Inconsistent Tenses

Inconsistent Tenses :


One of, if not the most common, problem faced by ESL students is the tense of their writing and more specifically the consistency of these tenses. Whilst different universities may ask you to write in a certain tense, one thing is for sure. All of them will want you to be consistent with your tenses.

Mistakes relating to tense may be made for a number of reasons. ESL students may be unsure how to form the present or past tense of certain verbs or may simply be uncertain about whether certain sections of their essay should be written in present or past tense.

Tense is often an issue when referring to previous studies which have been conducted on the subject in question.

Below is an example which demonstrates this problem :

Jones & Spencer (1998) find/reveal/state that….

Jones & Spencer (1998) found/revealed/stated that….

Throughout an ESL essay, it is not uncommon to find tenses muddled up. If you make this mistake in your essay it could be the difference between a good grade and a very good grade.


Whilst both of the above examples are used by ESL students, most systems state that present tense should be used when talking about the opinions or findings of a scholar.

If you are referring to something which cannot possibly be referred to with present tense then this is perfectly acceptable. For example, if you were to talk about how old an author was when he/she wrote a book then it would have to read – Jones was 45 when he wrote these articles.

The first and most important step to solving this crucial problem is to establish which tense your lecturer wishes you to write in. Once you have done this, be sure that you are aware of the common markers used for tense.

1. Be sure of the conventions your university department uses

Tense in essays is not only an issue for ESL students. These errors often come about as a result of simply not paying enough attention. Even a native English speaking student may incorrectly think that the entire essay should be written in the present tense. This is not always the case. Indeed many universities specify that the theories or findings of a scholar should be referred to with past tense as these are theories and opinions which have been expressed in the past. Rather than there being one universal answer to the tense question, it is actually more about being thorough and ensuring that you are familiar with the guidelines. Again, whatever you do, be CONSISTENT. Having said this, there will be students who have trouble with certain verbs. That’s where step 2 comes in.

2. Know your tense markers

The most common suffix for past tense verbs is –ed. If your university prefer you to write in past tense then this marker is very helpful.

3. Tricky irregular verbs

Although this past tense marker is helpful, a number of verbs (irregular verbs) may not become past tense verbs with the addition of –ed.

English, like many languages, has both regular and irregular verbs and ESL students may often make the mistake of using the –ed suffix to mark past tense on an irregular verb as seen below.

Drive – drived (wrong)

Drive – Drove (right)

Find – finded (wrong)

Find – found (right)

Remember to be conscious of the tenses you are using and you will quickly improve the quality of your writing.

About the author :

Charlotte Beckham is a professional proofreader and editor.

How to Avoid Ten Common Errors in ESL Writing?

Inconsistent Tenses