Choosing the right verb tense depends on the perspective the writer adopts in connection with time. Usually, current events are narrated in the present tense (e.g. “I am at the office right now.”). Past events are narrated in the past tense (e.g. “I was at the office yesterday.”) but a “past event” could also be coded in the present perfect tense (e.g. “I have been at the office the whole day”) when it still has some present relevance. Here is a list of frequently used tenses:

Tense

Example

Simple Present

I study English.

Present Progressive/Continuous

I am reading a book.

Simple Future

I will eat pasta tomorrow.

Future Progressive/ Continuous

I will be staying with my sister tomorrow.

Simple Past

He visited London last year.

Past Progressive/ Continuous

I was working on a project when she came.

Present Perfect Simple

You have lived in New York and Singapore.

Present Perfect Progressive/ Continuous

I have been listening to you for an hour.

Past Perfect

She had finished her homework when John came.

Past Perfect Progressive/ Continuous

She had been studying hard until he came.

 

Past tense VS. Present perfect tense

In example 1, the simple past (“affected”) could only be correct if the problem of land shortage no longer existed. As this problem, which started in the past, still affects Hong Kong citizens now, the present perfect form (“has affected”) should be used instead.
 

 

WRONG
RIGHT

1.

The problem of land shortage in urban development affected Hong Kong citizens in the past few years.

The problem of land shortage in urban development has affected Hong Kong
citizens in the past few years.


Present tense VS. Past tense

 
In example 2, the simple present tense cannot be used as the reclamation started in the past. The past tense should be used as the action (i.e. start reclamation) happened at a specific time (i.e. January 2013) in the past.
 
Similarly, in examples 3 and 4, the simple present tense cannot be used to describe completed actions at a specific time in the past. The simple past tense should be used instead.
 

 

WRONG
RIGHT

2.

In January 2013, the government start a
land reclamation project.

In January 2013, the government started a land reclamation project.

3.

In the past few years, several historic buildings have been destructed. The most memorable one is the demolition of the Central Star Ferry Terminal, which has been a much-loved mode of transportation across Victoria Harbour and this incident sparked furor in
the city in 2006.

In the past few years, several historic buildings have been destructed. The most memorable one was the demolition of the Central Star Ferry Terminal, which has been a much-loved mode of transportation across Victoria Harbour and this incident sparked furor in the city in 2006.

4.

Since the British considered that Hong Kong is an important trade market, the design of the harbour is full of shopping malls and busy roads around the harbour.

Since the British considered that Hong Kong was an
important trade market, the design of the harbour is full of shopping malls and busy roads around the harbour.


Present tense VS. Present perfect tense

 
In example 5, the present perfect tense should be used, because the sentence describes an action (i.e. reclaim) that started in the past (i.e. since 1852) and has continued up till now.
 
Similarly, in examples 6-8, the present perfect tense should be used as the actions that happened in the past have continued up to now.

 

WRONG
RIGHT

5.

The Hong Kong Government reclaims Victoria Habour in order to meet the demand for lands since 1852. Up to now, almost half of the area of the harbour (3,600 hectares) has been reclaimed.

The Hong Kong Government has reclaimed Victoria Habour in order to meet the demand for lands since 1852. Up to now, almost half of the area of the harbour (3,600 hectares) has been reclaimed.

6.

After one hundred years of development, Hong Kong eventually becomes a financial centre.

After one hundred years of development, Hong Kong has eventually become a financial centre.

7.

As time goes by, Hong Kong has faced many changes. It changes from a trading center into a financial center.

As time goes by, Hong Kong has faced many changes. It has changed from a trading center into a financial center.

8.

In the past few years, there are several historic buildings which have been destructed.

In the past few years, there have been several historic buildings which have been destructed.


Past perfect tense VS. Present perfect tense

 
The past perfect tense describes an action that happened before another action in the past. To describe actions that happened in the past and have continued up to now, as in example 9, the present perfect tense should be used.
 

 

WRONG
RIGHT

9.

Up to now, almost half of the area of the harbour (3,600 hectares) had been reclaimed.

Up to now, almost half of the area of the harbour has been reclaimed.


Present tense VS. Future tense

 
The verb tense is inconsistent in example 10. The future tense is used at the beginning (i.e. “will”) but the simple present tense is misused at the end (i.e. “loses”).
 
 

 

WRONG
RIGHT

10.

Not only will the massive harbor development jeopardize the environment and the marine life involved, but residents’ enjoyment will also be diminished and Hong Kong loses its appeal to tourists as well.

Not only will the massive harbor development jeopardize the environment and the marine life involved, but residents’ enjoyment will also be diminished and Hong Kong will lose its appeal to tourists as well.

See more.

Click here for a list of exercises on verb tenses.

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