Posted in Grammar, Writing

Why You Need to be Careful about Shifts in Tense


Staying in the same tense throughout a piece is a skill that improves with practice.

I’m currently writing my twentieth novel. Some of my novels have been written in present tense. Most of them have been written in past tense.

Whichever tense you choose to do in your writing, it’s super important to stay consistent. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve read in creative writing workshops that were 90% past tense and 10% present tense, or vice versa. Where suddenly a whole paragraph is the wrong tense, and you’re completely thrown out of the story.

When it comes to fiction writing, for the most part you’re going to stay in one tense or another. Except for dialogue, of course. Dialogue is its own separate beast. And yes, you might have a flashback here and there that takes you away from present tense and pushes you into past tense.

No matter what kind of writing you do, there’s always a possibility of shifts in tense, sometimes even in the same sentence! How do you handle those shifts and make your sentences sound normal and not totally awkward?

When you’re talking to a friend, you probably never notice your shifts in tense.

You might go from present tense to past tense and back to present tense in the course of five seconds when chatting with a friend, and typically we never think twice about it.

Take a sentence like this one, for example:

Derek is super pissed because it turns out Sarah lost most of his money gambling.

The sentence kind of makes sense, I guess. If you were told this in person, you’d get the general vibe of what the speaker is going for.

But let’s look at the sentence closer. ‘Derek is super pissed’ is present tense, and ‘it turns out’ is present tense, and ‘Sarah lost most of his money gambling’ is past tense.

Now, Derek can be mad in the present about something that happened in the past. It’s a sentence you might be able to get away with.

But wouldn’t the sentence make way more sense like this?

Derek was super pissed because Sarah lost all his money gambling.

There. So much better, right?

There are some sentences where the tense isn’t what you might assume it to be.

And you should understand those areas in your writing to make sure you don’t make a mistake.

One place you need to look out for? When you’re discussing the work of another author. Let’s say you’re writing a research paper, and you just put in a quote from an article you discovered online. Now you want to write a sentence responding to that quote.

You might want to write,

Smith argued here that the characters in Shakespeare’s play were all morally corrupt.

I’ve seen sentences like these in my student’s papers all the time.

Actually, even though Smith did argue this point in the past, and even though Shakespeare’s play was written in the past, MLA format states you write a sentence like this in present tense, not past.

Smith argues here that the characters in Shakespeare’s play are all morally corrupt.

In fact, most academic and research papers written in MLA format use the present tense, rarely the past tense. Something to keep in mind.

But what about shifts in tense in the very same sentence?

This happens sometimes, too. It’s not common, but you should be aware when it’s needed and how it works.

In fiction, just because you’re writing your latest story or novel in present tense doesn’t mean everything is going to be present tense.

You might have a sentence like this one…

I hold no more animosity toward him, but I once wanted to kill him.

And in academic writing, there might be the occasional instance where the first part needs to be past tense, while the second part needs to be present tense.

Let’s take that example above Smith arguing about Shakespeare’s play, but we add a date that Smith actually argued the point.

Smith argued at the 2009 playwriting conference that the characters in Shakespeare’s play are all morally corrupt.

Because we have a specific date when Smith argued his point, we can’t use present at the beginning. Instead, we use past tense because a specific date is designated, while we keep the second part of the sentence in present tense because story elements from a work of literature is being discussed.

Whatever you do, make sure you pay attention to your tense.

At the very least, keep your tense consistent. Don’t write something in mostly present tense and then suddenly shift to past tense for a paragraph, unless you have a very good reason.

Your tense is often not something at the forefront of your mind as a writer, but I guarantee you it will be at the forefront of your reader’s mind if you make even one mistake in this arena. You have to stay consistent. And your sentences need to make sense.

Practice will help. So will not only revising your work but also editing it closely.

Your choice of tense plays a major role in your writing. Make sure you get it right every time!

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