5 Lessons for Mixing Past and Present Tense
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.