Grammar Crammer: Sequence of Tenses

Thomas Janke, prestidigitator extraordinaire

You may not realize how important the sequence of tenses is. Tenses help us differentiate when and how things happen. Has something already happened, is it currently happening, or will it happen in the future? Will it happen before a certain event, or after? This information is important; a few words can make a significant difference.  Consider these two sentences, “He won a million dollars” versus “He had won a million dollars.” Or this perhaps, “She will love you” versus “She will have loved you. The point is that the sequence of tenses in a sentence plays a very important role in how we interpret that sentence. The sequence of tenses is also commonly tested on the PSAT/SAT and ACT.

The most basic tenses (the simple tenses) in English are present, past, and future; they are easily distinguished by a sentence’s verb form. Consider the infinitive verb ‘to juggle:’

Simple Present: He juggles.

Simple Past: He juggled.

Simple Future: He will juggle.

Additional basic tenses use auxiliary or “helping” verbs. There are many kinds of helping verbs, but for the purposes of this post, we will focus exclusively on how auxiliaries are used to form the perfect tense.

For each of the three simple tenses above, there is also a perfect tense. Why “perfect?” Linguistically, to the ancient Greeks, who are credited with the creation of the “perfect” tense, a completed action is an action with a permanent result. This means that the action, which was completed in the past, endures to the present and into the future; to the Greeks this was a “perfect” state. This state of permanence was reflected in their language grammatically. As we will see, there are similar applications in the English perfect tenses. Let’s consider the regular verb ‘to juggle.’

Simple Present: He juggles.

Present Perfect: He has juggled.

Simple Past: He juggled.

Past Perfect: He had juggled.

Future:  He will juggle.

Future Perfect: He will have juggled.

You will notice in the above examples, in every perfect-tense the verb form of ‘to juggle’ is ‘juggled’ plus the helping verb, ‘to have,’ conjugated in the appropriate tense. This is because to make a perfect tense construction, you have to write the verb in past tense.

Present Perfect: Did you know I’m an excellent juggler? Of course you didn’t! However, I am a skilled prestidigitator. So, if I wanted to tell someone about my amazing juggling skills, I would say something like, “I juggle.” If I wanted people to know how great a juggler I am, or that I began juggling a long time ago and continue to juggle today, I might say, “I have juggled for years.”

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(1)   Simple Present: I juggle.

(2)   Present Perfect: I have juggled for years.

In general the present perfect indicates that something began in the past and continues today. Another definition of the present perfect is it designates an action that began in the past but continues into the present or the effect of which still continues; the present perfect is made up of the past participle of the verb preceded by ‘has’ or ‘have.’

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Past Perfect: If I were in the mood to brag about how great a juggler I am, I might coolly say, “Carnegie Hall? Yeah, I juggled there.” If I felt, for some inane reason, like giving a more detailed account about my juggling exploits, I might say, “Carnegie Hall? I had juggled on stage, by the time security caught up with me.”

(1)   Simple Past: I juggled there.

(2)   Past Perfect: Before security caught me, I had juggled on stage.

The simple past tense is relatively straightforward: it indicates an action that began and ended in the past. The past perfect also deals with the past, but it allows us to be more detailed about the order of events in the past; the past perfect tells us one action occurred before another action. The past perfect is a tense that designates an action that began in the past (just like the simple past tense) but was completed before the action of another verb.

Future Perfect: Since we have established that I am not only a great juggler (because I have juggled for years) but also a famous juggler (because I had juggled on stage at Carnegie Hall before security caught me), it is pretty obvious that I am going to continue to juggle. If I wanted to assure an audience that I would continue to juggle, despite, for example, the fact I am being dragged off stage by Carnegie Hall security, I might shout, “I will juggle!”  If I wanted to do more than assure my fans, but actually promise them I would juggle again, I might say, “In one year’s time I will have juggled on stage at Carnegie Hall again!”

(1)   Simple Future: I will juggle.

(2)   Future Perfect: In one year’s time, I will have juggled here again!

Like the other simple tenses, the simple future tense is pretty straightforward; it broadly indicates that an action will occur in the future. The future perfect tense, like the other perfect tenses, allows you to indicate that, by some point in the future, an event will be in the past, even though at the present, it is still in the future.  The official definition of the future perfect tense is a verb tense that expresses action completed by a specified time in the future and that is formed by combining ‘will have’ or ‘shall have’ with a past participle.

You might now be saying, “That’s well and good, but how does this relate to me taking the PSAT/SAT or ACT?” The answer is test makers are always trying to trip you up with incorrect tense sequences; a clear understanding of the basic sequences of tenses will allow you to identify mistakes or correct incorrect sentences more easily. Consider this “Identifying the Error” example:

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The first Asian American to be elected (A) governor in the United States, George Ariyoshi of Hawaii has served (B) longer than any (C) of his predecessors when he retired from (D) office in 1986. No error (E).

Your new-found knowledge of the sequence of tenses should make the error in this sentence very easy to spot. “Has served” is present perfect; it suggests George Ariyoshi continues to serve into the present, even though “he retired from office in 1986.” The incorrect answer is (B); when corrected, the sentence should be “had served,” which is past perfect and designates an action that began in the past and was completed prior to another action (like George Ariyoshi being elected Governor before retiring). Now look at this “Correct the Sentence” example:

My aunt has been working at a local department store most of her adult life.

A. My aunt has been working at a local department store most of her adult life.

B. My aunt is working at local department store most of her adult life.

C. Having worked for most of her adult life there, my aunt is at a local department store.

D. Most of her adult life is when my aunt has been working at a local department store,

E. A local department store was where my aunt has been working for most of her adult life.

Does this sentence seem correct to you? It should! This question is very similar to the previous one; the sentence is expressing the fact that the speaker’s aunt has been and continues to be an employee at a local department store. To express a relationship in which something began in the past and continues into the present you need to use the present perfect; this is done by adding either ‘has’ or ‘have’ (depending on whether the noun is singular or plural) to the past participle, the past participle in this case being the past participle to the infinitive “to be,” or been. The correct answer is (A). Any difficulty you might have had with this question probably comes from the close proximity of “has been” and the present participle “working.”

There are a number of reasons, even beyond doing extremely well on standardized tests, which make the sequence of tenses important. The sequence of tenses facilitates effective communication; it helps us distinguish different events and actions, and ultimately helps us understand one another better. The difference, for example, between “You should have been there” versus “You should be there” is a matter of timing, and ultimately tense.

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