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last updated: 6/25/2007

FAQ - English Verbs (Music Library)



Cook Music Library Brief Guides, No. 25

The Main Tenses Used in Writing Papers

In English, all verbs have tenses, which tell us when the action took place.A change in tense is indicated by a change in the form of the verb or the use of an auxiliary verb (will, have, etc.).

Present tense

Has several uses:

(1) Expresses an action or state in the present:

     The School of Music has about 1,700 students.

but see "Present progressive tense" below

(2) Expresses a truth at the present time or a fact:

     Andrew Lloyd Webber is the world's richest composer.

     The notes C, D, E, F#, G#, A# constitute a whole-tone scale.

(3) Indicates what is habitual or characteristic:

     This class meets on Mondays and Thursdays.

     Yo-Yo Ma plays the cello superbly.

(4) Discusses past events as if they were in the present (called the "historic present"):

     In this piece, Ravel sets the standard for impressionistic writing for the piano.

     Stravinsky leaves Russia and never goes back.

. . . or future events as if they were in the present:

     I leave for Chicago tomorrow.

Present progressive tense

Used more often than the simple present tense for actions.Expresses an action going on in the present:

     I am sitting at the computer writing this handout.

Past tense

Expresses actions that occurred completely in the past:

     Sibelius wrote seven symphonies but failed to complete his Eighth.

Past progressive tense

Expresses an action that was going on in the past at the time being described:

     When Gilbert paid a visit, Sullivan was finishing his breakfast.

Present perfect tense

Expresses actions that:

(1) Started in the past and are continuing in the present:

     I have known Schubert's songs since I was a child.

(2) Started in the past and were completed at an indefinite time in the recent past:

     We have spent many hours rehearsing the program.

Past perfect tense

Shows that the action was completed at some point in the past before another action or state that is also mentioned or implied:

     Before Mozart was 12 years old, he had already written an opera and nine symphonies.

Past perfect progressive tense

Shows that the action was continuing at some point in the past before another action or state that is also mentioned or implied:

     Mozart had been working all night on his Requiem when Salieri came to call.


Present infinitive

Denotes the same time or future time as the action of the main verb:

     Sibelius intended to write an eighth symphony but failed to complete it.

Past infinitive

Denotes action that was complete at the time of the main verb:

     Several times Sibelius's Eighth Symphony was mistakenly reported to have been completed.

Agreement of Subject and Verb

The subject must agree with the verb.Generally, this is straightforward, and you just need to check your work carefully.

     Beethoven was the greatest composer who ever lived.

     Some scholars believe that Josquin was the greater composer.

Difficult Subjects

1.A subject consisting of two or more nouns or pronouns connected by and generally takes a plural verb:

     Debussy and Ravel are credited with developing the Impressionist style in music.

2.The exception to this rule is when the subject expresses a single idea or represents one person:

     "Law and Order" was a common political slogan twenty years ago.

     Delius's last works could never have been completed without Eric Fenby.The blind composer's friend and nurse is known to have taken down many of his works from dictation.

3.Be careful of a singular subject modified by a phrase containing a plural noun.The verb should still be singular:

     The contribution of these composers is now widely recognized.

4.Also be careful when the verb precedes the subject:

     In the thematic catalog are listed the composer's works with their incipits.

5.For fractions, the verb agrees with the noun to which the fraction applies:

     Two-thirds of Haydn's symphonies are in major keys.

     Two-thirds of his output is in major keys.

6.The adjectives each and every take a singular verb:

     Each voice receives the same treatment.

     Every symphony of Mahler's is a masterpiece.

Principles based largely on Margaret D. Shertzer, The Elements of Grammar (New York: Collier Books; Macmillan Publishing Co., 1986).

David Lasocki

last updated: 6/25/2007