Are Tense Shifts Advisable?
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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