Verbs: Past Tense? Present?
by Melanie Dawson & Joe Essid
(printable version here)
When you write an essay, an exam answer, or even a short story, you will want to keep the verbs you use in the same tense. Remember, moving from tense to tense can be very confusing.
eg. Mrs. Mallory sees her returning son and, in her excitement, twisted her ankle rather badly. Her sister calls the doctor immediately.
In this example, the verb "twisted" is the only verb that appears in the past tense. It should appear in the present tense, "twists," or the other verbs should be changed to the past tense as well. Switching verb tenses upsets the time sequence of narration.
"The Literary Present"
When you quote directly from a text or allude to the events in a story (as in a brief plot summary), you should use "the literary present." We write about written works as if the events in them are happening now, even though the authors may be long dead. Quoting an essay, you would write,
eg. Annie Dillard wrote Pilgrim at Tinker Creek when she lived in Virginia's mountains. In the book's chapter, "Seeing," Annie Dillard contends that "vision... is a deliberate gift, the revelation of a dancer who for my eyes only flings away her seven veils" (17).
Here, both "wrote" and "lived" are in the past tense since they refer to Dillard's life, not her writings. "Contends," however, appears in a statement about Dillard's writing, so it is in the present tense.
When you write about fiction, you will also want to use the present tense.
eg. At the end of Of Mice and Men, Lennie sees an enormous rabbit that chastises him, making him think of George.
eg. Mrs. Mallard, in "The Story of an Hour," whispers "'free, free, free!'" after learning of her husband's supposed death.
The above examples are a plot summary and a direct quotation, both of which use the literary present. You can remember to write about literature in the present tense because you are currently reading or thinking about it. Every time you open a book it seems as though the events are currently happening; every time you read an essay it is as though you are currently speaking to the writer.
If you are writing a paper in another subject, notably the sciences and social sciences, these rules will not necessarily apply. Check with your professor for guidelines in your course.
In history classes, for example, the events you are writing about took place in the past, and therefore you should use the past tense throughout your paper. However, if you are citing articles in the paper, as you probably should, then you should check with your professor to see if he or she would prefer that you use the literary present or the past tense when referring to these articles.
Back to 'Sentence Structure and Mechanics' or 'Using Sources'
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College Prep Guides: Writing an A+ Admissions Essay
It is natural to feel stressed about submitting college applications. The information included in the application will play a major role in deciding the future path of your life. However, unlike most other components of the application that offer numbers and statistics, the essay is your chance to show a different side of you as a person. The college application essay is where you can bring your personality to life for college admissions officers. Here are some important tips to help you get started:
Use Your Voice and Natural Language
Using a thesaurus to throw in unnecessarily large works often ends up looking rather clunky and awkward. This is especially the case if they are words that you do not normally use. This does not mean that you should write very casually, but do let your own voice come through in the writing. Make it easy for the other person to read and relate to your writing.
Make it Interesting
For a moment, imagine that you are an admissions officer. Think about the piles and stacks of essays that you might have to read. Try to choose a unique angle. Each of us is different. What makes you different from other students? One of the most powerful strategies is to use an opening sentence that hooks the reader’s curiosity. For example, instead of simply stating, “I have always loved sports since I was young,” put the reader right there with you on the sports field by writing something like, “Everyone held their breath as I threw the ball towards the basket in those last crucial seconds.”
Show Versus Tell
There is major difference between telling someone that you are talented and proving it. Instead of saying that you are proficient at playing the piano, why not prove it by discussing the certificates, awards, or teaching and volunteer experience that might have resulted from it? These are personal details that make your experience more real for the reader. By including such details, you transform a subjective statement to an objective one.
Beware of Wordiness
Don’t be afraid to be concise in your essay. You don’t have to fill up pages and pages. A short sentence can be digested by readers much more easily than one that runs on for four lines. Think you can succinctly and accurately present yourself in half a page? Why not try it and ask your teachers and parents to read it over? Less is often more when writing college admissions essays.
Slang and Jargon
While you do want to use natural language in an admission essay, you should steer clear of jargon and slang. There are plenty of words in the English language that express all shades of meanings. Use care to pick good words that convey your meaning. This shows that you have put thought and care into your essay, along with the fact that you are a competent writer.
Sentence Length and Transition
A common error that many writers (not just students!) make is that they end up with sentences that are all the same length. This repetition makes it boring for the reader. To avoid this, use different styles and lengths of sentences. Use conjunctions and other tools to keep things interesting. Don’t start ever sentence the same way, but instead use transition words to introduce new ideas.
Active Voice is Better Than Passive
Active voice verbs and phrases generally sound much more energetic and dynamic than the passive voice. For example instead of saying, “Several students were tutored by me after school,” you might say, “I tutored fifteen students every day after school.” This makes a much stronger impact and helps the reader to identify your strengths and achievements.
Ask for Opinions
Before submitting your essay, ask a few people to read it and give you their thoughts. You could ask teachers, friends, coaches, family members, a guidance counselor, or even your boss. Simply borrowing a fresh pair of eyes can help identify things that you may never have noticed about your own essays. Ask them if they might have any suggestions to help improve it, or if there is anything that should be omitted.
Pay Attention to the Provided Question
Most colleges provide a question that they want students to answer in their essays. While you do need to reveal information about yourself, your achievements, and your personality in the essay, make sure you answer the question, too. After writing, run through the whole essay to pick out sections that are irrelevant.
Writing in general is a process of revisions and fine-tuning. Don’t be dismayed if one of your proofreaders comes back with a list of suggestions. The more you revise the essay, the better crafted it will be. Think of it like a sculptor chiseling a statue: After the main form is created, there is still plenty of cutting and carving needed to make it perfect.
Want more help? The following are some great online resources to use in preparing your own college application essays:
- Common Application Essay Advice - Three tips for writing a Common Application essay that admissions officers will remember.
- Uniqueness in an Essay – Watch a video on how to make your admissions essay stand out from the others.
- Common Essay Questions – Find some quick answers to common questions that students ask about the admissions essay.
- Representing Yourself – This guide explains how to help your personality shine through in the essay.
- Crafting the Admissions Essay – Learn how to carefully shape and perfect an admissions essay so that it represents yourself well.
- A Look at Admissions Essays (PDF) – This slideshow illustrates what admissions officers are looking for in application essays and how to write for them.
- Video Essays – What is a video admissions essay and what should you include in it?
- Admission Essay Tips – This list of the tips covers all the key points for writing a strong admission essay.
- Subject Ideas (PDF) – Browse through a list of essay topic ideas, along with further tips and resources.
- A Guide to Video Essays – Learn about video essays and watch a few different examples.
- What Colleges Want to Hear (PDF) – This quick guide breaks down the main points and areas that colleges want to discover in students’ admission essays.
- Application Essay Do’s and Don’ts (PDF) – Find out which topics to avoid in your essay, and what to do to strengthen it.
- Essay Readers Chime In – College admission staff who sift through thousands of letters have compiled a list of essay-writing tips for students.