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Lucas Fink

Verb Tenses on the SAT

Are you a native English speaker? If you are, then forget the SAT for a moment and just be grateful that you don’t have to learn our language, because it’s riddled with some really complicated verb patterns. Whereas some languages are happy enough to live simpler lives and only use a few patterns for past, present, and future, English has flashy tastes and likes to overindulge. Take for example, this sentence:

That stadium will have been being built for three years come May.

There are five words in that verb construction. Five. It’s like a gaudy necklace of helping verbs. And they’re mostly just there to show when the verb happens.

The good news is that you don’t need to know the names or explanations of English tenses for the SAT. And there’s no bad news! Instead, there’s actually some more good news.

You already know which tenses are right in SAT writing.

To be fair, that’s only really true if you are a native speaker. If you’re not, then I won’t lie: you do have an extra obstacle to overcome.

But the point is that for English speakers, the different times that different tenses signify are already hard-wired into your thought patterns. All you have to do on the SAT is make sure the times given in the sentence are consistent and logical. Any time you see a verb underlined in writing multiple choice, you should check that the tense given feels natural with the times that the rest of the sentence presents. Do you smell anything fishy in this example?

Ernest Hemingway’s short stories, including the favorite “Indian Camp,” continue to be highly influential pieces of fiction despite the fact that they have been written over fifty years ago.

If you do, then you might be onto something. It might be rotten.

The time “over fifty years ago” sounds pretty strange when put next to “have been written.” You don’t need to know why; you just need to know it’s wrong. When you see that verb underlined, think twice about the time it refers to.

If there’s a sequence of events, make sure their tenses put them in the right logical order. “Having just been swimming, Maria smelled like chlorine” makes much more sense than “Having just been swimming, Maria had smelled like chlorine.”

 Speaking of swimming, there’s something else you need to watch out for.


Swim, swam… swammed?

Each English verb has a few basic forms. Kids who learn English in other countries can often rattle off lists like do/did/done and eat/ate/eaten faster than we native speakers can. And there are some verbs, like swim, which we get a little confused about at times. Take a look and make sure you know these sets.

  • Swim/swam/swum
  • Ring/rang/rung
  • Forget/forgot/forgotten
  • Forgive/forgave/forgiven
  • Lay/laid/laid
  • Rise/rose/risen
  • Swing/swung/swung

There are countless others, most of which you wouldn’t think twice about. But some of them might have you making things up in conversation (e.g., “I would’ve swang if I’d known he was going to keep throwing strikes.”) that the SAT just won’t stand for.

Preparing for SAT writing multiple choice is all about getting into the habit of looking for specific problems associated with the type of word that’s underlined. If you see a verb underlined, look for one of the problems above.


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About Lucas Fink

Lucas is the teacher behind Magoosh TOEFL. He’s been teaching TOEFL preparation and more general English since 2009, and the SAT since 2008. Between his time at Bard College and teaching abroad, he has studied Japanese, Czech, and Korean. None of them come in handy, nowadays.

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