Worst Offender – Verb Tense Shift

Remember the poll I did last Monday? The one about grammar and what is your worst offender?

Here’s the link to it, in case you’d like to refresh your memory https://ellamedler.wordpress.com/2012/05/14/which-ones-your-worst-offender/

Turns out the shift in verb tenses is your top-most concern.

I promised to make it clear, short and easy to remember. So here’s my shortcut:

The first tense determines the next ones. You go back in time, never forward.

The way to remember is: you can speak about your past but you don’t know your future.

Take, for example, the following paragraph. I’ve highlighted the verbs.

Nick suppressed a smile and went straight through to the little living room, closely followed by Mrs. Budleigh who was keeping up a steady flow of chatter worthy of a world tournament. He had a good idea of what the little intermittent chirp that Mrs. Budleigh confused with a bird trapped in her lampshade was, so he’d agreed to pop in on the way home, despite the irrational need he’d felt all day to get home to Maxi as soon as humanly possible.

I started the paragraph with a past tense, and so I continued. In the second sentence I follow a past tense with a past participle (he had agreed – a completed action) and that is fine, because it is something that happened further back in the past, before the moment I’m talking about (he agreed to go before he actually got there).

The problem arises when we try to go forward in time. If I’d said ‘Nick suppressed a smile and goes straight through…‘ – just say it out loud. It doesn’t sound right.

Once you remember this rule, the rest comes down to editing. All you have to do is re-read your work and fix it until it sounds right.

However, this is just a shortcut. There will be exceptions to the rule, like in most things, but the purpose of this post is to give you a simple, quick check that anyone should be able to remember.

On a simplistic timescale PAST — PRESENT — FUTURE it follows that you can follow

  • FUTURE tense by present and past tenses
  • PRESENT tense by past tenses
  • PAST tense by other past tenses

Remember: you can speak about your past but you don’t know your future.


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