Common Mistakes in English Grammar Tenses

by Elissa Hansen
A willingness to be corrected helps native as well as non-native English speakers overcome tense errors.

A willingness to be corrected helps native as well as non-native English speakers overcome tense errors.

The English language has a more complex tense system than many languages do, and it can be difficult for non-native and even native speakers to master. Several common errors in English grammar stem from the way that English conjugates verb tense -- that is, the way it changes verbs to communicate past, present and future action.

Multiple Past-Tense Markers

In English, when a sentence discusses a past event, the sentence only needs one word to show that the event is in the past. The sentence “I went home,” for example, only includes one past-tense verb: “went” is the past tense of the verb “go.” But if you ask the speaker, “Did you go home?” the past tense leaps from the verb “go” to the auxiliary verb “do.” Using two past-tense markers instead of one is a common mistake in tense formation, as in the question, “Did you went home?” Here, both “go” and “do” are in past tense, but only “do” should be.

Incorrect Tense With a Temporal Adverb

Whereas some languages use temporal adverbs like “yesterday” and “tomorrow” with the present tense to describe a past or future action, English uses the past tense with those adverbs. “Yesterday I played,” for example, is correct. A common error is using the present tense with these adverbs: The incorrect sentence, *“Tomorrow I play” should be, “Tomorrow I will play.”

Incorrect Tense With Irregular Verbs

English uses many irregular verbs in which a central vowel changes when the tense shifts to the past. For example, “swim/swam/swum,” “drink/drank/drunk” and “catch/caught/caught” are the present tense, past tense and past participles for the verbs “swim,” “drink” and “catch.” Common mistakes with irregular verbs include conjugating the verbs with the regular past-tense ending -ed -- to get, for example, the incorrect sentence, “I swimmed yesterday,” instead of “I swam yesterday” -- and substituting the past participle for the past tense, for instance, “I drunk all of your orange juice this morning” instead of the correct sentence “I drank all of your orange juice this morning.”

Incorrect Sequence of Tenses

The tense that English uses for verbs in subordinate clauses depends on the tense of the main verb. This connection is especially important and easily confused when you’re reporting someone else’s speech. For example, if your daughter says, “I have cleaned the house,” you might tell your spouse, “She says that she has cleaned the house.” In this sentence, the main verb “says” is present tense and the subordinate verb “has cleaned” is in present perfect tense. If you get home and find the house a mess, you might exclaim, “But she said that she had cleaned the house!” Here, because the main verb “said” is past tense, the subordinate verb must change to the past perfect “had cleaned.” A common error in the sequence of tenses arises when speakers neglect to shift the subordinate verb: For example, “She said that she has cleaned the house" is incorrect.


  • A Guide to English Grammar: Conjugation of Verbs Volume IV; Bessie Brooks

About the Author

Elissa Hansen has more than nine years of editorial experience, and she specializes in academic editing across disciplines. She teaches university English and professional writing courses, holding a Bachelor of Arts in English and a certificate in technical communication from Cal Poly, a Master of Arts in English from the University of Wyoming, and a doctorate in English from the University of Minnesota.

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