Verb Tenses and Forms on ACT English | Tips & Strategies


Verb Tenses and Forms on ACT English


The ACT English section repeatedly tests your knowledge of verb tenses and forms; therefore, knowing how to use them properly will be beneficial to your success on ACT.

In this article we will define verbs and tenses commonly tested on the ACT; explain when to use different verb tenses; clarify how to navigate between different verbs and tenses; and demonstrate how ACT tests verbs using real ACT questions.

Verb Tenses You Need to Know

Verb Tenses and Forms on ACT English

The ACT will never test you on the names of common verb tenses. However, you must know when and how to properly use different verb tenses such as present, simple past, present perfect, and past perfect. Let’s talk about each verb tense in more detail.

Verb Tenses and Forms on ACT English – Present

·      Function

The present tense is the verb tense that you use when speaking about things that are currently happening or things that are considered facts. Examples of present tense verbs include: “study,” “learn,” and “describe.”

Present progressive forms by combining the present tense of the verb “to be” with a gerund “ing” form of the word. For example: “am listening,” “are walking,” “is going.” Words like “currently”, “now,” or “at this time” indicate that a present tense of the verb should be used.

·      Construction

We can conjugate every verb in English language. Here is the conjugation of the word “learn” in the present tense.

Singular Plural
I learn We learn
You learn You learn
He/She/It/One Learns They learn


The ACT English will not specifically test the present tense, but you do need to know how to properly conjugate verbs in the present tense for subject-verb agreement questions.

Verb Tenses and Forms on ACT English – Simple Past

·      Function

Generally, any complete sentence that describes an action that happened in the past contains a verb in the past tense.

·      Construction

The simple past tense of a regular verb forms by adding an “ed” to the end of the verb in the present tense. For example, the past tense of “study” is “studied.” The past these of “describe” is “described.” The past tense of “learn” is “learned.” Here is an example:

Correct:           Last week, Jessica studied for her math final.

Many irregular verbs do not follow this construction and their past tense forms irregularly. For example, “go” becomes “went,” “eat” becomes “ate,” and “think” becomes “thought.”

Verb Tenses and Forms on ACT English – Present Perfect

·      Function

We typically use present perfect verb tense for actions that began in the past but are still happening in the present.

·      Construction

The present perfect verb tense forms by combining has/have with the past participle. For regular verbs the past participle forms by adding “ed” to the verb. Examples of present perfect verbs include: “has bought,” “have talked,” “have gone.”

Correct:           For the past week, Jessica has studied for her math final.

The words “for” and “since” can sometimes indicate that the present perfect tense is needed.

Verb Tenses and Forms on ACT English – Past Perfect

·      Function

When the sentence describes two or more completed actions, the past perfect is used for the action that came first.

·      Construction

The past perfect verb tense forms with had + past participle. Examples include “had bought,” “had talked,” and “had gone.” Let’s look at an example that uses past perfect form of the verb correctly.

Correct:           By the time the math final started, Jessica had studied for a week.

Remember, past perfect is used for the action that was completed first. Here, Jessica had studied for the final before the final started, so “had studied” is used in the past perfect verb tense.

Now that we’ve introduced verb tenses commonly tested on ACT English, we have enough information to talk about exactly how the different verb tenses and forms are tested on ACT English.

How Are Verb Tenses and Forms Tested on the ACT?

Verb Tenses and Forms on ACT English

Proper verb tense and form on ACT is determined by the context clues within the sentence or surrounding sentences. Here are the specific ways in which the ACT tests verb tenses and forms.


Verb Tenses and Forms on ACT English

The most common thread between all of the verb tense and form questions on the ACT is consistency, i.e. verb-verb agreement à verbs should stay consistent in tense or form throughout the sentence.  Sentences that start in the past should stay in the past, and sentences that start in the present should stay in the present. Let’s look at an example.

Incorrect:         Bianca studied math and plays soccer.

The verb “studied” is in the past and “plays” is in the present. Both verbs should stay consistent either in the present or the past.

Correct:           Bianca studied math and played soccer.

Correct:           Bianca studies math and plays soccer.

The only time it is possible to shift the tense, and have the sentence still be correct, is when the verbs are in different clauses. For example:

Correct:           The children love their new tree house, which they built themselves.

This sentence is correct because the tense shift occurs in a different clause and the two verbs are occurring at different times.

Here “love” is in present tense, meaning the children love the tree house now. “Built” is in the past tense because it refers to an action that occurred before the present time (they are not still building it).

If the correct verb tense that should be used in a sentence is not clear, use surrounding context clues to maintain consistency.  For example,

Incorrect:        Unsurprisingly, Nicole likes the movie. It was fun.

The shift from the present tense “likes” in the first sentence to the past tense “was” in the second doesn’t make sense in context. The tenses should remain consistent, so the correct version of these sentences should be:

Correct:           Unsurprisingly, Nicole liked the movie. It was fun.

·      Strategy

If a verb is underlined and the answer choices are different tenses of the same verb, look at the surrounding sentences (one or two sentences before and after) for context clues of the proper verb tense. When there are multiple verbs in the same sentence, identify the tenses to make sure they are consistent. If there’s a shift from present to past or vice versa, determine if the shift is appropriate given the context of the sentence in question.

Let’s look at a real ACT example.

·      ACT Example



Explanation: Looking at the answer choices, we can tell that the question is most likely dealing with verb tense because three out of four answer choices are in different verb tenses: “they were,” “they would,” and “they are.”

To determine the correct tense of an underlined verb, look for context clues. You will notice that the verb “continue” in the first sentence and “score” in the first clause of the second sentence are both in present tense. The shift to the past tense “they were” does not make sense in context and to maintain consistency, the underlined verb should be in present tense. We can eliminate choices A and B. Answer choice D is wrong because it unnecessarily adds the infinitive “to be.” The correct answer is C.

·      ACT Example



Explanation: Notice that every answer choice is the same verb in a different tense which means that this is a verb tense question. Let’s look for context clues that will help us maintain consistency. In the first sentence, the verb “encountered” is in the simple past tense and indicates that the action has been completed. The usage of present perfect form of the verb “have borrowed” in the second sentence can only be correct if the action is still happening in the present. The reference to the 1700s indicates that the described action has already been completed.

Once you identify these context clues, you can immediately eliminate all of the answer choices except J which is the correct answer.

·      ACT Example



Explanation: Once again we are dealing with a verb tense question. The only underlined verb is “have” and the answer choices contain verbs in different tenses. Notice that in the prior two ACT examples we found context clues in the same sentence or in the same paragraph as the sentence in question. However, because there are no context clues right next to the underlined word in this example, we have to back up and look at a previous paragraph.

There, we notice verbs “took part” and “conducted” – both in simple past tense and both relating to events that occurred between 1942 and 1945. Based on context, we can assume that the verb “have” must also be in past tense and refers to an action that happened before 1942. The usage rule of past perfect verbs states that the “had” form is used for the verb that describes the action that happened first, therefore, we have to use “had been” here. The correct answer is G.

Would and Will

Verb Tenses and Forms on ACT English

Verb forms of “would” and “will” are tested much less frequently on ACT English than the verb forms we discussed above. However, because these forms are tested occasionally, we will discuss them here.

Rule: use “would” in sentences with past tense verbs and “will” in sentences with present or future tense verbs.

Use future tense for things that either have not yet occurred or could occur in the future.

“Would” and “will” construction:

  • Conditional tense = “would” + verb. For example: would run, would talk
  • Future tense = “will” + verb. For example: will go, will listen.

Time-saving tip: on the ACT answer choices containing “would have” or “will have” are almost always incorrect because they usually create improper tense switches and make sentences too wordy (and ACT likes conciseness). We can use the “would have” construction to describe situations that could have happened but didn’t. The “will have” construction describes an action in the future.

·      Strategy

The only thing you need to know for the ACT related to the conditional and future tense verbs is: if “would have” or “will have” is underlined, assume it is wrong.

Verbs that Don’t Act Like Verbs

Gerunds, infinitives, and participles are all verbs that don’t act like verbs. To refresh your memory:

Gerund – acts like a noun; forms by adding “ing” to the end of the verb.

Infinitive – acts like a noun; forms by adding “to” + verb.

Participle – acts like an adjective; usually forms by adding “ing” or “ed” to the end of the verb. Watch out for irregularly formed participles.

Sometimes the ACT will use one of these types of words in place of a verb or vice versa.

·      Strategy

If a gerund, infinitive, or participle is underlined, make sure that its usage is correct in the context of the entire sentence. Each sentence must express a complete thought.  The trick to these words is that they sometimes turn a sentence into a fragment.

Summary: General Strategies for Verb Questions

·      If a verb is underlined and the answer choices have different tenses, make sure to use appropriate form of the verb

If a verb is underlined and all of the answer choices contain the same verb in different tenses, then you are most likely dealing with a verb tense or form question. Make sure the underlined verb follows consistency rules (with other verbs) and is in the correct tense.

If the answer choices are different conjugations of the same verb in the present tense – you are most likely dealing with a subject-verb agreement question. Identify the subject and make sure the verb agrees with its subject. Hint**: the subject is the noun that does the action or is being described.

·      Look for Words / Phrases That Indicate Which Verb Tense Should Be Used

Frequently, an underlined verb in a stand-alone sentence could potentially be correct in more than one tense. In order to identify which tense is correct, look at the surrounding sentences to determine what verb tense to use. When a question references a date in the past, use the verb in past tense.  If the word “since” is included in a sentence, you should use a present perfect (has/have + past participle) verb.

Most importantly, use context clues to determine the proper usage of verb tense.

Next Steps

Now that you’ve learned about the different types of verb tense questions that are likely to appear on ACT English, take the time to familiarize yourself or refresh your knowledge of parts of speech you need to know for the ACT.

Are you wondering which test to take? Read this article comparing ACT to SAT.

Before you take the ACT, make sure you know if you should send the four free ACT score reports.

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