The old saying goes, timing is everything. How, then, can you give your readers an accurate sense of timing? In this case, verb tense is everything.
When writing any business document, strive for consistency in verb tense. Unexpected shifts can disorient readers. If you find a sentence that uses more than one verb tense, change the tenses to match, or make sure that each tense is used intentionally.
How can I avoid unacceptable shifts in verb tense?
Basic verb tenses indicate past, present, or future action. More complex verb tenses indicate action that happened over a period of time in the past, that began in the past and continues now, that is presently ongoing, that will happen over a period of time in the future, and so on.
In general, use same-tense verbs in a sentence or paragraph. Remove unneeded shifts in tense, paying special attention to helping verbs.
Senator Troutman introduced legislation that had targeted discretionary spending.
(The tense shifts from past to past perfect for no reason.)
Senator Troutman introduced legislation that targeted discretionary spending.
(Both verbs are past tense.)
Our inspector will check the flashing and replaced the damaged shingles.
(The tense shifts from the future to the past. Did the inspector already replace the shingles?)
Our inspector will check the flashing and replace the damaged shingles.
(Both verbs use the future tense.)
When is it okay to shift verb tenses?
On occasion, a shift in tense is permissible or even necessary. For example, a report on an event that has ended might shift to an analysis of future implications. When verbs do not match in tense, check that the shift is purposeful and the message is clear.
The Department of Transportation completed the roadwork last September, but the bulk of the expense comes from this year’s budget.
(The Department of Transportation did the work in the past but will draw most of the funds from the current budget.)
This graduation certificate honors your accomplishments, and you worked hard to achieve it.
(The honor is in the present, but the work was in the past.)