In the OET Writing sub-test, one of the common requirements is to report on “today’s visit.” This means that you will be given notes about something that happened with a patient “today” and you will need to describe it. This sounds simple, but in the English language, tenses are seldom very simple. While these events took place in the past (according to the situation dictated in the notes), you will not always have to use the past simple to describe them.
The importance of correct tense use
The English language differs from other languages in the complexity of its tenses. While other languages may just have a few tenses that are quite simply constructed, English has 12 tenses that can be quite challenging for learners. They need to know two important things about these tenses:
- When to use them
- How to form them
In fact, with a little practice, it is not so difficult to learn how to form English tenses. This can be learned quite easily and any OET candidate should certainly be comfortable with producing the past continuous or future perfect tense. However, even very advanced learners make mistakes with the first point: when to use these tenses.
These tenses may seem unnecessarily confusing to an English learner, but they are actually very useful at giving specific information about when something happened. For example, look at the four sentences below:
- Mr. Coleridge has acute respiratory problems.
- Mr. Coleridge had acute respiratory problems.
- Mr. Coleridge has had acute respiratory problems.
- Mr. Coleridge is having acute respiratory problems
Although these sentences may look very similar, the tense used for each one is different and implies a different time for the problem (respiratory problems), which tells the reader something very different. If this were an emergency situation, using the wrong tense could prove disastrous, and potentially fatal.
As such, being able to give accurate information using tenses is an important requirement for people wishing to sit the OET, and below I will show you why it is essential for this part of the writing sub-test.
The different past tenses may be used to describe general information about the patient’s visit, and importantly the symptoms or problems discovered during the meeting. In particular, the past simple tense is the most likely tense to be required for this part. Here are some examples
The patient displayed signs of chronic bronchitis.
Mr. Keats complained about pain in his lower back.
It is also possible to use the other past tenses, including past perfect continuous, to more specifically locate a symptom within a time frame:
Mrs. Shelly had been suffering from migraines
for two weeks before they suddenly relented.
In this case, we know that the migraines had begun and stopped prior to a certain point in time that occurred before the consultation. The inference is that this information was related during “today’s visit.”
Although the events of “today’s visit” in fact took place in the near past, it is still possible to use some of the present tenses to describe them. The most common ones that could be used are present simple, present perfect, and present continuous. Each of them locates the information given in a particular point in time that is slightly distinct from another tense. There may be some overlap in meaning, but generally picking one of these tenses gives the information a point in time that is distinct from the other tenses.
The patient rarely exercises and smokes one packet of cigarettes per day.
Present simple = for facts about the patient and his/her habits
Mr. Byron has suffered from arthritis for fourteen years.
Present perfect = for things that began in the past and continue until now
Miss. Blake is experiencing difficulty at work due to her back pain.
Present continuous = for on-going situations that started in the past and will probably continue into the future
It is very important to use the correct tense in English because although your general meaning may be understood, it is possible that a small change in tense could cause a vast change in the meaning of a sentence. In the healthcare industry, such changes can be a matter of life or death, and as the OET judges a person’s ability to use English for healthcare purposes, it is essential that you use the right tense in the writing sub-test.