Writer’s Corner – The Basics and Beyond: Verb Tenses, Aspects & Conditionals

By Tenielle Fordyce-Ruff

Every semester I cover a very basic concept with my students when we turn to writing statements of facts: readers tend to prefer reading about facts in chronological order.  I also cover another very basic concept: legal writing shifts tenses to compare facts from past cases to the facts from your client.

Of course, this always leads to a discussion about verbs and their tenses and aspects.  We all tend to get the very basics, but things can get a little muddled when we move beyond simple tenses.  Yet understanding how to express both when an action takes place and extra details, such as the length of time the action occurred, which actions happened first, or whether a past action has an impact on the present is vitally important to help the reader correctly understand what happened when.

This month, we will revisit verb tense and aspect.[i]  Then, we will discuss conditional sentences to move beyond the basics.

The Basics: Tense

In English, there are three divisions in time: present, past, and future.  When we need to orient readers as to when action took place, we use verb tense: present, past, and future.

Compare these simple sentences:

            I write about verbs.

            I wrote about verbs.

            I will write about verbs.

In each sentence, I am doing the same action, but you know from the shift in tense when the action happens. But, in addition to tense, each verb has an aspect.

The Basics: Aspect

Each verb also has an aspect: simple, continuous, perfect, and perfect continuous.  The aspect of a verb is what adds details about the action beyond time.  There are four aspects: simple, continuous, perfect, and perfect continuous.

A verb with a simple aspect indicates actions that occur at a point in time or on a repeated or habitual basis.  A verb with a continuous aspect indicates that the action takes place over time; the action is either ongoing or will take a while for completion.  A verb with a perfect aspect indicates actions, either completed or ongoing related to other points in time.  Finally, the perfect continuous aspect is a combination of the perfect and continuous aspects.  It indicates an action that happens over time and continues into the present or happened over time before another action.

Putting Tense & Aspect Together

To ensure the reader understands the details about action, we need to put both tense and aspect together.  This leads to 12 different verb forms.  I’ve put them together in this handy chart.  And, as I am determined to meet my step goals everyday this autumn, I’ve using my activity in the example.

SimpleI walked yesterday.I walk every day.I will walk tomorrow.
PerfectI had walked before.I have walked too much today.I will have walked over 50 miles by the end of the week.
ContinuousI was walking when my shoelace broke.I am (not) walking right now.I will be walking every morning this week.
Perfect ContinuousI had been walking only a short time when my shoelace broke.I have now been walking for over three weeks.I will have been walking for over three months to meet my goal.
Beyond the Basics: Conditionals

Of course, we sometimes also need to discuss actions that are only possibilities or imaginary.  That’s where conditionals come in.  We use conditionals to express that something is true or will happen only if something else happens.  In other words, we use conditionals to express that certain conditions must be present for something else to be true or to happen.

Complete conditional sentences contain an “if” clause and a consequence.  For example, I would stop working if I won the lottery. There are four types of conditional sentences in English: Zero, First, Second, and Third.

Zero conditional sentences express general truths rather than specific instances.  They are formed with the if-clause with a present simple verb, and a main clause with a present simple verb.

            If you don’t brush your teeth, you get cavities.

It’s important to remember in zero conditional sentences to use the present simple for both verbs.  A common mistake is to use a simple future tense for the second: When people don’t brush their teeth, their health will sufferNote, too, that you can use either if or when in zero conditional sentences.

First conditional sentences talk about the future.  We use these sentences when something is likely, although not guaranteed to happen in the future.  These are formed with the if-clause with a simple present verb, and a main clause with a simple future verb.

            If you sleep, you will perform better.

Two common errors in first conditional sentences: 1.) using a simple future verb in both clauses (If you will sleep, you will perform better.) and 2.) using the simple present in the main clause (If you sleep, you perform better.)

Second conditional sentences are used for imaginary or completely unrealistic situations.  Those that likely will not happen in the future.  These are formed with the if-clause with a simple past verb, and main clause with a modal present verb, like would, could, should, or might.[ii]

            If I won the lottery, I might move to Europe.

The most common mistakes here are using the present simple in the if-clause or using a modal in the main clause that expresses the result is likely to happen.  If I win the lottery, I might move to Europe.  If I won the lottery, I will move to Europe.

Finally, third conditional sentences express that the present would be different if the past had been different.  These are formed with the if-clause with a past perfect verb, and main clause with modal simple past.

If you had told me you wanted to learn about conditions, I would have written about them earlier.

Make sure you don’t put the modal in the if-clause; that’s incorrect.  If you would have told me you wanted to learn about conditions, I would have written about them earlier.   Likewise, make sure the verb in the main clause isn’t present: If you had told me you wanted to learn about conditions, I could write about them.

And, to help make all this easier to digest, here is another handy chart:

 FormUse When
ZeroIf-clause + simple present + simple presenta certain result is guaranteed or for general truths
FirstIf-clause + simple present + simple futurethe result of the if-clause is likely to happen in the future
SecondIf-clause + simple past + modal present verbthe result is imaginary or completely unrealistic
ThirdIf-clause + past perfect + modal simple pastthe present would be different if the past had been different

Tenielle Fordyce-Ruff is a member of the Idaho State Bar and an Associate Clinical Professor of Law at Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law Arizona State University.

[i] I first covered verb tense and aspect in 2012.  Tenielle Fordyce-Ruff, Verbs: The Basics on Tense & Voice, 55-Aug Advocate (Idaho) 48.

[ii] You can learn more about modals in my August 2013 column: Tenielle Fordyce-Ruff, Back to Basics II: Parts of Speech, 56- Aug Advocate (Idaho) 68.