The Importance of Context in Verb Tenses

Quarter Wit, Quarter WisdomIn our last post, we looked at verb tenses and noted that there is no restriction on how many tenses we can use and mix within a sentence, as long as they are appropriate for the context of the sentence. The problem is that sometimes the context can be a bit complicated to crack. We may think that a tense shift is required when it is actually not.

Let’s take a look at an official GMAT question to better understand this concept:

A recent study has found that within the past few years, many doctors had elected early retirement rather than face the threats of lawsuits and the rising costs of malpractice insurance.

(A) had elected early retirement rather than face
(B) had elected early retirement instead of facing
(C) have elected retiring early instead of facing
(D) have elected to retire early rather than facing
(E) have elected to retire early rather than face

So the first decision point is “have” vs. “had”. What is correct here? We know that we use past perfect tense when there are two actions in the past. So do we have two actions in the past here – “finding” and “electing” – of which, it may seem, “electing” would have happened before “finding?” Sure, we have two actions but here is the catch – we use past perfect only when the previous action takes place completely before the recent past action. Here, we know that “within the past few years” implies the recent years. The study shows that most probably, doctors are still electing early retirement. So the use of past perfect is incorrect here. In this context, we will use present perfect only.

The other error that helps us to arrive at the right answer is lack of parallelism. “retire” and “face” need to be parallel while rising should not be parallel to them because it is a sub-list under “face”.

They elected to retire … rather than face A and B.

A – the threats
B – the rising costs

“[R]ising” is a present participle that is modifying the noun “costs” in the non underlined part. So our verbs “retire” and “face” should not be in the -ing form. Answer choice E satisfies all these criteria and hence is the right answer.

Note that the correct answer uses present perfect for both verbs since the context requires us to.

Let’s look at a rewrite of this question:

A recent article in The Economic Times reported that many recent MBA graduates had decided on taking a job rather than face the uncertainty of entrepreneurship.

(A) had decided on taking a job rather than face
(B) had decided on taking a job instead of facing
(C) have decided to take a job instead of facing
(D) had decided to take a job rather than facing
(E) have decided to take a job rather than face

How does the solution change now? Again we have two verbs “report” and “decide”. The reporting has already happened so the simple past “reported” has been used in the non-underlined part. Which tense will we use with “decide”? Again, the concept is still the same. We are talking about recent MBA graduates and it shows a trend. It is something that is not completely over, hence the use of past perfect is not justified. We should use the present perfect tense only though it may seem a bit counterintuitive since “report” is in the past tense.

“take” and “face” should be parallel to each other so out of (C) and (E), (E) fits. This is the reason making sweeping statements in grammar is dangerous – a lot depends on the context.

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Karishma, a Computer Engineer with a keen interest in alternative Mathematical approaches, has mentored students in the continents of Asia, Europe and North America. She teaches the GMAT for Veritas Prep and regularly participates in content development projects such as this blog!