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How to hone your verb tenses

Tenses are the nerve and heart-beat of the English language; they are an integral part of the eight elements of speech some of which are nouns, adjectives and prepositions. If you become adept at your use of tenses you express yourself with increased facility and are able to capture the times and the specific worlds in which certain events took place and certain words were uttered. The term tense as used in English language simply refers to time. Action takes place in a given time (of which time is measured in years, seasons, days, and minutes) that is why it …

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Tenses fall into six categories inclusive of; Present tense, Past tense, Future Tense, and the Perfect Tense. At this moment, we will try to define and put some meaning into the type of tenses already noted above.

The tense in its present form describes action that takes place every day, in the immediate daily routine. This tense is also known as the habitual tense because it expresses action which takes place every day. For instance, employing the verb walk, we say: Tendai walks to school every day. Usually when dealing with the present tense in its singular form we add an ‘s’ in the front of the given verb as we have already demonstrated.

The progressive form of the present tense denotes action that is currently taking place now, and that action is ongoing. For instance, you are reading this article. It should be noted that the progressive tense is not a separate tense form, but a type of the present tense since it describes what is happening at the present moment. It should be kept in mind that there is a progressive form for each of the six tenses.

The past tense is often used to describe action that took place in the past. The action was begun and completed in the past and did not continue into the present.

Usually the past tense is identified by the addition of ‘d’-or- ‘ed’ .For example; Mr Lekopa spanked the noisy class yesterday.

The third form of the tense describes action that will take place in the future. It is known as the future tense. The words will\shall are used as identifying marks of the future tense. For example, I will read diligently from now.

The other form of the tense is the present perfect tense. Usually it is used with the intention of expressing action which occurred at no definite time in the past. At other instances, though limited, it describes action that happened in the past but is still going on. A case in point; Thabo has been staying with us since October last year. The present perfect tense is formed with has\have.

The past perfect tense is employed to denote action completed in the past. The action was completed before other action which preceded it. It is formed with had. The following example illustrates that; After she had worked for a certain bank for ten good years, she finally quit before joining Standard Lesotho Bank.

Used to describe action that will be undertaken in the future and completed before any other action is done, the future perfect tense is formed by using the phrase shall have\will have. The following example illustrates that; With Lerato’s love of reading, it is clear that by the time she turns 30 she will have become an insightful and competent journalist.

Please keep in mind that consistency in using the learned tense forms is the key to be skilled in their use. For example, let’s focus on the following example that clarifies inconsistency in using a given tense in the following statement:
Khotso lunged at the volleyball and grabs it before the Thetsane High School player could reach him (mixture of past and present tense) the word grabs is in its present tense form.
Now let’s perfect the statement already provided above.
Khotso lunged at the volleyball and grabbed it before the Thetsane High School player could reach him.
Now, copy the following two sentences on your paper with the intention of changing the tenses of the verbs as indicated in the parenthesis\brackets.
When the bell rings, I will finish the English Language assignment (change will finish to future perfect tense)
When I leave, will you read the article? (change will read to future perfect tense)
Let’s now see if you have managed to do the assignment properly;
When the bell rings, I will have finished the English Language assignment.
When I leave, will you have read the article?
Let’s do another very small exercise to see how much we have impressed our minds about tenses. In this exercise we focus on two of the most troublesome verbs – lie and lay. The verb lie means to recline or to assume a horizontal, restful position and does not take an object. The principal parts of this verb are: lie, lying, lay, (have) lain. The verb lay means to place or put something and takes an object. Its principal parts are lay, laying, laid, (have) laid. When tasked with a lie-lay dilemma, simply pose and ask yourself: What is the meaning I intend? And what time is expressed by the verb? Let’s try the following:
The rug has (lie/lay) on the floor for three weeks now.
The tree (lay/lie) across the path.
(Lay/ lie) the book on the table.
He (lie/lay) the package on the desk.
Let’s now turn to the answers.
The rug has lain on the floor for three weeks now.
The tree lay across the path.
Lay the book on the table.
He has laid the package on the desk.
What is easily discernable from this is that one has to understand the meaning intended by the verb and the time expressed or captured by the verb.
As has been seen, when you know your tenses you gain confidence in expressing your thoughts clearly.

Vuso Mhlanga teaches at the University of Zimbabwe. For almost a decade and half he taught English language and Literature in English at high school. Send your comments and questions to:

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