Grammar and punctuation

Verb tenses: Present and past tense

Verb tenses: Present and past tense

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Verb tenses: Present and past tense

In a nutshell

When writing, it's important to think about what tense to use and when to use it. The verb is the part of a sentence that shows you the tense, so it's important to use the correct form. In this summary, you will learn how to use the present and past tense in your writing.

The present tense

The present tense is used when writing about the present; in other words, something that is happening at that moment. In fiction, a writer may decide to use the present tense to make their writing more immediate and/or urgent, as well as to show the character's point of view.

In the following example from the novel Divergent by Veronica Roth, the writer uses the present tense to allow the reader to experience the main character's (Beatrice) point of view.


I look at the hole again. Goose bumps rise on my pale arms, and my stomach lurches. If I don’t do it now, I won’t be able to do it at all. I swallow hard. I don’t think. I just bend my knees and jump.

Essay writing

When writing an essay, it's also rather useful to use the present tense to illustrate that what you are writing about remains true in the present. Think of it as an eternal present; whether you write an essay about a poem, movie or novel now or in ten years time, the writer's work will remain the same.

If you were to write an essay or answer an essay question about the famous balcony scene in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, you could write the following:


​Juliet wants Romeo to deny his family for her love which is made clear in the line: "Deny thy father". 

The past tense

The past tense is used when writing about things that have already happened. Most novels are written in the past tense because they tell a story of what has already taken place. 

You can tell whether a sentence is in the past tense by looking at the verbs. For most regular verbs, an "ed" is added at the end of the word to indicate past tense, however, for irregular verbs, the whole word might change in the past tense.


Regular verbs

Present tense

past tense


irregular verbs

present tense

past tense



In writing, the past tense gives the idea that the story is being told from a distance, something that has already taken place and is the most common way to tell a story.


There once was a fox who loved learning. The more he learned, the more excited he got.

Note: Be careful not to carelessly switch between the present and the past tense in your writing. This can be confusing for the reader. 

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FAQs - Frequently Asked Questions

When should I use the past tense in writing?

What tense should I use in essay writing?

When should I use the present tense in writing?


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