Grammar Quiz #7: Tense Shift

By Mark Nichol

Each of the following sentences demonstrates a faulty consistency of tense when the context calls for a shift to another tense. Revise each sentence as necessary.

1. I had wanted to show you where the Joneses lived.

2. She wrote a poem that began with an apt simile.

3. Einstein supposedly said positive-feedback loops were the most impressive phenomenon in our universe.

4. Shortly before he died, he told me he was convinced that the only way to win was to practice.

5. She had profound insights about how the bones of the head moved.

Answers and Explanations

1.
Original: I had wanted to show you where the Joneses lived.
Correct : I had wanted to show you where the Joneses live.

If the Joneses no longer live at the location, the sentence is correct. But if they still live there, the past tense of the initial verb is irrelevant to the present state of their residence.

2.
Original: She wrote a poem that began with an apt simile.
Correct : She wrote a poem that begins with an apt simile.

The beginning of the poem, assuming the poem still exists, includes an apt simile, and it always will.

3.
Original: Einstein supposedly said positive-feedback loops were the most impressive phenomenon in our universe.
Correct : Einstein supposedly said positive-feedback loops are the most impressive phenomenon in our universe.

Positive-feedback loops presumably still hold that status, so the linking verb should be in the present tense; Einstein’s evaluation is immortal even if he isn’t.

4.
Original: Shortly before he died, he told me he was convinced that the only way to win was to practice.
Correct : Shortly before he died, he told me he was convinced that the only way to win is to practice.

The person expressed what he believed to be a timeless truth, not something he thought only before the time he stated his opinion.

5.
Original: She had profound insights about how the bones of the head moved.
Correct : She had profound insights about how the bones of the head move.

The movement of the bones in the head is a continuing phenomenon.

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6 Responses to “Grammar Quiz #7: Tense Shift”

  • Tim Slager

    This is controversial, and is counter to what I was taught. From University of Kansas grammar site (to name just one):
    When the attribution, such as said, which is in past tense, is at the beginning of a sentence (and it doesn’t immediately introduce a direct quote), the rest of the sentence must reflect the past tense, too.
    http://web.ku.edu/~edit/sequence.html

  • Andy Knoedler

    I’ll side with Tim on this point. It’s a conventional tense shift due to “said.”

  • Phil Radler

    I’m afraid that Tim didn’t go deep enough into the University of Kansas site. In explaining when NOT to use the “sequence of tenses” rule (see http://web.ku.edu/~edit/not.html), the site includes this morsel:
    “When someone says something that, for all intent and purposes, is and has been now and forever, you can suspend the sequence of tenses rule. For example:
    He said the sky is blue.
    He said the Mississippi River flows north to south.
    She said the sun rises in the east.”
    The heading above those examples says it all: “It does not apply when the rule involves the habitual or when it makes the speaker sound silly.” And we certainly don’t want Einstein to sound silly . . .

  • Cesar

    I read Tim’s link, and found a supplemental page titled “When NOT to use the sequence of tenses”. The last section talks about the types of examples used in this article, where the status of things remain the same “today” regardless of the tense used. It seems that particular source indeed agrees with the explanation here. http://web.ku.edu/~edit/not.html

  • Cesar

    *Sigh* I guess I should’ve refreshed the page before posting my comment. SO basically what Phil commented.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I really, really disagree with the present-day writers who wrote things like “Mark Twain writes that….” No, Mark Twain has been dead since 1910, when Halley’s Comet was prominent above North America, and whatever he wrote, “he wrote”.

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