Choosing What Tense to Use

by Eva

How do you determine what tense should be used when you write? When do you use the past, present and future tense? I'm really confused by this.


When discussing general issues, we use the present tense. I have serious problem with this, what exactly are issues that I should consider as "general"?

Can you please give me some advice on how to judge an issue as general, compared to issues that are not general?

I tend to mix tenses together in one sentence and it is wrong.

"I had a lot of work yesterday so I will call you later."

What are the rules of grammar during writing a sentence, a paragraph, even an entire article?

Thank you so much Ola. If you can help me figure this out I'd be very grateful!

Comments for Choosing What Tense to Use

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Nov 06, 2010
Let's make it simple
by: Ola Zur

First, you need to keep in mind the purpose of tenses: the ONLY reason they are there is to show the time of the action. Some tenses also give additional data and tell you whether the action is complete (perfect) or ongoing (progressive).

If you want to talk about the past (yesterday, last week, etc): use the past tense.

If you want to talk about the present (facts, now, these days, this year etc): use the present tense.

If you want to talk about the future (an hour from now, tomorrow, next Sunday, etc): use the future tense.

Visit my online lessons on English verb tenses for more information.

Now, about the present tense: yes, it is said that the simple present tense is used for "general" statements. Also, I can understand your confusion about this.

"General" in this case means "usual" or "typical".
So let's say you usually eat breakfast. Then you could say: "I eat breakfast."

If Lisa is typically a nice girl, you could say "Lisa is a nice girl."

If you usually work in an office, you could say "I work in an office."

If the sun always rises in the east, you could say "The sun rises in the east."

Now, sometimes, you are talking about things that are in the present, and you want to emphasize the fact that they are IN PROGRESS. You probably want to emphasize this fact because you are doing them at the moment, or because they are temporary.

Some examples:
"I am eating breakfast right now."

"Lisa is being rude." (= Lisa is behaving rudely right now)

"Usually I work in an office. However, these days I am working as a waitress."

Regarding the grammar rules, it would be practically impossible to sum it all up in this single answer. I do want to give you some suggestions though.

Mixing tenses is not automatically incorrect. In some cases it is fully acceptable to mix them. For example, you could say "I was really worried, but I am feeling better now."

You could also say "He is a good person, so I will continue helping him."

There are many other examples.

However, you shouldn't say "He woke up in the morning, brush his teeth and ate lunch."

The corrected version: "He woke up in the morning, brushed his teeth and ate lunch."

Your tense combinations should be consistent and logical.

You also shouldn't say "I will not eat until I will be hungry."

The corrected version: "I will not eat until I am hungry."
(This is because future tense after "if", "when", "until" etc is not allowed.)

Ola Zur is the editor of www.really-learn-english.com, an illustrated guide to English.


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