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.

Getting ready to take the GMAT? Check out one of our many free GMAT resources to get a jump start on your GMAT prep. And as always, be sure to follow us on FacebookYouTubeGoogle+, and Twitter for more helpful tips like this one!

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!

Is It Incorrect to Use Multiple Verb Tenses in a Sentence?

Quarter Wit, Quarter WisdomSome GMAT test-takers wonder whether it is grammatically correct to use multiple tenses in a single sentence. Today we will discuss the cases in which this is acceptable and those in which this is not. The bottom line is this: there is no restriction on what tenses we can use and mix within a sentence, as long as they are appropriate for the context.

Take a look at this example sentence:

I have heard that Mona left Manchester this morning, and has already arrived in London, where she will be for the next three weeks.

Here, we have present perfect tense, simple past tense and simple future tense all in the same sentence, but they all make sense together to create a logical sequence of events.

The confusion over using multiple verb tenses in one sentence probably arises because we have heard that we need to maintain verb tense consistency. These two things are different.

Tense Consistency – We do not switch one tense to another unless the timing of the action demands that we do. We do not switch tenses when there is no time change for the actions.

Let’s take a look at some examples to understand this:

Example 1: During the match, my dad stood up and waved at me.

These two actions (“stood” and “waved”) happen at the same time and hence, need to have the same tense. This sentence could take place in the present or future tense too, but both verbs will still need to take on the same tense. For example:

Example 2: During my matches, my dad stands up and waves at me.
Example 3: During the match tomorrow, my dad will stand up and wave at me.

On the other hand, a sentence such as…

Example 4: During the match, my dad stood up and waves at me.

This sentence is grammatically incorrect. Since both actions (“stood” and “waves”) happen at the same time, we need them to be in the same tense, as shown in the variations of this sentence above. Consider this case, however:

Example 5: My dad reached for the sandwich after he had already eaten a whole pizza.

Here, the two actions (“reached” and “eaten”) happen at different times in the past, so we use both the simple past and past perfect tenses. The shift in tense is correct in this context.

Takeaway: The tenses of verbs in a sentence must be consistent when the actions happen at the same time. When dealing with actions that occur at different points in time, however, we can use multiple tenses in the same sentence.

Let’s look at an official GMAT question now to see how multiple tenses can be a part of the same sentence:

For the farmer who takes care to keep them cool, providing them with high-energy feed, and milking them regularly, Holstein cows are producing an average of 2,275 gallons of milk each per year.

(A) providing them with high-energy feed, and milking them regularly, Holstein cows are producing
(B) providing them with high-energy feed, and milked regularly, the Holstein cow produces
(C) provided with high-energy feed, and milking them regularly, Holstein cows are producing
(D) provided with high-energy feed, and milked regularly, the Holstein cow produces
(E) provided with high-energy feed, and milked regularly, Holstein cows will produce

This is a very tricky question. Let’s first shortlist our options based on the obvious errors.

The non-underlined part of the sentence uses the pronoun “them” to refer to the cows, so using “the Holstein cow” (singular) as the antecedent will be incorrect. The antecedent must be “Holstein cows” (plural) – this means answer choices B and D are out.

Also, we know for sure that “provide” and “milk” are parallel elements in the sentence, so they should take the same verb tense. Hence, answer choice C is also out.

Let’s look at A now. If we assume this option is correct, “providing” and “milking” act as modifiers to “keep them cool”. That certainly does not make sense since “providing with high energy feed” and “milking regularly” are not ways of keeping cows cool.

This means the correct answer is E, but we need to see how.

For the farmer who takes care to keep them cool, provided with high-energy feed, and milked regularly, Holstein cows will produce an average of 2,275 gallons of milk each per year.

Let’s break down the sentence:

For the farmer who takes care to keep them…

  • cool,
  • provided with high-energy feed,
  • milked regularly,

…Holstein cows will produce an average of 2,275 gallons of milk each per year.

Note that we use two different tenses here: “For the farmer who takes care…” and “cows will produce…”. The word “takes” is the present tense while “will produce” is the future, but that does not make this sentence incorrect. The context of the author could very well justify the use of the future tense. Perhaps the farmers have obtained Holstein cows recently, and hence, will see the produce of 2,275 gallons in the future, only.

A shift in the tense certainly doesn’t make the sentence incorrect. When you’re presented with multiple verbs in various tenses in a problem, check to determine whether the verbs convey a logical sequence of events.

Getting ready to take the GMAT? Check out one of our many free GMAT resources to get a jump start on your GMAT prep. And as always, be sure to follow us on FacebookYouTubeGoogle+, and Twitter for more helpful tips like this one!

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!