Identifying Common Errors in Tense Usage

Common errors in verb tenses can lead to confusion and misunderstandings in writing and speaking. Here are some of the most typical errors people make with verb tenses:

1. Misuse of Past Tenses

The past tense helps us talk about historical events, share personal experiences, and tell stories of the past. Its proper usage is important to maintain clear and smooth communication. 

However, using past tenses wrongly can make our language less effective. Take a look at the common errors made concerning past tense usage:

Regular Verb Conjugation Errors

Regular verbs form the past tense conjugation by adding “-ed” to the base form of the verb (e.g., walk → walked).

Errors happen when you incorrectly form past tense forms, leading to awkward phrases like “walkeded” instead of “walked” or “looked” when you meant to use “looking.” These errors affect the natural flow of language and hinder comprehension.

  • Incorrect: She was looked at the ocean. 
  • Correct: She was looking at the ocean. 

Misuse of Irregular Verbs

Irregular verbs do not follow the “-ed” pattern of forming the past tense, and they pose challenges for proper usage.

 Mistakes occur when one fails to remember or apply the correct past tense form. For example, “swimmed” instead of “swam” or “goed” instead of “went.” These errors not only sound awkward but also weaken the overall quality of communication.

You should familiarize yourself with irregular verbs to help you remember their conjugation.

  • Incorrect: She swimmed to shore. 
  • Correct: She swam to shore.

Inconsistent Verb Tense Usage

Maintaining a consistent verb tense throughout a narrative is essential for clear timing. Errors happen when you switch from past tense to present tense or vice versa within a single narrative. This can confuse readers and make it difficult for them to get the timeline of events.

Remember, you can mix tenses if the context allows it. To review proper mixed tense use, see Module Seven. Otherwise, always keep your tense consistent. 

  • Incorrect: She runs to the dock and jumped into the water. 
  • Correct: She ran to the dock and jumped into the water. 

Improper Application of the Past Perfect Tense

The past perfect tense (“had + past participle”) is used to describe an action that happened before another action in the past.

Errors happen when you use the past perfect too much, making sentences complex, or when you don’t show a clear order of events. This can confuse the order of actions, so it is important to use words that show when the actions occurred in the past. 

  • Incorrect: She had already left the house.
  • Correct: She had already left the house when the rain started.

Failure to Distinguish Between Simple Past and Past Perfect

Another common error happens when you mix simple past and past perfect tenses without a clear understanding of their individual purposes.

  • Incorrect: After I had eaten, I eat dessert.
  • Correct: After I had eaten, I ate dessert.

Incorrect Time Expressions

Choosing appropriate time expressions is important for showing the timing of past events. 

Errors occur when people use time expressions that do not align with the context of the past tense. 

  • Incorrect: I had eaten yesterday.
  • Correct: I ate yesterday. 

Misuse of Reported Speech

When reporting past statements or actions, the shift in verb tenses can lead to errors. 

  • Incorrect: She said that she goes to the store.
  • Correct: She said that she went to the store.

2. Misuse of the Present Tense

The present tense is typically used to describe actions, events, or states that are currently happening, habitual, or universally true. It brings a sense of immediacy to language.

The present tense, while seemingly simple, has some uses that can lead to confusion. Sometimes, these errors come from misunderstandings about how to use it. Let’s look at the common mistakes of the present tense, understand why they happen, and learn about how to use the present tense effectively.

Misusing the Present Continuous for Habits

It’s common to mistakenly use the present continuous tense for habitual actions. Habits are better described using the simple present tense. 

The present continuous tense is better suited for ongoing actions, not habits.

For example:

  • Incorrect: I am going to the gym every day. (present continuous)
  • Correct: I go to the gym every day. (simple present)

Misusing the Simple Present for Future Events

Using the simple present tense for future events can be confusing if the context isn’t clear. Instead, use the simple present tense to describe things that are currently happening, and use the formula “subject + will + verb base form” to describe future events.

For example: 

  • She watches the concert. (present tense)
  • She will watch the concert. (future tense)

Confusing the Present Simple with the Past Tense

Avoid using the present simple tense to discuss past events. Instead, use the present tense to describe general truths and use the past tense with the formula “subject + verb (-ed)” to describe past events. It is also best to use a word that shows the event time as well when using past tense for context and clarity.

For example: 

  • She watches the solar eclipse. (present tense)
  • She watched the solar eclipse yesterday. (past tense)

Mixing the Present Perfect with the Past Tense

Don’t mix present perfect tense with past actions unless they relate to the present. Use mixed tenses only with the right context, and it is important to provide that connection whenever tense mixing occurs. Otherwise, use the present perfect alone with the formula: subject + have/has + past participle of the verb.

For example: 

  • She has traveled through Africa. (present perfect) 
  • She has traveled through Africa and learned about its unique ecosystems. (present perfect + past tense)

3. Misuse of the Future Tense

The future tense is used to talk about actions or events that will happen after the current moment. It lets us express plans, predictions, and expectations. Common future tenses are the simple future (“I will go”), the future continuous (“I will be going”), and the future perfect (“I will have gone”).

Misunderstanding “Will” vs. “Be Going To”

Confusing the usage of “will” and “ be going to” for predictions and plans can result in confusion about future plans. “Will” is often used for quick decisions or general predictions, while “be going to” is for planned actions or predictions with evidence.

  • I will go to the party tomorrow. (This means a decision made at the moment of speaking.)
  • I am going to the party tomorrow. (This typically shows a plan that was made before the conversation.)

Improper Use of the Future Continuous Tense

Don’t overuse the future continuous tense for actions that don’t need ongoing emphasis. That can create redundancy and may make the sentence sound awkward and wordy. Instead, use the future continuous tense to highlight ongoing actions at a specific point in the future.

  • Incorrect: He will be eating lunch at 1 PM. (Correct: He will eat lunch at 1 PM.)
  • Incorrect: I will be going to the store later. (Correct: I will go to the store later.)

In the incorrect sentences, the future continuous tense is used unnecessarily and makes the sentences sound awkward and wordy. The corrected versions use the simple future tense, which is more appropriate for these situations.

4. Mixing Past and Present Tenses

Switching between past and present tenses in a sentence or paragraph, without clear context, can break the flow of a story or argument.

Keeping a consistent tense helps a narrative or story progress smoothly and allows readers or listeners to follow the order of events without confusion. Mixing past and present tenses in the same sentence, paragraph, or context can create problems with comprehension or a misinterpretation of the author’s message. 

Take a look at what to avoid:

Shifting Tenses Within Sentences

Mixing tenses within a sentence often comes from not having a clear context. For instance, “She walks to the store yesterday” combines present (“walks”) and past (“yesterday”) tenses. This creates an incorrect grammar structure and confuses when the action happens. 

Inconsistent Narratives

Switching between past and present tenses without explanation can confuse readers. A paragraph that switches between “he said” (past) and “he says” (present) can break the timeline of events. When using mixed tenses, make sure to clearly show the timing of events in your sentences for clarity and understanding. 

Reported Speech Tense Errors

Using the wrong tenses in reported speech can lead to errors. Saying “He said he goes to the party” instead of “He said he went to the party” misrepresents what was actually said. Both actions show past actions, but only one is grammatically correct. 

Incorrectly Using Present Tense for Historical Context

Using the present tense for historical events can make a narrative seem less authentic. For example, describing the American Revolution (which happened in the late 18th century) in the present tense can confuse time frames.

Shifts in Perspective

Mixing past and present tenses can happen when a writer or speaker shifts between talking about their personal experiences (present) and describing historical events (past), leading to an unintentional mix of tenses. Avoid this unless you provide a clear context to help explain when the events occurred. 

5. Misunderstanding Continuous Tenses

Continuous tenses emphasize actions that are in progress. They are used to explain the duration, timing, and circumstances of an activity.

  • The present continuous tense is for actions happening now (“I am writing now”).
  • The past continuous tense is for actions that were ongoing in the past (“I was writing a novel when the power went out”).
  • The future continuous tense is for actions that will be ongoing in the future (“I will be writing a novel when you come to visit me tomorrow”).

Continuous tenses are often misused and confused. Remember these points to avoid their misuse or overuse in writing and speech:

Overusing Continuous Tenses for Short Actions

The continuous tenses are ideal for actions with an ongoing nature. Using them for short, momentary actions can sound unnatural. For instance, saying “I am leaving a book on the counter” while referring to a simple action can create confusion. Instead, use a simple tense to describe a past, present, or future action that has no continuous nature. 

For example: 

  • She places the book on the counter
  • She left the book on the counter.
  • She’ll leave the book on the counter. 

Neglecting the Purpose of Past Continuous

The past continuous tense emphasizes actions that were ongoing at a specific point in the past. Make sure to use it with an emphasis on the duration or ongoing nature of the action to provide context for its purpose. 

For example: 

  • The dogs were running across the field when I saw them this morning

Inaccurate Use of Future Continuous

The future continuous tense shows when a future action will happen or be completed and emphasizes that the action will continue for a specific period. Because of this, the sentence almost always includes a time marker to specify when the action will take place. If you leave this time marker out, you risk making your sentence sound confusing or inaccurate. 

For example: 

  • Incorrect: She will be studying for the exam.
  • Correct: She will be studying for the exam tomorrow afternoon. 


  • She will be studying for the exam tonight.

Or any other sentence variation that shows when the action of the subject will be taking place.