Beware the shifting tense

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Many writers, students and professionals alike, struggle with the problem of tense shifting. Your writing will be easier to follow if you’re sure to keep your tense consistent.

A verb’s tense lets the reader know when the action is taking place. Is it in the past (ran), present (run), or future (will run)? Since most of the problems occur in the past and present, we’ll leave future tense out of the conversation for now.

In academic writing, the general rule is to use present tense when citing published sources. For example, In her book The Artist’s way, author Julia Cameron writes that…. The signal phrase “author Julia Cameron writes” lets the reader know that information from an outside source is being used. Signal phrases should have present tense verbs.

Most fiction and other narrative writing takes place in the past tense. A narrator is telling a story as it happened. Sometimes, though, a writer will accidentally slip into present tense without realizing it:

I walked down to the edge of the water and dipped my toe in. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Jason grabs my arm and pushes me in the pool!

In the second sentence, the author has slipped from past tense (walked/dipped) into present (grabs/pushes). Most of us do this in casual conversation all the time, so it’s important to be aware of it when we’re writing.

Sometimes, a writer will choose to tell an entire story in the present tense for a sense of immediacy. In any case, it’s important to stick to the tense you’ve started with. Any necessary tense changes should have a clear purpose, and should be done smoothly. Otherwise, your reader will be unnecessarily distracted.

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5 thoughts on “Beware the shifting tense”

  1. Thanks for your timely information. I have a blog that I write and my husband has a book that he is writing. I am his first proofreader. He likes to go back and forth with his tense. Sometimes he does it so much that I get confused as to what he wants to say. I printed out this article for him to read. I sometimes do it also in the excitement of getting my words on paper. Thanks, Patricia

  2. I try to be careful about shifting tense. It’s one of those things that makes me cringe.

    I was looking at my TV guide, and happened to see, “Squidward thinks Mr. Krabs is overpaying, so he decided to do something about it.”

  3. Above, you indicate that “In academic writing, the general rule is to use present tense when citing published sources.” This is clearly an inappropriate convention. Although the published source is in existence today, the words in that source were written in the past. To refer to those words in the present tense is misleading because it suggests that the author of that source is saying those words again today. In many cases due to the passage of time and intervening events, the author may very well not say those same words today.

  4. In terms of fiction, I’ve had editors resist my tendency to shift to present tense when beginning a new chapter or segment. I see the general guideline here and understand that it’s probably right.

    But I still think there may be opportunities to shift from past to present (not within the same sentence or paragraph or even within the same scene). On the other hand, the pragmatic advice about avoiding it in order not to distract the reader sounds reasonable.

    If we all followed rules so rigidly, though, where would a place exist for a writer like Faulkner with his five-page sentences and frequent errors and hugely confusing stories?
    J.P. Cunningham

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