What does your choice of tense say about you?

effective reflective writing, tensesMaking your point in as few words as possible is not all about choosing the right words. One area worth paying particular attention to is choosing the right tense. With a cover letter, a CV, a service history, and even with parts of a product description, you need to tell a story, no matter how short – and your choice of tense can greatly impact the meaning of your tale.

It’s a subtle art, with subtle implications that you might might not consider. Your reader might not consciously consider it either. But tenses exist for particular purposes, and, whether readers knowingly acknowledge them or not, your choice of tense can affect the way you’re received. Past tense is seen as finished, past perfect ongoing and present tense is current. Which of these is most appropriate for your point?

Using the simple past tense

When you describe your history, or your experience, the initial temptation is to write in the past tense. These are events you finished: I completed a degree in Science; We produced an award-winning gyroscope. These actions have been and gone. As your prospective reader generally doesn’t want to know what’s in the past, they want details that are relevant to now, the past tense should really only be used in copy if you want to emphasise that something was completed – and you wanted it to stay complete:

  • My plans for banking reform prevented a stock-market crash.
  • I built a wall that kept the city’s wild dog community from escaping.

It is also useful if you want to emphasise duration:

  • I worked as a translator for fourteen years.

But without wanting to put emphasis on the completion or the period of time, a present tense form is often more effective:

  • I have a degree in Science.
  • We have produced an award-winning gyroscope.
  • I work as a translator.

The choice of tenses here give the sentences current impact: they say you haven’t left your experience behind. The second example tells the reader the product is still available, and implies it is an ongoing success.

Writing in the present perfect

The present perfect (have + past participle) says that this event, though having happened in the past, is still relevant now. It doesn’t have to tell you why it’s relevant, the tense on its own is a signal that the action is still important. Consider:

  • I went to the shop.
  • I have been to the shop.

The later has more impact. It tells us the shopping trip could change our attitude to the current moment. It could change our life right now. Sentences promoting yourself or your service can differ in the same way:

  • I worked with the best accountants in London.
  • I have worked the best accountants in London.

The latter tells us that you are still working, for a start, and implies that you these people you worked with in the past are still an option for the future. The simple past version is just a background detail, the present perfect gives possibilities looking forwards.

Benefits of the present simple

When you are writing to sell something, and you have an ongoing benefit or point of experience, the present simple is your best friend. It says that not only can you do something, but you are doing it. Consider the differences:

  • I worked with contacts across the globe. – You did so some time ago, not any more.
  • I have worked with contacts across the globe. – You did so in the past, and intend to continue doing so given the chance.
  • I work with contacts across the globe. – You have done so in the past and are doing so now, and will keep doing it now regardless of whether or not you win this client / customer / job.

Choose the best tense

The present simple won’t always be possible, or appropriate. Every tense has its time and place – but when you can use them interchangeably, it’s important to understand the benefits of each. Consider the impact of each sentence here, and when you would use each:

  • Our methods never fail. – As a rule, forever more.
  • Our methods have never failed. – It’s tried and tested, an ongoing track-record of success.
  • Our methods were successful. – They did a job exactly as was required, through to the end.

This is simple introduction to a complex theme; it’s not my intention to give hard and fast rules or to suggest there’s a right way to choose your tenses in promotional writing. I just want to demonstrate that tenses make a difference.

Moving on…

This article covers three simple uses of three tenses. There are 14 basic tenses in English, with a variety of forms for each, and none of them has a single set use. It’d take a whole book to explain exactly what each is for, which, naturally, I’m attempting to do with my English tenses book. Watch this space if you want to learn more.


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