The Main Verb

Probably the most important part of a clause is its verb. The verb gives a sentence its “life”, giving it movement in terms of action, time, and relationships amongst the elements of the clause and the sentence as a whole. This means that the verb must be used appropriately, both in choice of the verb itself and its usage. More specifically, writers must be careful about proper verb use as it applies to tense and agreement.


Present: simple, continuous, perfect, perfect continuous
Past: simple, continuous, perfect, perfect continuous
Future: simple, continuous, perfect, perfect continuous
Mixed Tenses

When it comes to the main verb of a clause, it is crucial to remember that one clause uses only one tense verb. Though a sentence, and even a clause, can have many verbs, only the main verb of each clause will take a tense (the other verbs will be infinitive, base, or other forms).

The correct tense must fit the context of the information and maintain a clear time relationship throughout the sentence. This means that if a clause contains a past verb, for example, the related clauses must agree with that time choice, or it must be made very clear that a shift in perspective has occurred.

Regarding agreement, verbs must agree with their subjects in person, number, and logic. A singular subject, for instance, will take a singular verb. In the case of present tense, third person singular (he, she, it), add an ‘s’ to the end of the verb (either the helping verb or the main verb, not both. If there is a helping verb, it takes the tense.) To avoid errors, study the previous section, The Subject, to know what to look for.

Ex: The mice used in the experiment show signs of trauma. (subject – mice (they), therefore the verb is plural—no ‘s’)

The volunteer has requested more training because he feels he is not doing a very good job. (subject – volunteer, he, therefore the verbs are also singular—has, feels)

The above holds true for both active and passive use. There are structures, however, where the rules are bent. In the subjunctive, for example, we use the past plural form of the ‘be’ verb (were) for all subjects. With certain verbs followed by a ‘that’ clause, a base verb is used as the main verb of the ‘that’ clause.

Ex: If I were you, I wouldn’t touch that.

John wishes (that) he were able to do more for the victims.

The doctor advised that he stay in bed for a week.

Let’s begin with by looking at the purpose of each tense and how to use it.


Remember that only one verb in a clause can take a tense.
When do we use the following tenses?


  • Present simple

    – General truth:


    Ex: Water boils at 100°C.

    – Current situation that doesn’t show signs of changing:

    Ex: Jerry works as a consultant at an advertising firm.

    – Permanent situation:

    Ex: Rainy season begins in late May in most of Southeast Asia.

    The American national bird is the bald eagle.

    – Scheduled event:

    Ex: The train leaves platform 9 at 4:18 every morning.

    – Present need, demand, description, etc.:

    Ex: I need to speak with you in my office.

    Call Heather and ask her to send the documents.; It is such a beautiful day today.

    – As part of an adverbial time clause:

    Ex: Call me as soon as you land tomorrow. (Not as soon as you will land tomorrow)

    When people realize how useful this gadget is, they will buy it, I’m sure.

  • Present continuous

    (‘be’ verb + -ing verb)

    – Action occurring right now:

    Ex: I am typing on my laptop.

    – Future action that has already been arranged:

    Ex: I am seeing my dentist tomorrow.

  • Present Perfect

    – An action that began in the past and continues now, or has finished very recently:


    Ex: I’ve been a teacher for 10 years.

    Ken has just retired from his firm.

    – A complete action finished in an indefinite past time:

    Ex: Joan has been to Paris only once in her life.

    I’ve heard of him, but have never had the chance to meet him personally.

    – A past experience:


    Ex: Have you ever tried pickled jellyfish? It’s delicious.

    Luke has climbed mountains all over the world.

    – A past action with a present consequence:

    Ex: Tom called; he can’t get into the office because he’s lost his keys.

  • Present perfect continuous

    – Action begun in the past but continuing right now:

    Ex: I have been typing on my laptop since early this morning. I hope to finish soon.

    – A recent action that can be sensed even if it has been completed:

    Ex: Have you been painting? (I can smell paint fumes);

    I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, and I’ve finally decided to accept your offer. (I’ve been thinking about it recently)


  • Past Simple

    – A completed action in a definite past time (usually requires some sort of time expression):

    Ex: Clive met his girlfriend last Valentine’s Day.

    When Sidney was five years old, his father bought him his first pair of ice skates.

    – A completed action in the past that took longer to complete:

    Ex: Albert lived in Hong Kong for two years. He was working there as a consultant.

    – To describe a habit or situation in the past that is no longer valid:

    Ex: I used to be very skinny.

    This building was beautiful when it was first built.

  • Past Continuous

    – A completed action in the past that took longer duration to complete, but that was interrupted:

    Ex: Sheryl was reading her book when Heath called her to ask her out for a drink.

    While the crew was dismantling the set, the director spoke with his actors to prepare them for the next scene.

    – To describe two (or more) longer actions in the past that occur simultaneously:

    Ex: Melanie was cooking the vegetables while Jimmy was marinating the meat for the barbecue.

    – To provide a background, set the scene of a story:

    Ex: The sun was shining and the birds were singing when the young couple walked out onto the beach for a stroll.

  • Past Perfect

    – A completed action in the past that occurred before another completed action in the past:

    Ex: Before moving to Morgan Stanley, Henry had worked for a large investment group.

    I visited my friend in Australia last year. I’d never been there before.

    – To show change in direction when describing past events – going backward, use the past perfect; moving forward (yet still in the past) use past simple:

    Ex: What a crazy summer I just had; I started to work at a summer camp for troubled youths. I had been trained before going there, but once I got there all the things I’d learned didn’t really help. I had to learn everything all over again.

  • Past perfect continuous

    – A longer action in the past that finished at a specific past time (simple past):

    Ex: Connor had been flipping burgers at the local Burger King when a model scout saw him and offered him a career in modelling.


  • Future Simple

    – To speak about a future prediction:

    Ex: In ten years, no one will remember what happened here today.

    I’m sure that next summer is going to be much more fun that this one.

    – For an immediate action, use will:

    Ex: A: Someone is at the door.

    B: I’ll see who it is.

    – For a decision made at the time of speaking, use will:

    Ex: That was such a great movie. I think I’ll see it again next week.

    – For a decision made prior to speaking, use going to:

    Ex: I went over all the paperwork, and I’m going to send you a report by tomorrow morning.

  • Future Continuous

    – Longer action in the future (will or be going to are acceptable):

    Ex: My plane will be landing around 10:30, so I should be outside by around 11. Will you be waiting for me?

    Scott won’t be answering his phone between 11 and 12:00. He is going to be delivering a speech at the stockholders meeting.

    – Future action that will be interrupted by another action:

    Ex: I will probably be meeting with my boss when you get the news. Send me a text and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.(Notice that the verb in the time clause (when you get the news) is in the simple present tense. The imperative verb (send) is in the base form.)

  • Future Perfect

    – To express that an action will be completed before another action in the future or before a specific time in the future:

    Ex: Leonard will have graduated university before his little brother even enters high school.

    By the time you read this, I will have already left.

    Mom, I promise I’m going to have cleaned the house before you get back.

    – To express the duration of an action/situation by an end period:

    Ex: I will have been in Canada ten years next month.

    By the time I graduate, I’ll have been at this school for six years.


– To express the idea of an action, not the action itself:

Ex: Zack’s dream is to meet Angelina Jolie. (He is not meeting her. The idea of meeting her is his dream.)

– All verbs in a clause that are not the main verb, are infinitive or base. Only the main verb takes a tense:

Ex: Clark’s plan is to meet with his colleagues for a business lunch and then (to) go to the new location to oversee the construction progress.

Mixed tenses:

As mentioned above, every clause must have its own tensed verb, and a multi-clause sentence will obviously have as many tensed verbs as there are clauses. Put another way, a simple sentence will have one tensed verb, while a compound-complex sentence will have at least three. The tenses do not need to be the same, though they must work together to form a logical sequence.

Ex: Tom isn’t confident (that) the interview (that) he attended last week will lead to a job offer.

In this sentence there are a simple present verb, a simple past verb, and a simple future verb. The sentence has three clauses (independent, noun clause, and adjective clause). The key to maintaining coherence is to give the reader time markers, such that the reader can understand that Tom’s present situation (feeling) is based on a past event and a prediction of a future result. It is up to the writer to make sure the chronology of a sentence is clear and logical. To do this, establish a relative point that other parts of the sentence will relate to. This means making at least one time situation very clear using a time expression (last week) and allowing the other clauses to relate to it:

Ex: Tom isn’t confident – now

He attended last week – made clear with the time expression last week

Will lead to – future – He is not confident about the future based on a past event


A verb must agree with its subject, and in the case of a transitive verb, with its object. This means that the verb must reflect the same number (singular or plural) and person (first, second, or third).

Person & number:

Singular Plural
First I we
Second you you
Third he, she, it they

General rule: In a regular sentence, third person, singular, present tense—add an ‘s’ to the verb (helping or main).

Make sure you can recognize the subject that the verb must agree with. A common mistake made by English learners is to forget that a gerund, being singular as it is uncountable, is equivalent to ‘it’. A compound subject with two gerunds will therefore be equivalent to ‘they’.

Ex: Meeting clients in person to discuss their individual needs makes this company different from its competitors, who offer their products online only. (Subject – meeting. The rest of the phrase is part of the subject, but the head noun is meeting, which is reflected in the verb makes, a singular form.)

Meeting clients in person to discuss their individual needs and providing them with customized solutions make this company different from its competitors, who offer their products online only. (Subject – meeting and providing, therefore a plural verb, make)

Another point of agreement is the object. Transitive verbs must take an object. Keep in mind that gerunds are still technically verbs and may require an object.

Ex: The Secretary of the Chamber would like to meet with your representative.

The Secretary of the Chamber would like a meeting with your representative.

In both of these cases, would like is a transitive verb. The object can be an infinitive verb or a gerund, but either way, an object is needed to complete the meaning of the verb.

Lastly, a verb must agree with its subject in terms of logic. In other words, ask yourself whether the subject can do the verb. If it cannot, then you will have to choose another verb.

Ex: The invoice charged the restaurant owners for items that they had not ordered nor had any need of.

In this example, the subject is the invoice which is a piece of paper that lists the charges someone must pay. An invoice cannot charge anyone. It can only list the charges. (Notice that charge can be a noun or a verb). To fix this sentence, you can change the subject or the verb:

Ex: The supplier charged the restaurant owners for items that they had not ordered nor had any need of.

The invoice listed charges for items the restaurant owners had not ordered nor had any need of.