Beware Shifting Verb Tenses


Actions can take place in the past, present, or future. Some actions are completed at a particular point in time; others might be ongoing or progressive. Actions can also take place in relation to other actions. As we’ve seen in previous lessons, these time-related subtleties are indicated through the various verb tenses.

For example, I might change my socks yesterday, today, or tomorrow. To show that I did it in the past, I would write “I changed my socks” (past tense) or “I have changed my socks” (present perfect tense).

If the action is taking place right now, I could say “I change my socks” (present tense) or “I am changing my socks” (present progressive tense).

When talking about a future event, I might say, “I will change my socks” (future tense) or “I will be changing my socks” (future progressive tense).

Writers must be consistent and clear in their use of verb tense. Narratives that begin in the past should not jump inexplicably to the present or vice versa. Notice the random shift in the verbs below:

The camping trip began well enough. We packed carefully and arrived at our campsite in plenty of time to get our tent and supplies set up. That’s when things start to go wrong. Jim points toward a clump of bushes and cries, “Did you see that?”

This shifting of tense in the midst of a story is a common problem among rookie writers. You have to watch your tenses.

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This doesn’t mean that you must use precisely the same verb tense throughout every  paper. There are many situations that demand appropriate tense changes. Just be sure that the use of different tenses is consistent and logical. Have a reason to shift and be sure you are clear. The paragraph below is an example of a reasonable and clear verb tense shift.

When I was young, I played sports just about every day. Now that I am an adult, I rarely get to participate in athletics. Hopefully, I will find an activity that my busy schedule will allow.

This paragraph includes a past tense verb (was), a present tense verb  (am), and a future tense verb (will find) in consecutive sentences, yet it makes perfect sense.

The question is, when do the events described take place? If you are narrating an event that has already occurred, stick with the past tense. If you want to relate a story as it is unfolding, keep in the present. Change verb tenses when you must, but always have a logical reason.

About the Author

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

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