SAT Writing & Language: Grammar


The SAT repeatedly test the proper usage of verb tenses. Knowing when to use different verb tenses and forms will be extremely beneficial to you on this part of the test.

Because the leading educational systems in the world do not put a huge emphasis on grammar, a lot of students are totally unaware that these tenses exist. But don’t worry. When it comes to verb tense, remember this: Using verbs properly is all about understanding which tenses you’re using and how they’re meant to be used.

While you don’t need to know the names of verb tenses for the SAT, you do need to know when and how to use different verb tenses properly. Therefore, it’s important you get a basic introduction of all the major verb tenses first.


1. Simple Tenses

The three simple tenses express three basic times:

Simple Present:  I am hungry. I love pizzas. You have the floor.  

Simple Past: I was hungry. I loved pizzas. You had the floor.  

Simple Future: I will be hungry. I will love pizzas. You will have the floor.  

The SAT typically prefers the simple tenses, unless the sentence clearly requires one of the more complex tenses discussed below.

2. Progressive Tenses

Present perfect continuous: Expresses something that has been happening continuously into the present moment. Formed using has been/have been + present participle.


  • I have been cooking this chicken for hours.
  • They have been learning to speak English.
  • She has been thinking about dinosaurs all day.

Past perfect continuous: Expresses something that had happened continuously into a specific moment in the past. Formed using had been + present participle.


  • I had been cooking the chicken for hours when my kitchen exploded.  
  • They had been learning to speak English when they realized they were actually in Germany.
  • She had been thinking about dinosaurs when a T-rex stole her lunch.

Future perfect continuous: Expresses something that will happen continuously up into a specific moment in the future. Formed using will have been + present participle.


  • I will have been cooking this chicken for hours when you finally bring me the broth.  
  • They will have been learning English for years when they arrive in Portland.  
  • She will have been thinking about dinosaurs all day when she arrives at the Natural History Museum.
Example 1
At the zoo, monkeys play on the handlebars and exotic birds had chirped in their elaborate cages.
could have chirped

The clue is “play on the handlebars” - this tells us that the sentence is written in the simple present tense. Therefore, the correct answer is B.
Example 2
While we were on vacation, my brother and I will quietly creep out of our hotel room to go swimming with the sharks in the ocean.
quietly creep
are quietly creeping
quietly crept

Solution: The clue is the word “were,” which shows us that the sentence is in past tense. The correct answer has the word “crept” in the past tense; therefore, the correct answer is D.

3. The Perfect Tense

Some actions in a sentence involve more complex time sequences that cannot be expressed with the simple or progressive tenses. These actions can be expressed using the PERFECT tenses: Present Perfect, Past Perfect and Future Perfect.

Past Perfect: If two actions in a sentence occurred at different times in the past, we often use the past perfect tense for the earlier action and simple past for the later action. Past perfect is the “past of the past.”

The past perfect tense is formed as Past Perfect = HAD + Past Participle


  • I had finished the book when you gave me the new one.
  • You had already eaten when I brought over the pasta.

Note that we do not always use past perfect to write about earlier actions. In general, you should use past perfect only when an earlier event may somehow have a bearing on the context of the later event.

Moreover, if the sequence is already obvious, we often do not need past perfect.

Correct: Antonio DROVE to the store and BOUGHT some ice cream

We already know that “drove” happened before “bought.” A sequence of verbs with the same subject does not require past perfect. Rather, use simple past for all the verbs.

Correct: Laura LOCKED the deadbolt before she LEFT for work.

We know that Laura locked up first because of the word “before.”

Present Perfect: We use the present perfect tense for actions that started in the past but continue into the present or remain true in the present. The present perfect tense has one foot in the past and one foot in the present.

The present perfect tense follows the formula Present Perfect = HAVE/HAS +Past Participle

The present perfect is, without question, the most confusing tense in the English language. It sounds like it’s past tense, but it’s actually present.

When I say: “I have been to Ireland,” I’m making this statement from my current position in the present, even though I’m referencing an event that happened in the past.

Here are some examples of actions using present perfect tense:

  • This country has enforced strict immigration laws for years.
  • They have known each other since 1987.
  • There have been many terrible incidents in the news.

Each of these examples involves an action that began in the past and continues into the present.

Example 3 
By 1999, the internet would have already drastically changed the way people around the world communicate.
had already drastically changed
. already drastically change
has already drastically changed

Solution: We are talking here about of an event that is already completed - the internet drastically changing the world. Therefore, part perfect and “had+past participle should be used. The correct answer is B.

Verb Errors

When it comes to verbs, students generally make mistakes in the following three areas:

1. Verb Tense Consistency

As a general rule, you must avoid shifting verb tenses if the time frame of the events or actions discussed has not changed.

Wrong: Ronnie went to the store and buys some fish.

The sentence above uses both the past and present tense. Depending on which word is underlined in the question, you can correct this in two ways: make all verbs present tense OR make them all past tense.

Correct: Ronnie goes to the store and buys some fish.

Correct: Ronnie went to the store and bought some fish.

Of course, the SAT usually likes to make things complicated by adding more clauses, like in this example:

Wrong: Abigail was frightened that she might be in danger due to the storm and stocks up on canned vegetables and water.

Here, we must correct the sentence by changing “was frightened” (past tense) to “is frightened” (present tense). Why? Because there is another, non-underlined verb in the sentence, “stocks,” which is in present tense. So, we must change the underlined portion to match. Always be on the lookout for non-underlined verbs and check to be sure all underline verbs match.

Exception: There’s one big exception to having to match verb tenses. Occasionally, it’s okay to have two verbs with different tenses in the same sentence, but only when it is very clear that they describe two different points in time.

Correct: Yesterday, I ran six miles, but tomorrow I will run only three.

Example 4
As part of a prolonged effort to curb abuses, the governments reduce the amount of bonuses given for arrests. The hope behind this effort was that with fewer perks for arresting people, fewer needless and illegal arrests would be made. Since the new policies went into effect only two weeks ago, it remains to be seen if it will be an effective change of course in the long run.
the governments are to reduce
the governments reduced
the government’s reduction in

The opening clause of the sentence notes a “prolonged effort,” which indicates the government action has taken place over a long time period in the past. The proper verb will written therefore be in the past tense. C is the best choice among the answers.
Example 5
Samuel Adams was by no means the first American to espouse the democratic cause, but he has been the first who conceived the party machinery that made it practical.
had been the first who conceived
was the first having conceived
was the first to conceive

We know that correct sentence should be written using past tense because of the verb “was,” We also know that present perfect is used for something that is still going on, and, based on the sentence context we’re dealing with a completed action here.

Similarly, because there is not a sequence of completed actions, we know that we shouldn’t use the past perfect tense, “had been.” After eliminating wrong choices, we’re left with C and D. Due to parallel structure rules, the infinitive “to conceive” should be used to be parallel with “to espouse” on the other side of the conjunction. The answer is D.

2. Verb Mood

Verb moods show the mode or manner in which thought, idea, or action is expressed. There are three verb moods in the English language:

1. The Indicative Mood is by far the most commonly used verb mood. As the name suggests, the indicative mood is used to simply indicate that an event or action has or will occur.


  • The sky is blue.
  • That movie was upsetting.

2. The Imperative Mood is used to indicate a command or request, give permission, or issue a restriction.


  • Please, give me some more.
  • Move over so I can sit down.
  • Stop doing that!
  • I am going to be waiting in the surveillance truck across the street.

3. The Subjunctive Mood is used to express a condition that is doubtful or not factual. It is most often found in a clause beginning with the word “if.” It is also found in clauses following a verb that expresses a doubt, wish, regret, request, demand, or proposal.


  • I would if I could.
  • The judge demanded that he be banished from the county.

The vast majority of verb mood errors occurs when using the subjunctive mood. The following sentence, for example, is incorrect.

Wrong: If I was tall, I would be a basketball player.

The correct past tense form of “is” in the subjunctive is “were” not was. “If I was” is never a correct formulation. This thought should be formed as: “If I were.”

Correct: If I were tall, I would be a basketball player.

Example 6
If I can be a teacher, I would grade fairly.
am ever

In this instance, the speaker is not a teacher, but is instead thinking about the potential future scenario. When working with hypotheticals, the subjunctive is the correct use case. The word “were” is the proper usage of the subjunctive mood here. The correct answer is C.
Example 7
At night John would turn it completely off, and he caught up with his messages at lunchtime or dinnertime, but only if he were dining
was dining
had been dining
were to be dining

The phrase “were dining” uses the subjunctive mood, which is appropriate for describing the uncertainty about whether John is dining alone or not. The correct answer is A.
Example 8
Victory is the ultimate goal of any general, but too precise a focus can clouds a leader’s judgement.
can cloud a leader’s judgement.
can clouds a leaders judgement.
can cloud leaders judgement.

The phrase in the sentence uses the verb “can,” which places conditions on what might happen in the future. The verb form “clouds” is incorrect as the subject “focus” is singular. Additionally, “leader’s” should have an apostrophe to show possession. The correct answer is B.

3. Don’t Shift! Keep Your Voice Consistent

A verb can be either active or passive. When a verb is active, the subject of the sentence actually does something.

Example: John hit the ball out of the park. John does something - he hits the ball.

When a verb is passive, it means that something HAPPENS to the subject of the sentence.

Example: The ball was hit out of the park by Jessica. Something happened to the ball- Jessica hits it.

When a verb in a sentence is an active verb, we say it’s in the ACTIVE VOICE.

When a verb in a sentence is a passive verb, we say it’s in the PASSIVE VOICE.

On the SAT, avoid the passive voice. Additionally, never switch from active to passive voice in the same sentence.


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