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Test PrepACTEnglishVerb Tense & Usage

ACT English Skill Review: Verb Tense & Usage

Aside from subject/verb agreement (covered in a different Skill Review), the ACT English test also commonly tests verb tense and verb usage.

Verb Tense

As a general rule, you should use past tense (walked) to write about something that happened in the past, present tense (walks) to write about something that is happening right now, and future tense (will walk) to write about something that hasn’t yet happened. The discussion of tense can get way more complicated, especially when dealing with verb phrases, in which the tense is determined by the helping verb. For example, has walked is present perfect tense, but had walked is past perfect tense. But, for our purposes, the rule to follow is straightforward:

Avoid switching verb tense within your writing.
For example, if you’re telling a story and using past tense, don’t randomly switch to present tense.

Verb Usage

Sometimes you might use the right verb tense and correct subject/verb agreement, but you just use the wrong verb or verb form. Here are a few tips regarding verbs that people sometimes misuse:

  • Lie, sit, and rise are all intransitive verbs and are therefore not followed by a direct object. (I like to lie under the tree.)
  • Lay, set, and raise are transitive and therefore are followed by a direct object. (Set the books on the table.)
  • Shall goes with I and we (I shall go to the movie.) Will goes with everyone else. (She will go to the movie.)
  • Use may when you’re referring to permission. (May I have that pencil?) Use can when you’re referring to ability. (Can you run twelve miles?)
Sometimes people use the wrong form of a verb. For example, a past tense verb (spoke) does not need a helping verb, but a past participle (has spoken) does.

Verb usage can be tough to identify as most of us don’t always speak in the most grammatically correct fashion. This means that something grammatically incorrect can often sound correct. So here, it’s important to remember the following advice:
Sounding right isn’t the same as being right. Refer to the rules when eliminating answers.


Identify the error in the examples below.

Answers and Explanations

  1. The correct answer is B. Started is a past tense verb, whereas comes is present tense. Choices C and D are both wrong because C offers a future tense verb and offers a past tense verb.

  2. The correct answer is G. Here we have to use the intransitive verb lie rather than the transitive verb lay because we don’t have a direct object. Although around may look like a direct object, it tells “where” rather than “what.” Choice I does use lying rather than laying, but it is unnecessarily wordy.


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Don Munce