaker saw Ralph first; then he was happy about seeing him. Therefore the perfect infinitive to have seen is the proper form to use.)

6. In participial phrases, use having with the past participle to express action before another action.

Incorrect: Giving my bike to Angela, I couldn’t ride to the beach later that day. (The present participle giving is incorrectly used to express an action completed before the second action in the sentence.)

Correct: Having given my bike to Angela, I couldn’t ride to the beach later that day.

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Incorrect: Painting the front porch, he slept the rest of the day.

Correct: Having painted the front porch, he slept the rest of the day. (He had to paint the porch before he could go to sleep. This could also be expressed by saying After painting the front porch, he slept all day.)

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