English Grammar Review
Verbs and Verbals

Verb Tense Agreement

Within a sentence or a paragraph, there are good reasons to make tenses agree and there are good reasons to purposely make them different.

Tense Rule 1: When you have a single time frame for multiple actions, make the tenses agree (avoid shifting tense).

I draw the logic diagram for students who asked questions during the class in Manila. [not good]

The two actions, draw and ask take place within the same time frame, when all the actors are in the classroom. So choose the specific time frame and make the verb tenses match.

I draw the logic diagram for students who ask questions during the class in Manila.

I drew the logic diagram for students who asked questions during the class in Manila.

I will draw the logic diagram for students who will ask questions during the class in Manila.

Tense Rule 2: When you want to show a difference in time frame for multiple actions, shift the tense accordingly.

Angelo's team loves their new office space, which they designed themselves.

The verb loves is present tense and current state or time frame; the team still loves their office space now. The verb designed is past tense, to show an action that completed before the current time frame; the team is not still designing their office space.

Tense Rule 3: In a paragraph, stick with a primary tense to provide a coherent message or story, but use purposeful shifts in tense to highlight actions in different time frames.

Choosing a primary tense:

• To narrate events, past tense is usually appropriate.

• To state facts or discuss your ideas, present tense is often appropriate.

• To make predictions or provide advice, future tense is sometimes appropriate.

Consider the following:

A hole in the middle is an essential feature of the hair dryer, but it was a challenge for our engineers. They designed a heating element of wires wrapped around a toroid constructed from special tubes. It took several years of development, but the end result is reliable. You will find that this product does an excellent job of protecting your hair from heat damage. It provides fast drying and controlled styling to help increase smoothness and decrease frizz, which we all will appreciate here in the humidity of the Philippines.

To describe the product coherently throughout the paragraph, present tense is used as the primary tense (shown in bold). To explain how the product was developed, the tense is shifted to past tense (shown underlined). To predict user experience with the product, the tense is shifted to future tense (shown in italic).

Note: We do this naturally, but it's good to be conscious of these deliberate choices to do a better job of editing our writing.

Agreement with subject

The number of the verb, singular or plural, must agree with the number of the subject:

{ subject } - { verb }

Making number agree has an algebra all its own:

{ noun "and" noun } - { plural verb }

Ms. Santos and Jerome are from the office in Davao City.

{ singular noun "or/nor" singular noun } - { singular verb }

Neither Ms. Santos nor Jerome is from the office in Manila.

{ plural noun "or/nor" singular noun } - { singular verb }

Our consultants or Mr. Cruz is going to call.

{ singular noun "or/nor" plural noun } - { plural verb }

Mr. Cruz or our consultants are going to call.

{ singular noun + long phrase } - { singular verb }

Jasmine, a proponent of agile development and detailed tests, is documenting problems.

{ plural noun + long phrase } - { plural verb }

Detailed tests, specified in great detail by Jasmine, are demonstrating problems.

Note: When the algebra is reversed, it doesn't change the fact that the number of the verb must agree with the number of the subject:

{ "There" + verb } - { subject }

There are problems with the design.
[Problems are observable.]

There is a problem with the design.
[A problem is observable.]

Some indefinite pronouns are always singular:

each . each one
either . neither
everybody . everyone
anybody . anyone
somebody . someone
nobody . no one

{ specific indefinite pronouns } - { singular verb }

Everyone is going to the meeting. No one has heard otherwise.

Some indefinite pronouns are always plural:

both . few . many . others . several

{ specific indefinite pronouns } - { plural verb }

Many are going to the meeting. Few have heard otherwise.

A collective noun is a word that is in singular form, but represents a group of people or things:

board . committee . company . department . firm
group . majority . minority . public
school . society . staff

{ collective noun, acting as a unit } - { singular verb }

The committee meets once a week.

{ collective noun, acting as individuals } - { plural verb }

The committee members meet once a week.

Some nouns, because they end with an s, sound as if they should be plural, but are instead singular:

acoustics . news . civics . mathematics
measles . mumps . molasses

The word dollars is a special case.

{ dollars, an amount of money } - { singular verb }

A thousand dollars is a lot to pay for a parking ticket.

{ dollars, actual units of money } - { plural verb }

In the Philippines, dollars are sometimes used instead of pesos.

Lesson: Verb Tense Agreement
Module: Verbs and Verbals
Course: English Grammar Review