5 Lessons for Mixing Past and Present Tense

By Mark Nichol

Writers often fall into a tense trap and don’t even notice. A tense trap is not a trap that makes you tense; it’s when you get stuck in past tense when the phenomena you are describing is perpetual or at least valid to the present moment. Here are some sample tense traps and their simple fixes:

1. “Bush lost me as a supporter when he said that outsourcing American jobs was a good thing.”

This sentence from a newspaper column correctly reports in the past tense — at the beginning of the sentence. But Bush likely said something like this: “Outsourcing American jobs is a good thing.” Even in paraphrase, the writer should retain the present tense: “Bush lost me as a supporter when he said that outsourcing American jobs is a good thing.”

2. “The two men chimed right in with their own stories about what wonderful people Jack and Margaret were.”
Because this sentence is taken out of context, you have no idea whether Jack and Margaret were still alive at the time they were being discussed. To your credit, though, that thought occurred to you — but it didn’t occur to the person who referred to the still-alive-and-kicking couple in the past tense.

Unless Jack and Margaret later suffered from a personality disorder that transformed their natures, the writer should have made the observation in the present tense: “The two men chimed right in with their own stories about what wonderful people Jack and Margaret are.”

3. “These remarks infuriated French president Jacques Chirac, who declared that his country loved Jews and was not at all anti-Semitic.”

Methinks Monsieur is suffering pied-en-bouche disease when he clumsily protests France’s apparently nonabiding affection for Semitic peoples. But it’s not his fault; the paraphrase should support the intent of his sentiment by using the present tense: “These remarks infuriated French president Jacques Chirac, who declared that his country loves Jews and is not at all anti-Semitic.”

4. “He wanted to know: Did it really do all the things people said it did?”

Assuming you know that the product in question is extant and that its operating features are persistent, reference to it should be in the present tense regardless of the framing tense: “He wanted to know: Does it really do all the things people say it does?”

5. “Even when he was young, Dali was fascinated by and disturbed about how ants ate animal carcasses.”

Because ants (disregarding the fact that Dali remains neither a youth nor alive) still eat animal carcasses, the verb should appear in the present tense: “Even when he was young, Dali was fascinated by and disturbed about how ants eat animal carcasses.”

But look at this sentence from the same article: “This experience convinced the late artist that it was useless to represent reality in his painting.” This statement is correct as is. Knowing, as we do, that the artist is no longer alive and that the sentiment refers specifically to him, the point is no longer valid, so past tense here is proper.

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24 Responses to “5 Lessons for Mixing Past and Present Tense”

  • Emil A. Georgiev

    Thanks for this one – it’s really helpful for me as I am no native English speaker!

  • Rebecca

    Thank you for the reminder.

  • Stephen

    This is a trap I fall into a lot, because I think the correct sentences look just as strange as the incorrect ones. I’ll try to work on it now that you’ve brought it up.

  • Carlos

    Thank you for clarifying this… when learning English my professors always thought me otherwise despite my constant criticisms about the sentences not making sense or making a different one that the intended.

  • Alexander Davis

    I’m not a native speaker and I was taught that in indirect speech Present Indefinite tense should be converted to Past Indefinite. So in example #1, since “[Bush] said” is Past Indefinite and there is no direct quote, “is” should be changed to “was”. Similar with Past Indefinite and Present Perfect. “He says that he has already finished,” but “he said he had already finished” (Present Perfect changes to Past Perfect). Is this wrong?

  • Mark Nichol

    Alexander:

    Based on the context, all four of these variations can be correct:
    1. “He says he has already finished.”
    — When somebody reports in the present that a task is now completed.

    2. “He said he has already finished.”
    — When somebody reported in the past that a task is now completed.

    3. “He says he had already finished.”
    — When somebody reports in the present that, in association with another event, a task had already been completed: “He says he had already finished when she arrived.”

    4. “He said he had already finished.”
    — When somebody reported in the past that, in association with another event, a task had already been completed: “He said he had already finished when she arrived.”

    This post refers to sentences of type 2. Here’s a simple example: “He said that Earth is a sphere.”

    Even though the sentence describes something reported in the past, it refers to a persistent (and, hopefully, perpetual) fact. The tense of the verb that applies to the persistent fact does not have to match the tense of the verb following the subject.

  • Peter

    @Alexander Davis: no, it’s correct. Mark is simply wrong about what he’s saying in this article. All of his sentences are perfectly correct, but the differences in meaning are not unimportant.

    If he said “the Earth is a sphere”, then he said that the Earth was a sphere.

    Whether or not it actually is a sphere (strictly speaking, it’s not: it’s flattened at the poles), was a sphere at the time of the statement but has changed since, or was some other shape, is not relevant to what he said, and the meaning of what he said should not be changed to take it into account when reporting his speech.

  • Alexander Davis

    So, if in Present Indefinite, I say: “Peter says that he likes ice-cream,” to convey the same meaning in Past Indefinite, it’s okay to say: “Peter said that he likes ice-cream.” Right? Meaning, I’m not sure about present or far past, but at the time of our conversation with Peter, he did like ice-cream. Or would it be: “Peter said that he liked ice-cream?”

  • Daniel Scocco

    @Peter, I think you are wrong.

    If he said “the Earth is a sphere,” then he said that “the Earth IS a sphere”. After all, he said what he said. It cannot be changed. You need to report the exact words that came out of the person’s mouth. What you change is the introductory verb, from says to said.

    The second example given by Alexander illustrates this well.

    Suppose your friend John says today “I like ice cream.” Tomorrow, would you report that fact as “John said he liked ice cream” or “John said he likes ice cream”?

  • Peter

    If he said “the Earth is a sphere,” then he said that “the Earth IS a sphere”. After all, he said what he said. It cannot be changed. You need to report the exact words that came out of the person’s mouth. What you change is the introductory verb, from says to said.

    Yes, if you’re reporting direct speech. In which case you use quotation marks (as you have above). But when you’re reporting it in your own words, you change the tense.

    Suppose your friend John says today “I like ice cream.” Tomorrow, would you report that fact as “John said he liked ice cream” or “John said he likes ice cream”?

    Depends on the circumstances: in the first case you’re reporting on what John said; in the second, you’re making a statement about John’s food preferences. If you asked me “what did John say when you talked to him yesterday?” the first would be the appropriate response; if you asked whether John is likely to want an ice cream, the second would be.

  • Jon

    If clarity is the objective, the correct phrasing is the one which leaves least room for misinterpretation of the speaker.

    Peter said “Whether or not it actually is a sphere … the meaning of what he said should not be changed to take it into account when reporting his speech

    Daniel said “… he said what he said. It cannot be changed. You need to report the exact words that came out of the person’s mouth.

    If I said the Earth was an oblate spheroid, there remains the possibility that I suggested some change in state. (The Earth was once an oblate spheroid).

    If I said the Earth is an oblate spheroid, there seems less chance that I am suggesting some change in state. (The Earth is currently an oblate spheroid).

    @Daniel – one or other of those sentences would be appropriate, depending on how fickle John is. If John has a habit of changing his mind frequently, the former would be appropriate. If John is of a steadfast and consistent nature, the latter would perhaps be more appropriate.

  • Peter

    @Jon: yes, but we’re not talking about the shape of the Earth, we’re talking about reporting someone’s speech. Maybe it’s easier to see in the future: if John said “the Earth will be destroyed by Vogons on Wednesday morning”, how do we report that? You certainly can’t say “John said the Earth will be destroyed …” after Wednesday morning, when the event was supposed to have happened, because the use of “will be” means it’s still to come. You can either use quotation marks and report his exact words, or change the tense and say “John said that the Earth would be destroyed by Vogons …” — that works at any time, before or after Wednesday morning, and whether or not the Earth actually was destroyed as predicted.

    (Prior to Wednesday morning, you can say “John said the Earth will be destroyed …”, but then you’re reporting on the prediction (i.e., suggesting the listener either laugh at John for his wacky beliefs or go and drink lots of beer and make sure he has a towel handy), not on the saying of it, if you see what I mean.)

  • Jon

    @Peter: I wasn’t talking about the shape of the Earth, I was talking about reporting myself talking about the shape of the Earth. Just goes to show that there’s even more room for misunderstanding when you’re reporting your own words. 🙂

    But anyway, I say it’s down to context, really.

    Assuming that the words that came out of John’s mouth were “The Earth will be destroyed by Vogons on Wednesday morning.”

    On Tuesday it’d be more appropriate to write “John said that the Earth will be destroyed by Vogons on Wednesday morning.”

    On Wednesday afternoon it’d be appropriate to write “John said that the Earth would be destroyed by Vogons on Wednesday morning.” (Assuming, everything is hoopy, and it wouldn’t be more appropriate to write “Ouch. That must’ve been the Vogons John was trying to warn us about over ice-cream yesterday”, but I digress…)

    In some situations it’s important to clearly distinguish whether the speaker was referring to the past, or to the present state (e.g. Chirac and the previous love of the Jews, compared to John and the possible love-hate relationship he has with ice-cream).

    Personally, I find clarity is best served by tailoring the approach depending on whether it’s reporting past statements about future events, present states, or past events.

    Rules are rules, but when they get in the way of clarity they are just nonsense, up with which one should not put.

  • Andy Knoedler

    I disagree with the analysis of these five sentences. They are all correct just as they were orginally stated.

    The rule is simple: whenever the reporting verb — e.g., said — is in the past, the verb is changed to the past when we report what was said. Thus the direct statement, “The people of Egypt are revolting against totalitarian rule,” would become “The TV analyst said the people of Egypt were revolting against totalitarian rule.”

    The main exception to this procedure would be when you are speaking about a fact of nature or a well-known piece of information: “The teacher told the students that the capital of Egypt is Cairo.”

  • Dina Santorelli

    Excellent post. I have been looking for something like this for quite some time. (Or is it “had been”?) 🙂

  • Dina Santorelli

    Uh oh, now Andy Knoedler has me thinking…

  • Marty Beaudet

    Hey, you’re ALL right here. English allows for nuance. Whether a condition is perpetual or not, what matters is both the perspective of the speaker. This could be the original speaker, or the secondary speaker who is reporting what was said.

    A writer has many tools in his/her toolbox to subtly influence the reader’s perception of events. If it’s fiction, any of the above choices is valid, as long as the writer is conveying what (s)he intended to convey.

    In non-fiction, however, it’s best to be as specific and accurate as possible. There are time when the perpetuity of an event cannot be guaranteed. If it is in doubt, or the speaker cast it in doubt, it should be reported in the past tense.

    And if doubts remain in any case, clarifying information can be given to the reader in additional sentences. For instance: “Peter said the Earth is round. [Because Peter thought it was perpetually so.] It isn’t. [Here the writer clarifies the error in Peter’s statement.]

  • Catherine

    When it comes to Chirac’s mistake in using “loved” instead of “loves” this may be his translator’s or interpreter’s mistake. I rarely hear him speak English.

  • Peter

    The main exception to this procedure would be when you are speaking about a fact of nature or a well-known piece of information: “The teacher told the students that the capital of Egypt is Cairo.”

    It’s not really an exception; there’s a subtle change in emphasis: “the teacher told the students that the capital of Egypt was Cairo” emphasizes “the teacher told the students …”, whereas “the teacher told the students that the capital of Egypt is Cairo” emphasizes “the capital of Egypt is Cairo”.

  • naomi hamm

    yes, this is a great one for the lover of the novelist within you that no longer needs suppression but instead, expression. Let it all hang out! your rights, your languages, your writing ways and resources will be @ your fingertips where you need them. I would suggest any one of these books or all when it comes down to it, way before your first draft your first draft.

    The basic concept is of course, where can I begin? Well what better than the readings and making notes on the side of these books for writers by writers whom have been there big time. Have hit big time the big hard falldown and rollwiththe punches way.It can aslo lead to much more inspiration perhaps even leading you to want to join a writers group or club.

    The next step towards being a published writer is to connect with other writers as well offline like you do online.

    So go for it. Keep reading, researching and the words will flow like honey from the silver and emerald-encrusted tankard.

  • John Shein

    Hello Mr. Mark Nichol,
    I was searching online for explanations on how to correctly use
    tenses in English writing and came across your article.
    Thanks for the article about “Mixing Past and Present Tense.”
    I am not a native English speaker.
    I just read an article from NY Times online about Iran threatening
    to block the oil transportation lanes in the Strait of Hormuz.
    In there it has that line:

    The declaration by Iran’s first vice president, Mohammad-Reza Rahimi, came as President Obama prepares to sign legislation that, if fully implemented, could substantially reduce Iran’s oil revenue in a bid to deter it from pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

    My question is why it first used past tense “came” and then
    switched to present tense in “President Obama prepares?”

    Thanks in advance for your time and explanation.

    Sincerely,

    John

  • Sara

    This little article is the best one I have read concerning this subject. You have clarified the issue for me. Thanks!

  • Arun Debnath

    You’re spot on Sara – this article and the follow-on comments are that I have been looking for a long time. Great. Thank you all.

  • Tashia

    This is a good way to teach little kids at home before they go to preschool. Okay

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