Past And Present

The SBC GMAT Files

Sentence Correction: The Collision Of Past And Present

The title of this post alludes to the fact that in English we need to be careful about how we mix our tenses. We also need to be open-minded about tense and remember that we can’t simply equate the present tense with the idea of something happening ‘right now’ and the past with ‘something that already happened.’

English is nuanced in the way it represents action in the present or past. Which verbal form we choose depends on aspects of the action that must be paid attention to: is the action punctual or does it have a duration? Is it all over, or is it still affecting the present? The GMAT expects you to be able to evaluate these different situations, reject the verbal forms that do not fit the context, and know which ones to prefer. Moreover, we cannot just isolate one verbal form in the sentence as problematic – we need to pay attention how different verbal forms act together.

Let’s make sense out of the way different forms of the present (and past) tense can be mixed up in Sentence Correction questions, by look at the following GMAT style sentence

The introduction of high-fructose corn syrup as sweetener in the food industry in the 1970s is responsible for the extraordinary amount of empty calories that the average American consumes daily.

(A) is responsible for the extraordinary amount of empty calories that the average American consumes”¨(B) was responsible for the extraordinary calorie amounts that the average American consumes”¨(C) is responsible for the extraordinary amounts of empty calories that the average American is consuming”¨(D) has been responsible for the extraordinary amount of empty calories that the average American consumed”¨(E) is responsible for the extraordinary amount of empty calories that the average American consume

What makes this question tricky is the play between present and past forms. Notice the variations we encounter in the answer choices at the beginning of the underlined section: “is,” “was,” and “has been,” or more technically “Present Simple,” “Past Simple” and “Present Perfect.” Notice also the variations at the end of the underlined section “consumes,” “is consuming,” and “consumed.” Which combination is correct? Which is best?

Let’s suspend judgment on this matter for a moment and consider another aspect of this sentence. The question stem mentions a particular time – the 1970s – in which high-fructose syrup was introduced. Does this mention of a past date impact the use of tense in the sentence?
Some folks might be tempted, based on this historical date, to choose answer choice B, which gives us the past tense – “was responsible.” Indeed, the sentence would work with a verb in the past here, but for one problem. Once we start off with a verb in the past that “anchors” the sentence in the past, we need to go on and use the past tense in the remainder of the sentence.

However, answer choice B doesn’t change the verb later on in the sentence: the mixing of past “was” with present “consumes” is considered ungrammatical in English (and on the GMAT).

So we are back to choosing from among answer choices A, C, and E which use the present simple “is responsible” and answer choice D, which uses the present perfect “has been.” Which is better?

Again, we need to look at the way the verbs work together to judge this. The corrected sentence uses has been responsible (present perfect) to describe an effect of the introduction of high fructose corn syrup in the 1970s. This effect is described by a verb in the past: consumed. But the present perfect is a tense that indicates action that still has an effect in the present. Therefore, we expect the impact of that event to be described in the Present tense. Thus the use of “consumed” is actually illogical.

So we can rule out D. How now to judge between A, C, and E, which all use “is”? Let’s see how these forms combine with the form at the end of the underlined section.
In the case of answer choice A, “is” corresponds to “consumes.” There is nothing wrong here, and in fact, the consistent use of the present tense here is the appropriate way to express a generalization – such as a fact about American consumption patterns. So we keep this answer in the meantime.

What about C?  The sentence changes “consumes” to “is consuming” – the progressive form that indicates an ongoing action. This won’t do here. We aren’t talking about what Americans are continually consuming (as we speak) but about what they ‘generally’ consume, as a rule.

Is E a viable choice? It would be, if another grammatical error hadn’t snuck in – a subject verb agreement mistake (we can’t say “an average American consume” [plural]).

The correct answer is A.

The upshot is that sentences with mixed tenses can be treacherous ground. Tread carefully, and pay attention to all the variations. Look front and behind to avoid collisions between present and past.

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