Writing Multiple-Choice Questions
Verb Tense
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 verb:

Helen has lived in Troy before.

Unlike the previous sentence, this sentence means that Helen lived in Troy at some unspecified point in the past.

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:
Signpost Word Example Comment
ever 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.
never 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.
since There has been constant war since Helen came to Troy. Again, an action has occurred at some indefinite point in the past and continues to this day.
yet 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 past.
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.
If-clauses
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:
Incorrect Correct 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 perfect.
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