Are Tense Shifts Advisable?

By Mark Nichol

Should all verbs in a sentence be consistent in tense? Tense shift is often essential, but it’s sometimes unnecessarily discouraged.

See, for example, this sentence: “I thought I’d seen the last of him, but here he comes again.” The shift in tense is natural; to revise the beginning to “I thought I’ve seen . . . or “I think I’ve seen . . .” or “I thought I saw . . .” is not necessary (though they’re all defensible), but I think the original is the best choice.

A reader recently alerted me to a questionable assertion about this topic in a writing handbook. In an otherwise sensible passage advising against unnecessary shifts in tense, the guide took exception to this passage:

“Naming the five best movies of last year was easy. Ninety percent of the movies I see are lousy, and that leaves only a handful that are even worth considering.”

The recommended revision follows:

“Naming the five best movies of last year was easy. Ninety percent of the movies I saw were lousy, and that left only a handful that were even worth considering.”

I disagree with that solution. The second sentence, I think, is perfectly acceptable as is: The first sentence establishes that an action was taken in the past. The second one shifts to make a related observation that is true now, at the moment the statement is written and at the moment when it is read. No cognitive dissonance occurs.

Past tense can, alternatively, be introduced into the passage, but not to the extent shown in the handbook’s revision. Here’s the compromise alteration:

“Naming the five best movies of last year was easy. Ninety percent of the movies I saw are lousy, and that left only a handful that are even worth considering.”

This version retains the backward glance at the creation of the list but suggests that the writer’s evaluation about the quality of films is perpetual; the ninety percent of films he or she saw are lousy and, to the reviewer, will always be lousy, and only a handful are and will be worthy of consideration.

Here’s another example:

“He said it made sense for his clients to self-publish through the agency instead of going directly to Amazon themselves, because the agency brought experience in marketing and jacket design.”

What the person found sensible is presumably something that is and will always be sensible, so the stated strategy “makes sense,” not “made sense”; the latter phrase implies that the strategy was sensible at one time but may no longer be so. This introduces an ambiguity of comprehension.

Similarly, the agency’s experience in marketing and jacket design is presumably a steady state, so the final clause should include the phrase “brings experience.” The point is not that, at one time, the agency provided an advantage; it is that the agency continuously provides the advantage.

Hence my recommended revision:

“He said it makes sense for his clients to self-publish through the agency instead of going directly to Amazon themselves, because the agency brings experience in marketing and jacket design.”

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10 Responses to “Are Tense Shifts Advisable?”

  • Rolf

    I think the last example needs to be read differently than you did before revising it. The verbs “made” and “brought” are both part of dependent clauses constituting reported speech, so while they look like they were in the past tense, they are really in the past subjunctive. The author of the original made a sound choice, if his or her intention was to present the speaker’s point without prejudice as to their own opinion.

  • Nancy

    Thank you. This gives some good points that I hadn’t considered in my sentences.

    In your compromise alteration of the first example, the final phrase is “and that left only a handful that are even worth considering.” It seems better to say, “and that left only a handful that were even worth considering.” It was established at the beginning of the sentence that the reviewer had already landed on what he or she considered the best movies.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Thank you for these:
    “The second one shifts to make a related observation that is true now, at the moment the statement is written and at the moment when it is read.”
    “The point is not that, at one time, the agency provided an advantage. It is that the agency continuously provides the advantage.”

    I had trouble with a British fellow who couldn’t grasp that the present tense indicates “right now”, no matter when “right now” is. You just choose the instant, and the sentence is still true. I gave him the example “The Moon orbits the Earth,” but he couldn’t get it that this has been true during the entire human past, and it is true now, and it will be true into the conceivable future. You can choose any instant, within reason, that you want to.

    I just ascribed his problems to his not being able to understand the mathematical concept of “Choose any instant that you want to.” For example, you choose the instant, and (AB)C = A(BC). This is called the associative law, by the way.

    For a good book or magazine, what is says applies when it was written, when it was printed, when you bought it, and whenever you read it. This is the present tense.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Given all of these, there is a multitude of cases in which all of the verbs in a sentence SHOULD be in the same tense, but there are writers who use various tenses in the same sentence, or in the same paragraph, for no good reason. Worse than that: for no apparent reason.
    Much care needs to be taken in the tenses of the verbs, rather than just choosing the tenses willy-nilly.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    While I am at it, I want to mention the misuse of the verb “are” instead of “is”. Don’t be like so many careless writers and speakers who use “are” in sentences that should begin like this:

    {There is a set, there is a group, there is a couple, there is a pair, there is a multitude, there is a crew, there is a team, there is a trio, there is a universe.}

    This is because the nouns {couple, crew, group, multitude, pair, set, team, trio, universe } are all singular. In fact, they are all collective nouns, and they are singular by this very fact.

    I have had some British people argue with me about “plural collective nouns”, but I told them that that phrase is self-contradictory. Hence, no such words can exist.
    I am somewhat surprised by people whose arguments lead them into self-contradictory phrases and sentences. Why do that?
    D.A.W.

  • Jan Arzooman

    Great timing for this blog.

    Your example. “He said it makes sense for his clients to self-publish through the agency instead of going directly to Amazon themselves, because the agency brings experience in marketing and jacket design,” sounds fine to me, but I struggle with a sentence such as:
    “Last year I found out I was allergic to peanuts.”

    The allergy is an ongoing thing, so I kept wondering why it sounded unnatural to say, “Last year I found out I am allergic to peanuts.” I would use the first structure by default.

    It is that my head hears a tense shift within the sentence and feels it’s wrong? Is it always incorrect to say, “I found out I was allergic”?

  • Mark Nichol

    Jan:

    We frequently write (and say) the likes of “I found out I was allergic” because a consistent tense is the default setting in English, and we’re inclined to maintain it even when logic mandates a tense shift. Because allergies are treatable but not curable, one cannot logically state, “I found out I was allergic.”

  • Svetlana Guineva

    Dear Mark,

    Your last example, and the rationalizing surrounding it, made me think that as long as I live, I’d never ever be able to fully comprehend the English grammar rules. 🙂
    I try to approach any foreign language with the realization that it is a living, breathing organism prone to deviation from the norm and that it may have endless peculiarities. BUT, this example threw me into a massive confusion.

    Would you be so kind to explain why the original sentence can’t be considered as an example of reported speech? It is introduced with the reporting verb say/said, and it sounds exactly like paraphrasing what somebody else said. Why would be wrong to be consistent and put all verbs in the past simple tense?

    Thank you for your time.

  • Jan Arzooman

    Yes, I understand the logic, just couldn’t figure out why it “sounded” wrong.

  • Mark Nichol

    Svetlana:

    The final clause of your first sentence should read, “I’ll never ever be able to fully comprehend the English grammar rules.” 🙂

    If the statement were reported with direct quotation, it would likely read, “He said, ‘It makes sense for my clients to self-publish through the agency instead of going directly to Amazon themselves, because the agency brings experience in marketing and jacket design.’” There’s no reason to change the tense of makes and brings when paraphrasing the quote.

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