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SAT Tense

Teacher/Instructor Eva Holtz
Eva Holtz

Harvard University
Perfect scores on the SAT and 4 SATIIs

Eva is a certified admissions counselor and the founder of PrepPoint, a premier test prep company in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In this episode we're going to talk about a topic you're probably familiar with and that's tense. Now as you probably know tense describes when something happened and the basics are pretty straight forward for instance I'm going to the store is in the future, I went to the store is in the past but we're going to talk about some more advanced concepts that come up on the SAT and the tense problems come up all throughout the writing section but it is worth knowing they don't come up a lot so you should be keeping an eye out but there won't be a ton of those problems.
Now, here are the three rules you should know about tense on the SAT. First up, you need to be consistent with other tenses that appear in the sentence and time cues that appear in the sentence. Next you need to use the present perfect appropriately and don't worry we'll talk about what that means and lastly you need to use the past perfect appropriately. Let's look at those three rules in more detail.
So the first rule associated with tense is really simple; it's just that you need to be consistent within the sentence. So first up don't flip-flop between tenses in the sentence for no good reason; here's an example. 'Hester bears an illegitimate child, and as a result the townspeople tormented her.' Now it's okay to use present tense when describing what happened in literature like 'Hester bears' and it's also okay to use past tense like the 'townspeople tormented her' but what's not okay is to go back and forth so this sentence on the SAT would be a wrong answer choice for that reason.
The other rule about being consistent is that you need to pay attention to the time cues that appear in your sentence so for instance this sentence is not okay; 'At the end of the twentieth century, Internet access is still a rare commodity.' Now if you're not paying attention, it's easy to miss but the end of the twentieth century is the late 1900s so that's in the past which means we have to use past tense and say 'Internet access was still a rare commodity.' So in brief be consistent, don't change tenses for no reason and use tenses that make sense given the time cues in the sentence. Next up you need to use present perfect properly, now this is going to be a little more complicated: let's start with what present perfect is. It has two ingredients; the word has or have depending on the subject and a past participle.
Now you can check out the bonus material to get really comfortable with what a past participle is but the short version is, it's a word that ends in 'ed' a lot of the time if it's regular and sounds right with has or have, I'll give you some examples. I have walked, she has talked and of course there are regulars like I have run, she has eaten and so on. So when you use present perfect, you're going to need one of these words has or have and then a past participle and like I said you may want to study those to get more comfortable with them. Now once you know what present perfect is, here's how you use it in a sentence; if an action started in the past and it continues into the present, you use present perfect so here's a little diagram, if it started in the past then continues to the present you need to use present perfect.
This will all make way more sense with examples so let's look at three. The sentence down here is; 'Heinz produces its famous ketchup since 1869' so it started in the past, it started producing here in 1869 and it continues producing all the way into the present, because of that we know we're dealing with present perfect. So we can't say 'Heinz produces' we have to use the new construction; 'Heinz has,' that's our has or have word and then produced, that's our past participle and that's the right sentence. Another thing I'll point out is that the word since appears, the word since is a really common indicator that you need to use present perfect so keep that in mind as a red flag.
Let's look at two more examples with present perfect; 'Since I was a child, I'm obsessed with trains.' Now since is again that word that often indicates present perfect and what started in the past was the obsession, started here and lo and behold it's continued into the present so instead of saying 'since I was a child, I am obsessed,' we have to say 'I either has or have, makes more sense to say I have and then a past participle and this one's not regular you have to say I have been. 'Since I was a child, I have been obsessed with trains,' that's the right sentence.
Last example; Milo began karate lessons a decade ago and continued to improve dramatically. Now we again have to use present perfect but there's no since, it's a little more subtle so what happened is that he began his lessons in the past and he continues to do karate up until the present day and he's been improving the whole time. So they way we fix a sentence by using present perfect is; 'Milo began karate lessons a decade ago and has continued' and we actually get to leave the word continued here because it already is a past participle as well as being the past tense, it doubles, free points.
Okay so let's look at the other thing, that's very similar to this, past perfect. Past perfect has a similar construction, instead of being has or have plus the past participle it's had plus the past participle and in addition to having a slightly different format it also has a slightly different usage. That is, if something happened even earlier than something else in the past, you have to use past perfect so let's look at the time line. If something happened in the past and something happened even before that, then you use past perfect to express that relationship and again examples will probably help so let's look at three.
'When my audition was finally granted, I already studied for years.' Now what happened in the past was that the audition was granted but something happened even before that, the person had studied. So we don't just say I already studied, we say I had already studied and we know that's past perfect because we have the word had and we have the past participle studied and the reason we don't have to cross out the verb and replace it is that it happens to be the case of the past tense which is already there, is also the same as the past participle. So had studied, past perfect it works.
Next example; 'Did you know that much of New York City was built where a landfill was?' Now this may sound right to you naturally but it's actually wrong and here's why, in the past New York City was built but even before that, something else was going on and that was that a landfill existed. So instead of saying was for the thing that happened even further in the past, we have to use past perfect so was, believe it or not has to be the word had plus a past participle which is been. The correct sentence is believe it or not 'Did you know much of New York City was built where landfill had been? And last example of past perfect; 'By the age of 25, Mozart wrote dozens of compositions. So something first of all happened in the past and that was that Mozart was 25 years old at one point and even before that he had done writing further in the past before the age of 25. So we don't say by the age of 25 Mozart wrote dozens of compositions and merely use the past tense but we use the past perfect, he had 'cause we have to use had and we have to use a past participle, 'he had written.' So now that we've covered these three concepts, let's apply them to an SAT problem.
So here we are with an SAT problem that you'd expect to see on the identifying errors portion of the test. Now to approach this problem you want to start by reading them to yourself, not too loudly so the person next to you stares at you and gives you the evil eye and just see if you can notice right away what's wrong and if not go back through piece by piece and see which piece if any has a problem with it, let's do that now. 'Since my braces were removed last year to reveal my newly perfect teeth, I smile constantly. Now it may or may not jump out at you but the problem is D, D has a problem with it so D is going to be the answer we pick but let's talk about why.
First of all we have the word since and since often indicates that we're dealing with present perfect and it impacts this verb here. Since the braces were removed in the past, so in the past, get the braces off and moving in to the present, what is the action that's been happening between the past and the present, it's I have which is the has or have word and smiled which is the past participle. You could also write I have been smiling, that would also have the past participle been either way solves this problem. Because this question type is the way it is, you don't have to decide whether it's I have smiled or have been smiling, both of which fix the problem. You just have to say you know what, this doesn't work it needs to be present perfect. Nothing else is wrong with the sentence; 'the braces were removed' sounds fine, 'to reveal' also sounds fine and 'newly perfect teeth' might not be the way you talk but it does sound fine in writing especially stuck up SAT writing and so the answer's D, we need to use present perfect and since helps us realize that. Let's sum up what we have covered so far.
So to recap, here are the three rules about tense that we've covered in this episode. First of all, be consistent, watch out for time cues in the sentence for instance 'at the turn of the last century' and also be attentive to other tense in the sentence. If the sentence is using present tense or past tense you want to be consistent with that. Also use the present perfect properly; to be clear it's constructed with either has or have and a past participle and if you're not comfortable with that, that's totally normal check out the bonus materials until you do become more comfortable and when you do use present perfect, remember it's for something that started in the past and has continued up to the present.
Lastly there's past perfect that you need to use appropriately and that's constructed in a similar way but instead of 'has and have plus a past participle', you use 'had plus the past participle' and you use past perfect for something that started even further in the past but at another event that was in the past and the good news is, this is confusing but number one you do have the bonus materials. You can recap until you're comfortable and number two, it's not the biggest topic to come up on the SAT so it's worth putting some time in but it's not worth worrying about too much and that's tense on the SAT.