Lesson 2: Contextual Usage of Mixed Tenses

Mixed tenses help show the connections between actions happening at different times. They also work to add depth to narratives. 

This means using different verb tenses together in sentences, paragraphs, or speeches to show actions and events that happened at different times. Mixed tenses can help show the order and length of actions and connect past, present, and future events.

First, review how each tense shows time. This will help you understand which tenses can be used together and which cannot. 

Expressing Time Through Verb Tenses

Present TensesExisting or happening now
Present Perfect TensesExisting or happening sometime before now
Past TensesExisting or happening in the past
Past Perfect TensesExisting or happening before a specific time in the past
Future TensesExisting or happening in the future
Future Perfect TensesExisting or happening before a specific time in the future

Context is the background or situation that helps us understand an action, event, idea, or statement. We only mix tenses when it makes sense for the time we’re talking about. The actions or events should follow a clear and logical order. 

To better understand this, look at why you would mix tenses:

To Show Actions at the Same Time

We can use mixed tenses to emphasize actions that happened together but in different time frames. 

For example: 

  • While I was reading, she finished cooking.

To Report Past Events

We use mixed tenses when telling stories or reporting conversations. Direct speech might be in the past tense, but the story or narrative could be in the present or past tense. 

For example:

  • When he said, “I am going to consider enrolling in the military,” I thought about what that would mean for the rest of us.

To Provide Background Information

We can use the present tense for general facts and the past tense for specific past actions. 

For example: 

  • Elephants are known to have long memories. When I visited the sanctuary last year, the elephant remembered me from a previous visit.

To Talk About the Future from the Past

We can mix past and future tenses to show how a past event affected a future action. 

For example: 

  • After she saw the weather forecast yesterday, she knew she would need an umbrella today.

To Create Flashbacks

Mixed tenses can be used to remember past events. 

For example: 

  • As I sit in the old classroom, I remember how we used to laugh and learn together.

To Talk About Unfulfilled Intentions

We can use mixed tenses to talk about plans that didn’t happen. 

For example: 

  • I was going to call her, but I forgot.

To Combine Direct and Indirect Speech

Mixed tenses can show both what was said and how it was reported. 

For example: 

  • She informed me, “I will come.”

To Show Ongoing Past Actions

We use the past continuous tense to describe actions that were happening or ongoing in the past. 

For example: 

  • I am going to tell her that at 5 PM yesterday, I was working on my assignment.”

Remember, when mixing tenses, make sure your sentences are clear and make sense in their context. Avoid confusing your audience.