Rules for Verb Tenses
Rule 1: The tense of a verb should accurately express the time of the action. If you break this rule, then you confuse the reader as to when the event took place. Use extra care when you use the present tense for any action occurring at the present time.
Wrong: "We shall be glad to accept your gift."
Right: "We are glad to accept your gift." [The acceptance and the gladness are of the present, though the gift may be for some future date.]
Rule 2: Use the past tense to express an action belonging to a definite past time.
Correct: In the past year, he made four donations to local charities. [Not have made.]
Correct: "You were late several times last month." [Not have been.]
Rule 3: The perfect indicative represents the action either as recently completed or as begun in the past but continuing to the future.
Correct: "I have just sold your house."
Correct: I have known my friend since late October.
Rule 4: Distinguish carefully between the future tense, which refers to future action, and the verb of volition which expresses the writer's determination of future action. We use the words should and will for both, but in different ways.
EX. I shall We shall
EX. You will You will
EX. He will They will
Wrong: "I will be glad to buy your car."
Right: I shall be glad to buy your car.
[It is awkward to say that he is determined to be glad.]
Right: "They will be glad to receive a donation."
Rule 5: When you need to express desire, willingness, or determination in direct declarations, you can use the following formula [These forms imply that the action is within the control of the speaker or writer]:
EX. I will We will
EX. You shall You shall
EX. He shall They shall
Correct: "I certainly will not clean your clothes."
Correct: He shall clean my car as he promised.
Correct: You shall stay out of my store for shoplifting.
["It shall rain tomorrow" is nonsense, as it means we intend to have it rain tomorrow.]
Rule 6: Here is how to shall and will in questions:
a. When the subject is in the first person, we use shall, except in repeating a question addressed to the speaker.
Right: "Shall we go to the movies later?"
Right: "Shall I ask her out on a date?"
Right: "Will you walk me to my car?"
Right: "Why, of course, I will." [Will shows desire on part of speaker.]
b. When the subject is in the second or third person, we use the form as part of the answer.
EX. Shall you arrive on the 11:00 a.m. plane? [The answer expected is, "I should arrive" or "I should not arrive on the 11 a.m. plane"; therefore, we use shall in the question.]
EX. "Will your boyfriend come, do you suppose?" [The answer expected is, "He will come" or "He will not come"; therefore, we use will in the question.]
EX. "Will you lend me ten dollars?" [The answer expected is, "I will" or "I will not lend you ten dollars"; therefore, we use will in the question.]
Rule 6: Should and would, the past future forms of shall and will, are used in the same connection and sense as shall and will.
Other uses of should and would follow:
a. Would may be used to express repeated action.
Right: "He would sit in the garden to inspire himself to write poetry."
b. Would is also used to express a wish.
Right: "I would like to help you in your time of difficulty."
c. Should is frequently used to express moral obligation.
Right: "You should water the plants before they die."
Rule 7: In indirect discussion, either use the form of shall or will in a direct quotation.
Right: "He wrote in an e-mail that he should probably arrive on the 11 a.m. flight."
NOTE. In the e-mail he actually wrote, "I shall [showing simple future] probably arrive on the 11 a.m. flight"; therefore, we use should [an inflectional form of shall] in the indirect quotation.
Right: "You mailed me a letter that you would lend me the money."
NOTE. On the letter was actually written, "I will [showing willingness on the part of the writer] lend you the money"; therefore, we use would [an inflectional form of will] in the indirect quotation.
Rule 8: The tense of the verb in a dependent clause varies with the tense of the principal verb. Maintain a harmony of tenses. Tenses of verbs within a sentence are usually related to each other within a division of time: present, past, or future. The most important verb sets the standard of reference; other verbs must accurately express their time relation to that verb.
Right: "I know that you will understand my thesis paper."
Right: "I knew that you would understand my thesis paper."
Right: "He will be greatly pleased if he gets a passing grade."
Right: "He would be greatly pleased if he got a passing grade."
Right: "He would have been greatly pleased if he had got a passing grade."
NOTE. Sometimes the tenses are in different divisions of time; if so, the problem is not to relate the tenses accurately within one division of time, but to express each time idea accurately.
Right: "They will tell us [future] when they took [past] the invitations.
Right: We hope [present] that they will soon pay [future] their medical bills.
Right: He told us [past] that the next gas station is [present] fifteen minutes away.
NOTE. We should express general propositions in the present tense, regardless of the tense of the principal verb.
Right: He explained in an e-mail that the company's budgetis composed of all departments. [Not was composed.]
Right: We learned in math class that the distance between the two points on the graph is three inches in length. [Not was.]
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