Maintaining the Same Verb Tense in Your Sentences

If you shift tense when you're writing a sentence, you can stall your communication. (Consider this analogy: If you’ve ever ridden in a car with a stick shift, you know that smooth transitions require care. If something is just a little off, the car bucks like a mule.)

Check out this sentence with multiple verbs:

Larry begs Ella to marry him, offers her a crown and a private room, and finally won her hand.

Now make a list of the verbs in the sentence:

  • Begs

  • Offers

  • Won

The first two verbs are in present tense, but the third shifts into past for no valid reason. Stall! If the verbs in this sentence were gears in a stick shift, your car would conk out. All three verbs should be in present tense or all three should be in past tense. Here are the corrected versions of the sentence:

Larry begs Ella to marry him, offers her a crown and a private room, and finally wins her hand. (All three verbs are in present tense.)

or

Larry begged Ella to marry him, offered her a crown and a private room, and finally won her hand. (All three verbs are in past tense.)

Sometimes in telling a story, you must shift tense because the action of the story requires a change in time. For example:

Betsy always practices for at least ten hours a day, unless she is giving a concert. Last week she flew to Antarctica for a recital. When she arrived, the piano was frozen. Nevertheless, the show went on. Next week Betsy will practice twelve hours a day to make up for the time she lost last week.

Betsy’s story has present (practices), present progressive (is giving), past (flew, arrived, was frozen, went, lost), and future tenses (will practice). Each change of tense is justified by the information in the story.

Can you tell which sentence is correct?

A. Eggworthy scrambled to the finish line a nano-second before the next fastest racer and then raised his arms in victory.
B. Eggworthy scrambles to the finish line a nano-second before the next fastest racer and then raises his arms in victory.

Answer: Both sentences are correct. (Don’t you hate trick questions?) In sentence A, both scrambled and raised are in past tense. No shift, no problem. In sentence B, both scrambles and raises are in present tense. Again no shift, again no problem.

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