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Chris Lele

SAT Verb Tense — Grammar Fundamentals

Verb Tense on SAT Writing

Consistency. That’s the first thing you have to remember about verb tense. If you are telling a story about the time in the 7th grade where you got lost hiking in a thunderstorm, don’t suddenly shift to the present tense.

While that may sound pretty straightforward, when the topic is not that familiar and the SAT is the one writing about, it is easier to lose track of the proper tenses. Sometimes, tenses also shift from past to present, and vice versa. It all depends on context.

19th century musicians had grueling practice sessions to help them master the rigors of their respective instrument. Today, instrumentalists must also practice many hours a day. Some argued that, with the “make-it-or-break-it” competition musicians must face today, practice sessions are more grueling than at any other point in history.

B) had argued
C) would have argued
D) argue

The context here compares musicians of the 19th century to musicians today. Notice how the passage describes the 19th century musicians using the past tense and how it switches to present tense to describe today’s musicians. Notice how the part being tested, “argued”, is in the past tense. Notice, too, how the “some” doing the arguing are discussing practice sessions today. Therefore, we want present tense. Answer D).

The test can get a little more complicated by asking you to differentiate between present perfect and present tense.

Since the 6th grade, I have kept a daily dairy.

SAT level

Ever since the advent of moving pictures, directors have been refining film techniques.

The test wants you to be aware of the fact that whenever you have an action that started in the past but continues today, you should use the present perfect. To make that clearer the test will almost always through in the word “since”.



“Mood” is a strange word choice to describe a grammatical subtlety, and for that reason, I think it turns many students off (and puts them in a bad mood, as it were).

What we mean by mood in grammar-speak is whether the verb is a command (“imperative mood”), a question (“interrogative mood”), or conditionality (“subjunctive mood”).


“Imperative mood”

The way this is going to show up on a test is in the form of a verb. “Command words”, or words such as “request that”, “order that”, “require that” are followed by “be + verb participle”.

The teacher demanded that the hyperactive be seated the entire class.

He requested that she be present at the meeting.


“Subjunctive mood”

The subjunctive mood implies conditionality, in other words a hypothetical, i.e., something that isn’t and can’t be reality. To show this, we change the verb “was” to “were”. If the verb is already “were”, then we just leave it (“Were we space aliens, we could travel the cosmos”).

Were she responsible for the break-in, she would not have an airtight alibi.

If I were president of the United States, I would make “taco Tuesdays” a national holiday.

Both of these examples are in the “subjunctive mood” because they describe something that couldn’t possibly be. It’s like saying “imagine if”. (Basically, I’m implying there is no way I’d ever be president of the United States—sorry, no “taco Tuesdays”). When something is possible, then you don’t need to change the verb “to were”.

Notice how I didn’t mention the “interrogative mood”. That’s because nothing changes with the verb; therefore, there’s no easy way for the SAT to test that the interrogative mood is being used.

In general, “mood” is so rare on the test that I think it showed up in one question of the four practice tests in the College Board book. So if you have to skip one section of the grammar review, this might be the one.



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About Chris Lele

Chris Lele is the GRE and SAT Curriculum Manager (and vocabulary wizard) at Magoosh Online Test Prep. In his time at Magoosh, he has inspired countless students across the globe, turning what is otherwise a daunting experience into an opportunity for learning, growth, and fun. Some of his students have even gone on to get near perfect scores. Chris is also very popular on the internet. His GRE channel on YouTube has over 10 million views. You can read Chris's awesome blog posts on the Magoosh GRE blog and High School blog! You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook!

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