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Shifty Tenses

Many students believe that tense changes should always be avoided. However, sometimes a shift in tense is necessary to indicate a change in the timeframe of the action. It is the unnecessary shifts in tense that sometimes cause awkwardness and should be avoided.

What is tense?

Tense is the grammatical word to describe the ending of a verb (usually –ed for past and –s for present). English usually marks the sense of time with an adverb (for example: it is happening today or it happened yesterday.) When proofreading for unnecessary tense shifts, there are several questions to keep in mind: “When do I want to set this action?” and “Has the time period changed?” For example, I may be writing an essay about my experiences on a recent trip to Virginia and want to say that I saw the Mason-Dixon line for the first time. I have several options. I can write my paper in the past tense, which is the style most people are used to reading in novels or short stories, as follows:

  • Then the driver pointed to a white line painted on the road and said, “There’s the Mason-Dixon line.”

However, I may choose to make my essay more immediate by placing the action in the present. This is also an acceptable writing style, especially for an essay:

  • Then the driver points to a white line painted on the road and says, “There’s the Mason-Dixon line.”

In this case, the tense is merely a matter of style; it is your choice.

Should I ever change tense?

Sometimes it is necessary to change tense. For example, if the time frame of the action changes from past to present, the tense should change to indicate this:

  • Although it was only a four-hour ride from my home in Pennsylvania to my boyfriend’s home in Virginia, I was terrified. Looking back, I think my feelings may have been influenced by stereotypes of the Old South.

Although this paragraph starts in the past tense, the phrase “Looking back” clearly shows the time frame of the action “think.” The tense change is perfectly acceptable without this phrase also:

  • Although it was only a four-hour ride from my home in Pennsylvania to my boyfriend’s home in Virginia, I was terrified. I think my feelings may have been influenced by stereotypes of the Old South.

The reason for this tense change is that I am thinking now—in the present time. Notice how putting that sentence in the past tense changes the time frame and meaning of the action.

  • I thought my feelings may have been influenced by stereotypes of the Old South.

Now it sounds as though I was reflecting during the car ride, but I wanted to imply that it was only later that I had this thought.

When is it wrong to shift tense?

There are other times, though, when a tense shift is not correct. For example, if the action all happened in the same time—past, present, or future—then the verbs should be consistent in tense. This “mistake” is often heard in speech, and it is even used in very informal writing. However, from a grammatical viewpoint, this type of unnecessary shift in tense should be avoided in more formal (such as academic) writing.

  • I climbed out of the car, walked through the door, and prepared to meet “the parents,” but instead a large, honey-colored dog runs to meet me at the door.

Here is a better way of writing this sentence:

  • I climbed out of the car, walked through the door, and prepared to meet “the parents,” but instead a large, honey-colored dog ran to meet me at the door.

What tense is best for my paper?

There are other uses of tense that a college student should be aware of. English majors and others who write analysis papers will often write in the literary present. This allows a writer to write about fictional or nonfictional information from a literary work in the present tense.

  • Shakespeare uses many risqué puns in his plays. In one scene, he disguises sexual references as sword-fighting terms.

Although Shakespeare wrote many years ago, his work can still be talked about in the present because it still exists. Again, though, there is no hard and fast rule about tense. If you wanted to stress that this happened in the past, perhaps as part of a biography of Shakespeare which was describing how he used to write, you may choose to write it in past tense instead of the literary present:

  • Shakespeare used many risqué puns in his plays. In one scene, he disguised sexual references as sword-fighting terms.

This is also grammatically correct, but it changes the focus of the sentence slightly. Now it reads more like a narrative than an analysis. In a situation like this, when both styles are equally grammatically correct, it becomes a choice of deciding which is better for your purposes. Are you analyzing or narrating?

I’m still confused. Do you have an example of a paper that uses tense changes well?

The following is an example of an essay that uses tense changes successfully. Read the description of how the student changes tense and then pay attention to the effects of the tense changes as you read his essay. Some of the verbs in the essay are in bold to help you spot these changes. (This example is taken from a paper by a former student in Professor Blackledge’s Theater Criticism class.)

This writer begins in past tense to talk about a specific production of the play. Then he shifts into something called the universal present to make the reader feel like an observer watching the play unfold. Then he shifts back to past tense when making a comment about the play—something he felt when he was watching it. Then he shifts again to present tense in the final paragraph to state his overall evaluation of the play.

The Pittsburgh Public Theater production of The Pirates of Penzance presented their audience with a lighthearted theatrical experience that could be enjoyed by theater goers, young and old alike. Written over one hundred years ago by the legendary operetta team Gilbert and Sullivan, Pirates has enjoyed great success with each new incarnation. Pittsburgh Public managed to hold to this tradition once again by bringing this ageless piece of musical theater to life with freshness as well as a salute back to the days of theater past. This look back to the theater of Victorian England was most evident in the set design of Michael Schweikardt.

When the audience first enters the theater their eyes are drawn to a large, false proscenium painted bright red to resemble a large red curtain found in an old opera house. At the top of the proscenium are the stylized letters “G&S” to acknowledge the plays creators. Hanging from the ceiling are two gaslight chandeliers helping to transport the viewers back in time to the world of Gilbert and Sullivan. The playing area in front of the proscenium is painted in a fashion which resembles the lobby of a grand opera house. Disrupting this grand Victorian vision are two brown boulders placed on either side of the stage, foreshadowing the scene that is to be staged. These aspects create a mood for the audience by acknowledging them and allowing them to just enjoy the show.

As the curtain rises, the audience views the backdrop depicting a rocky beach with a ship anchored in the distance. Set in front of the backdrop is a rocky hill indicating that the action will take place on a flat of land above the beach. Cut into the hill is a tiny cave which will serve as a hiding place later in the act. The actors’ entrances are made coming over this rocky structure and entering onto the stage. I felt that Michael Schweikardt’s design was very effective in meeting the needs of this scene. We must take into account that most of the action takes place in front of this set and allows the twenty-member cast to move freely within their world. Once again, the image of a late nineteenth-century production is perceived with the use of the simplistic structures and the simply painted backdrop.

I feel that Mr. Schweikardt’s challenge in designing this production would be to provide a functional set without taking away from the spirit of this timeless tale. The Pirates of Penzance was written for a different audience from today’s. In a time when landing helicopters on stage and giant chandeliers come crashing down dramatic finales, audiences expect more. By focusing the spectacle of his set to bring the audience into the time this operetta was first produced, the audience is satisfied from the beginning. They can better understand why there is still a demand for century-old productions like The Pirates of Penzance and enjoy the experience today.

by Jessica Knouse

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