Lindsay McMahon
"The English Adventurer"
Michelle Kaplan
"The New York Radio Girl"

Do you ever listen to somebody switch verb tenses in a conversation in English?

Does this seem confusing to you as if it breaks all the rules?

If you find yourself confused about somebody switching tenses in a conversation, you are not alone as this can be a common issue.

There are times when this is necessary or is a natural part of the conversation, which you will learn about today.

Check out our Conversations and Coffee series that talks about things like tense changes because we cover this and so much more.

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So today we are going to get into why verb tense changes happen, when you should use them, and how to keep up with this in conversation.

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Trying To Keep Up With A Common Issue In Conversation

Do people switch tenses a lot when talking? YES!

Is this hard for listeners? YES!

One of the things we’ve been told by students is that it is frustrating listening to conversations where people are changing tenses all the time.

You may be in a conversation and the other person speaking may not even realize that they are doing it.

This is something that you personally want to be aware of, and so that’s a main focus for today.

Even natives may speak in this way, particularly if they are talking quickly or trying to cover a lot in one conversation.

It’s an easy mistake to make, but being aware and learning how to focus properly can help you tremendously.

The thing to remember is that this is a huge part of natural conversations–especially when comparing the way something was in the past to the way it is now.

If you are listening to a conversation and you start to hear people talking about how things WERE and how they are NOW, start to note the differences in tenses.

Yes, this happens in most conversations, but this is one particular example.

You may recognize that this is a common issue in conversations, and you therefore want to avoid it.

Having awareness is a big part of avoiding it, but there are also helpful ways that you can keep from switching tenses in a conversation.

We’ll look at what that means today and how you can work through this common problem.

How Do You Avoid This Common Problem?

You recognize that this is an issue and you therefore don’t want to fall into this trap.

So what strategy can we use to guide ourselves through all this tense changes when practicing our listening skills?

There are a few helpful tips to keep in mind which can help you to avoid this problem and really focus on having a great conversation.

• Consider what is being discussed: Stop and ask yourself is it a story about the past? Is someone going to relate the past to the present? Is someone sharing the future and comparing it to today? Once you have this idea, you can start to predict in your head what tenses you are going to hear. Taking a moment and gain perspective can help you to see which tense should be used. It can also be helpful for other reasons, and so this one moment may prove to be beneficial to various aspects of your conversation.

• Recognize that tenses change: This is beyond what you may learn in textbooks, and so it’s important to recognize. Pay close attention and don’t only listen for just one tense. Start listening to multiple examples and spotting the changes, so that you can see what may be causing this.

There are times and instances where tenses may change, and it’s up to you to notice them and times when they may change for a particular reason.

There is a specific strategy that may help you here, and it’s a sort of game that helps you to practice.

This is involved so take notes, practice this, and see how it helps you in the long run.

1. When listening (one or two times), write down the verbs that you hear, though you must recognize that this will be FAST. After you listen once, look at your list. Take a very thorough look and see what you have in front of you. Try to remember what was said with the verbs. Write down why you think each verb was used, or at least 5 of the verbs on your list.

2. Listen again and check yourself, as you want to do a thorough review. By taking the time and this step to review, you can then ensure that you didn’t miss anything. This check in will help you to gain perspective of what just happened and what you just heard. You might think that this is an easy step to skip, but you want to double check so that you can stay on top of this.

3. Listen once more and really reflect on the purpose of the changes. This is another playback so to speak, but you are looking for something specific here. You are taking the time to reflect upon the purpose behind the tense change. This can help you to focus on the content itself, and will ensure that you know exactly what is happening. Why did it occur? What is the reason behind the change? What is gained by this in the conversation? This will help you to really stay in tune with verb tense changes, but it will also ensure that you really focus on the conversation at hand as well.

4. Try telling your own story: This is a similar idea, and you work to recreate the story at this point. This takes effort for you want to try to change your tenses at least three times throughout the one minute story. This may seem counterintuitive to you, but if you can really work to keep sight of this then you can make this an effective exercise. Though you may feel as if verb tenses aren’t a good thing, through this exercise you will see when they are necessary and how they work. This strategy allows you to focus, tests your memory skills, and allows you to reflect and adapt your listening and speaking for the future.

Putting This All To Work In An Example

As we have done in the past, we are going to take a clip from our Conversations and Coffee show and turn it into a sort of roleplay.

In this conversation, Lindsay and Aubrey are talking about the 1990s and relating it to today.

Let’s practice this exercise as you read through this–write down some verbs that you see along the way.

If you are actually listening to this podcast at the same time, then you may need to pause it and really catch what is being said.

We will briefly go through the exercise, but more so go through the conversation as a whole.

So definitely be sure to try this for yourself, and then you can go through this on a deeper and more effective level.

Check this out and see what you can take out of this using the steps identified in the exercise above.

Lindsay: I just kind of miss the pace of things being so slow. Things were so much slower, we didn’t have phones in our hands all the time, just the way things just happened gradually and at a normal pace. Now it feels like everything is like a 1000 mph (miles per hour), you know?

Aubrey: I would not have wanted, as a teenager, to have to see photos of myself all the time. Like, we had to get photos printed and we didn’t have, you know, cameras on our phones so we just didn’t take very many photos. I feel like the yearbook photo was the only one I would see all year, maybe a few other photos, and I loved that. I loved not have to worry about my appearance, you know, not being photo ready all the time and my kids think about that way more than they should have to, because they never know when someone’s going to snap a picture of them and immediately post it on Instagram.

Breaking This Down Further

You have an idea now as to why tenses may change, and that’s a big first step.

Now we’re going to break this all down so that you can see with each example how this all works and why it happened.

So let’s talk through it—but remember you should have been writing down verbs.

We’re going to take this conversation step by step so that you can see how this works, and what you should be paying attention to.

We’re looking at the basics here, so focus on that and then you can use this though process for conversations in real life.

Lindsay

• Lindsay: “ I just kind of miss the pace.”- present tense

• Lindsay: “Things were so much slower.” – past tense, we didn’t So this was saying something you currently miss and then using the past to talk about how things were. The verbs here to focus on are: miss, were, didn’t have

• Lindsay: “Now it feels like everything is like a …”- going back to the present- verbs- it feels like, everything is. Lindsay has gone from her current feelings, to explaining how things were, to going back to the present—this is really all about comparing and contrasting skills and those matter greatly.

Aubrey

• I would not have wanted: The past, imagined situation – would not have verb (We had to get photos, we didn’t have…didn’t take- verbs- had, didn’t have, didn’t take She is going into the past- explaining how things used to be here.

• I feel like the yearbook photo WAS the only one that I WOULD see all year- verbs here include: feel, was, would see. Here we are switching around a lot. She currently feels something about how things were- she didn’t say “I felt like.” Instead saying I feel like is very natural here.

• I loved that. …not being – past tense. • My kids think about that way more than they….. Think, should have to, never know Aubrey goes into talking about her kids, so she goes into the present tense here and you see the switch.

• Someone’s going to snap, post it- what might happen or could be So how did you guys do? As you can see, discussions are filled with fast changes between tenses. It’s important to have a solid and clear way to practice this, and now you can see how this can benefit you.

Conversations and Coffee gives you so many opportunities to really get into listening for specific grammar, and now you can see this at work.

One of these such things is tense choice and tense changes in conversations.

Again, try to take it a step further and actually say how you would contribute next.

Try to tell a story or share an opinion with at least two verb tenses, and focus on your ability to switch back and forth.

Reflect on why you made these changes, and then you can be in tune with why they occur in conversation.

Overall, our changes were made because we were sharing the past and comparing it to the present–so this is a great compare/contrast example when talking about time.

You can have so many topics that would be used in the same way, and so this is bound to come up often and if you put in the work you will be prepared for it.

Takeaway

Don’t get hung up on tense changes, but rather work to understand why they occur and what purpose they serve.

They are a natural part of conversations, and so you need to dig deep to understand the reason behind them.

Think of the overall points of the conversation, take time to practice using them, and then improve by zeroing in on why these changes are being made.

Use the method that we described and be sure to take notes—sometimes we need to focus in this way to be truly effective!

If you have any questions, please leave them below in the comments section.

We’ll get back to you as soon as we can.

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