New SAT Grammar Study Guide: Verb Tenses

Verbs are essential parts of sentences. They are what gives us all the action in everything we say or write. Unfortunately, precisely because they are so essential, verbs can be complex, and there are several pitfalls we can fall into when we use them. One of these, using the wrong verb tense, appears pretty regularly among the commonly tested SAT grammar rules.


What are verb tenses?

Tenses are forms of verbs that we use to tell us when something happened or was done. Without them, telling each other stories would be very frustrating because it would never be clear what was happening when or how events were related.


The 12 tenses

Here’s a quick run-down of the twelve English tenses, using the verb “to shake” as our example.


Tense NamePastPresentFuture
Simpleshookshake(s)will shake
Progressivewas shakingis shakingwill be shaking
Perfecthad shakenhas/have shakenwill have shaken
Perfect Progressivehad been shakinghas/have been shakingwill have been shaking


Simple tense

The simple tense is the plain, everyday way of using verbs. This is the default whenever you are talking about something that happened yesterday, is happening today, or will happen tomorrow.

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Example 1:

  • The mailman ran from the dog.
  • The mailman runs from the dog.
  • The mailman will run from the dog.


Progressive tense

The progressive form of verbs is used when we want to show that something was/is/will be happening for some period of time or while something else is going on.

Example 2:

  • The dancer was dancing to the music.
  • The dancer is dancing to the music.
  • The dancer will be dancing to the music.

In these examples, the “dancing” is progressing over time while the music plays. The main verb always ends with “-ing”, while the helping verb “to be” does all the work by changing its tense to show when the action is taking place.


Perfect tense

The perfect tenses are the ones that give people all kinds of trouble. They are useful to describe actions that are taking place over periods of time relative to other events. What does this mean? Let’s take a look.

Example 3:

  • Before taking his driving test, Barney had practiced driving only twice.
  • After failing his driving test, Barney has practiced driving every day.
  • By the time he takes his next driving test, Barney will have practiced driving many times.

You’ll notice that in perfect tense, the main verb is always in its past participle. Just as in progressive tense, the part that changes is the helping verb. In this example, which tells the story of a lesson learned, Barney “had practiced” in the stretch of time before his driving test. The helping verb “had” indicates past tense, while the main verb is “practiced”. For the present perfect, using “has” or “have” for singular or plural subjects, respectively, tells the reader that this action started at some point in the past and is still happening. Future perfect relates an action to a moment in the future. In this case, Barney hasn’t yet practiced many times, but he will have by the time he takes his test again.

The perfect tense that students dislike the most is the past perfect. It can sometimes be confusing to know whether to use the simple past or the past perfect and they can occasionally sound interchangeable. Luckily, the SAT is predictable. When it wants you to choose the past perfect tense, it will provide you with some starting or ending point for the action, such as the phrases at the beginning of the Barney examples. If there is no such context (check the sentences around the question!) then you can usually use the simple past tense.


Perfect progressive tense

This final tense is a fusion of the perfect and progressive tenses. It includes the helping verb “to have” from the perfect tenses and both the “to be” verb and the “-ing” ending of the progressive tense. If you are comfortable with these tenses individually, the perfect progressive tense shouldn’t be too difficult.

Example 4:

  • By 10 o’clock, I had been waiting for an hour.
  • It’s 10 o’clock, and I have been waiting for an hour.
  • At 10 o’clock, I will have been waiting for an hour.

Using 10 o’clock as a reference point, it’s easy to see how this tense works. The first sentence is written by someone who is no longer waiting. In the second sentence, the speaker has already been waiting for an hour, and is still waiting, while in the third sentence, the speaker is in the middle of a potentially hour-long wait.

When it comes to using the tenses correctly, context is incredibly important. When you are faced with a question on the SAT that provides several options for verb tenses, hunt for clues in the sentences around the selection. When the action is clearly related to other events in the paragraph or passage, chances are good that you need something other than the simple tense.

Give yourself a pat on the back for making it through this review of verbs. Now go see if you can use them in your own writing—and then check out more info about the new SAT from Magoosh!

For the ultimate guide on acing SAT grammar, make sure to check out our 50+ SAT Grammar Rules You Need to Know.


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  • Elizabeth Peterson

    Elizabeth holds a degree in Psychology from The College of William & Mary. While there, she volunteered as a tutor and discovered she loved the personal connection she formed with her students. She has now been helping students with test prep and schoolwork as a professional tutor for over six years. When not discussing grammar or reading passages, she can be found trying every drink at her local coffee shop while writing creative short stories and making plans for her next travel adventure!

By the way, Magoosh can help you study for both the SAT and ACT exams. Click here to learn more!

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