Top 20 Grammar Errors: tense shift

Coming in at number 10 on our list of 20 most common grammar errors is tense shift. This blog entry is all about verbs and their tenses (also at the end: This Week in Literature).

Remember error number six—wrong or missing inflected endings—and how certain word endings mark changes in verb tense? Hopefully, you do, because today’s common error bleeds right into error number six.

Verb tense tells the reader when something happened. Is it happening now? Did it happen in the past? Is it going to happen in the future?

Remember this chart?

Present Continuous
Present Perfect
Present Perfect Continuous
Simple Future
Future Perfect
Future Perfect Continuous
Future Continuous
Past Continuous
Past Perfect
Past Perfect Continuous
am/are chasing
have/
has chased
have been/has been chasing
will chase
will have chased
will have been chasing
will be chasing
was/were chasing
had chased
had been chasing

 

And:

  • Simple present: chase
  • Simple past: chased

The key here is consistency.

If you begin with one tense, stick with that same tense all throughout the piece of writing. Certain styles of writing require certain tenses as well. Academic or research papers prefer present tense. Newspaper writing leans toward the past tense.

Fiction and creative non-fiction, of course, are different beasts. You get to choose your tense. Ask yourself: which tense works best for the story you are telling? And can you switch tenses in a piece of creative writing?

Let’s examine an excerpt from my upcoming story Banana Sandwich:

You can’t order a pizza by banana phone. It can’t be done. Pick up any banana and put it to your ear and you get dial tone. Simple as that. Just doesn’t work. Now if you want to call Jupiter, a banana phone is your ticket. I knew a guy once who linedhis hat with aluminum foil to stop the outer space transmissions from reaching his brain. Which is just crap. Everyone knows aluminum foil isn’t going to do the trick.

Most of this passage is in present tense. You can, it can, pick up, put it, you get, does work, you want, is your—all of that is present tense. But notice the words in red: knew and lined. These two words are in past tense, and I just said to be consistent; not to switch back and forth between tenses.

So why did I switch tenses?

Verb tense always marks time. Banana Sandwich is told in present tense; however, the narrator refers back to a previous time—a time before the story began. So the narrator falls back to a past verb tense.

What if you are telling a story in the past tense and want to refer back to a time prior to the story? Let’s examine the passage from Banana Sandwich rewritten in past tense.

You couldn’t order a pizza by banana phone. It couldn’t be done. If you picked up any banana and placed it to your ear and you would get dial tone. Simple as that. Just wouldn’t work. Now if you wanted to call Jupiter, a banana phone would be your ticket. I had known a guy once who had lined his hat with aluminum foil to stop the outer space transmissions from reaching his brain. Which was just crap. Everyone knew aluminum foil wasn’t going to do the trick.

Notice the change from simple past to past perfect?

Changing verb tense changes the time sequence of narration—for the better or for the worse:

Another excerpt from Banana Sandwich:

I take the pill. I swallow without water. It tastes chalky.

Now let’s mess with the tenses:

I had taken the pill. I’m swallowing without water. It tastes chalky.

Totally changed the meaning of the sentence, didn’t it? In the first excerpt, everything is happening at once, she takes the pill, swallowing the pill without water, and the pill tastes chalking. In revised sentence, she took the pill sometime in the past, and now she is swallowing saliva maybe because we’re no longer sure what she is swallowing, and finally something currently tastes chalky, but all the verb tense changes created a vague pronoun reference (error two).

And This Week In Literature

·         On July 14, 1811, Lord Byron returned to England. He left his home country for two years, traveling throughout Europe after the publication of his second book English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. The book forced him to run away from England because of his extreme criticism of the English literary world.

 
·         On July 16, 1951, the world was introduced to Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s only novel Catcher in the Rye.

Steve Bargdill is the author of The Wasteland Series available on Amazon. He’s written for several newspapers and is currently a first year English graduate student at the University of Wyoming. You can read his short stories for free on Wattpad.

 

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