Verbs are the motor of language—literally, they’re where
the action is. Anyone who has struggled with a foreign language
knows that verb tenses can get really complicated.
Luckily the vast majority of Writing items tests only a handful
of key concepts. They center on knowing the proper form each
tense of the verb takes (known as “inflection”).
Past vs. Present Perfect
The past tense signifies that something has
occurred or existed in the past. It is indicated by an -ed inflection
or an equivalent irregular form, such as swam or sank.
Helen lived in
Troy long ago.
This means that Helen lived in Troy at some definite point
in the past. She no longer lives there, for whatever reason.
The present perfect tense refers either to
something that began in the past and continues into the present
or something that occurred in the past but still has some bearing
on the present. It is indicated by using has/have plus
the -ed (or the equivalent irregular) form of a
Helen has lived in
Unlike the previous sentence, this sentence means that
Helen lived in Troy at some unspecified point in
Helen has lived in
Troy for twenty years.
This sentence means that Helen started living
in Troy at some point in the past, never left,
and is still living there in the present.
There are a few words that signal that the present perfect
rather than the past should be used. These signpost words are:
||Helen has loved Paris ever since she laid
eyes on him.
||Notice how this sentence uses both the present
perfect and the past. Helen has loved Paris means
that Helen started loving Paris at some point in the past and still
loves him in the present. [E]ver since she laid eyes on
him means that all that lovin’ started at a definite point
in the past—when she first saw Paris.
||Helen has never been one to restrain herself.
||This means that at no point in the past—and
up to the present moment—has Helen been able to control herself.
A state of being that began at some indefinite point in the past
has continued up to the present moment.
||There has been constant war since Helen came
||Again, an action has occurred at some indefinite
point in the past and continues to this day.
||She hasn’t fled to Troy yet.
||A particular state of being—that of not fleeing
to Troy—has not occurred since some indefinite point in the past
and continues not to occur up to the present moment.
Past vs. Past Perfect
The past perfect tense (also known as “pluperfect”)
refers to something that began and ended before something
else occurred in the past. The past perfect tense is “more past
than the past.” It is indicated by using had plus
the -ed (or equivalent irregular) form:
Helen had lived in
Sparta before she lived in Troy.
This means that Helen’s presence in Sparta preceded her
presence in Troy, which itself occurred in the
As a rule, if there are two actions that occurred in the
past, put the one that occurred deeper in the past in the past perfect
tense. The more recent action should be in the past tense.
What’s the difference between the following two sentences?
If I see another reference
to The Iliad, I will scream.
If I were Helen, I would not leave Sparta.
The first sentence states that if a condition is fulfilled
(seeing another Iliad reference), then a particular
action will result (a scream). The second sentence states something
that’s contrary to fact, something imagined that exists only in
thought. The person making that statement is not Helen,
clearly, but is projecting himself into that person’s situation.
The first sentence is in the indicative mood;
the second sentence is in the subjunctive mood.(Again,
don’t worry too much about the names used here.)
The main point for SAT Writing is the form of the second
(subjunctive) sentence. The if-clause should never
include a would-verb; would is used
only in the second clause, which we’ll call the would-clause:
||Comment on Correct Version
|If you would have come earlier,
you would have seen him.
||If you had come earlier, you
would have seen him.
||If-clause is in past perfect.
|Would-clause is in present