Sometimes the most common mistakes on the SHSAT happen when students overlook the most basic things. Verbs are pretty basic. You’ve mastered them years ago. But, on an ELA revision question, incorrect verb tense can make a seemingly-correct answer turn out to be wrong. In this module, we’re going to figure out how to revise verb tenses correctly.
Present Tense: the Good & the Messy
Most of your SHSAT questions will be written in the present tense. Present tenses are excellent for explaining facts, events, and habits, because the present tense shows that whatever is being stated is true all of the time. For example:
She rides the bus to school on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
This is a good example of the present tense, because it shows that what the subject of the sentence does is true all of the time– the present tense of ‘rides’ shows that what the sentence says is true in the past, present, and future. (That doesn’t mean, of course, that for this particular example, that it will always, forever, be the case that she will ride the bus to school. It’s just true for the events in this person’s life that, when she goes to school on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, she will ride the bus.)
But, there are messy uses of the present tense. What makes them ‘messy’ is that they explain a fact that occurs and is currently occurring. We can tweak our current example:
She is riding the bus to school today.
This correct verb tense is messy because it states a fact that is currently underway but might not be at another time. (The ‘is’ verb along with an ‘ing’ verb tips us off that it is a messy present verb.) But, this is a correct verb tense to use to talk about something that is going on right now. The following would be incorrect uses of the messy verb tense:
X She is ridden the bus to school today.
X She is rides the bus to school on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
X She rodes the bus to school on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
Past Tense: the Good & the Messy
The past tense focuses on what events have already occurred. Past tense verbs show that an action is complete. You will see a lot of past tense verbs—it is the second most common verb tense on the SHSAT, behind the present tense. Since you will be running into these, it’s a good idea to figure out when the past tense has been used in a good way, and when it’s a bit messy—but appropriate—to use in revisions on the SHSAT. Here’s an example, straight from the exam:
Since college admissions are highly competitive, many students began planning for the admissions process while they attend middle school rather than waiting until they enter high school.
Which edit should be made to correct this sentence?
- change are to will be
- change began to begin
- change attend to had attended
- change enter to entered
In this SHSAT question, you’re asked to know basic verb tenses and how they impact the meaning of a sentence. All of the answers reflect a verb tense change, so your job is to see which change is the best answer. But, once you’ve read the passage, it should be obvious which verb is out of place. “Since college admissions are highly competitive” is present tense, so the error is not there. “Many students began planning for the admissions process” is past tense—it shows a fact that was true in the past. But, the rest of the sentence is in the present tense, just like the first part of the sentence, “while they attend middle school…”. So, the past tense verb is out of place and incorrect. Revising it is direct—we have to change “began planning” (which is a past event) to present tense “begin planning” to be consistent with the rest of the sentence.
There are some forms of the past tense that are a little less clean. Messy past tense verbs are used to talk about actions that were completed before some time period in the past. They are really powerful verbs to use in a sequence of actions. For example:
He had written her a song before he told her he loved her.
Using a clean past tense verb, “He wrote her a song before he told her he loved her” doesn’t convey the same meaning, because it could mean that he could have been in the same room with her, wrote her a song, and then declared his love. But, in the messy past tense example, it’s clear that time passed after this dude wrote the song and before he told her he loved her. Think about what your exam sentences are meant to mean before you choose your best answer.
There’s one more messy tense of the past. Sometimes we want to say that something in the past occurred for a while. Those messy tenses usually include ‘was’ along with an ‘ing’ verb. We’ll stick with our same love-struck dude as our example:
He was writing her a song before he told her he loved her.
In this version of the example, our subject—in the past—was writing his love a song before he told her he loved her. We don’t know if he completed the song. Instead, the verb is telling us there was continuing action (he spent some time writing the song). We don’t know if he finished it before he confessed he loved her.