Five Questions to Ask a Verb: Straightforward Steps to Identify Verb Tense

When your students read a story, they can probably tell whether the action is in the past, present, or future. But do they have the skills to analyze the precise meaning of the verbs they read? In this talk, accompanied by a whiteboard demonstration, Dr. Burkholder shares five logical steps that will provide the precise tense of any verb phrase.

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I have probably used this close to 20 years now.

One of the things that I’ve used in class is “Recognizing Verb Tense.”

They need to already be able to identify past, present, and future tense. So students need to know that. I give them five steps, and those five steps will help them to determine what the verb tense is, including the progressive and the perfect and the emphatic.

So let’s try the five steps that Carol gives us. We’ll start with this sentence. “In spite of his eagerness, Jacob did feel a shiver of fear as he entered the tunnel.”

The first step is to find the verb. And I tell them to find that verb, know what their verb phrase is.

So step one is, “Where is the verb?” And the verb phrase is “did feel.”

And determine if the first word in that phrase is past, present, or future. It doesn’t make any difference what the sense in the sentence is, because that actually messes them up a little bit. If they look at something that’s a perfect tense, it makes it look like it’s going to be a past tense. But if they have the word “have,” or “has,” like “has gone,” when you look at the sentence it sounds like it’s going to be something past. But “have” and “has” are always present tense. So if they look only at the first word, that determines the past, present or future. And I get them to write that down, because that’s the first thing you’re going to have is that past, present or future.

Step two: “Is the first word of the verb phrase, past, present or future?” The first word is “did,” which is a past tense. And so we write down “past.”

Step number three then is to look for a form of “have”: “have,” “has,” or “had.” Look for the form of “have,” plus a past participle. And if they have that past participle and a form of “have,” then it’s a perfect tense, and they can write that down.

Step three: “Does the verb phrase contain a form of have plus the past participle? If yes, add perfect.” But in this case it does not.

Step number four. If they have a form of “be”: “am,” “is,” “are,” “was,” “were,” “be,” “being,” “been,” and a present participle, which is the -ing, if they have that, it’s a progressive tense.

So we continue. Step four: “Does the verb phrase contain a form of ‘be,’ plus a present participle? If yes, add progressive.” But again, this is not the case.

And then the last one is, step number five, is to look for a form of “do” and a main verb. So, “I did do my homework,” is a form of “do”—the “did”, past form of “do.” And “do,” in that case, the second “do,” is the main verb, and that makes it an emphatic.

Step five: “Does the verb phrase contain a form of “do” + the main verb? If yes, add “emphatic.” And in this case it does, so we add “emphatic.”

And so with those five steps, if they can identify past, present and future, they know what a past participle is, and they know what a present participle is, they can identify any verb tense. It will always give them the right verb tense.

Let’s try another sentence. “He had been planning this trip for a long time.”

So step one: the verb is “had been planning.”

Step two: the first word of the phrase is “had.” That’s a past tense. So we write down “past.”

Step three: we see that the verb phrase does contain a form of “have,” plus the past participle. So we write down “perfect.”

Step four: does the verb phrase contain a form of “be,” plus the present participle? Yes, it does. So we add “progressive.”

Step five: does the verb phrase contain a form of “do”? No.

So the tense in this sentence is past perfect progressive.

It’s just a logical process. And I see students in tests writing down little reminders in the margin of the test for the steps. The more logical student will like these steps.

In doing the tenses, you start out with past, present, or future. If you have a perfect, that comes next. And if you have progressive, that’s the third one. You may jump right from present to progressive, but you may have a present perfect progressive, and that’s the order. So the steps are in the order that you would identify, that you would label the tense.

Sometimes they’ll say, “Oh, there’s a form of ‘have.’ It’s a perfect tense.” And they’ll want to put that down first. Well, no, you have to decide on your past, present, or future first, and then go to the perfect.

They always blame me for, you know, “Grammar doesn’t make any sense. It’s not logical.” But you give them some clues like this, and it does give some logic to it.

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