Friday, September 9, 2011

Keep to One Verb Tense

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.

The Elements of Style is a treasure. Every writer should own a copy of the slim volume first developed by William Strunk, Jr. and continued by E. B. White, Strunk’s student in 1919.

Word economy makes the style guide a treasure. It is just eighty-five pages explaining forty-five rules and usage principles. Other online blogs, including my own, and print manuals are much longer. Strunk and White simply review best practices and offer short, clear examples.

Rule 21 in the 3rd edition is “keep to one tense,” and this is excellent advice because shifting verb tenses or choosing the wrong tense leads to confusion.

First, unlike Strunk and White, I will not presume that readers remember basic verb tenses. What follows then is a brief review.

Present Tense:

·      In my community, sirens sound when Storm Chasers spot a tornado.
·      Abrasive noise blasts from the television as a warning crawls across the screen.
·      Many homeowners head to their garages where shelters under the concrete floor provide protection.

Past Tense:

·      In my community, an F-5 tornado turned many buildings and homes into toothpicks in May, 1999.
·      The funnels were one-mile wide and on the ground for an unprecedented length of time.
·      The community rebuilt after the terrible storm although some businesses and homeowners never returned after being uprooted.

Future Tense:

·      Newcomers to this community will enjoy the automated telephone message system that warns residents about street closings, flood hazards, and service changes.
·      This community will overcome the storms that pass overhead.
·      Potential buyers will appreciate the safe building practices in this community.

Perfect Tense:

·      Sirens have blasted a warning for three hours while storms continue to form and grow overhead. (Present Perfect tense indicates an event that began in the past but is ongoing.)
·      My neighbor finally slept after sirens that had blasted for three hours fell silent. (Past Perfect tense indicates a past event, just as Simple Past tense does, but in this example, the sirens’ noise pre-dates the sirens’ silence and the ability to sleep.)
·      The sirens will have served their purpose when no lives are lost during a tornado. (Future Perfect tense indicates a future event that will be complete at a specified point in the future.)

Progressive Tense:

·      I am driving at highway speed while dialing the phone. (Present Progressive indicates an action or event in progress.)
·      I was texting and driving when I hit the guardrail. (Past Progressive indicates an ongoing action interrupted by another.)

Confusing Tenses (Confusing Shifts in Tense): An example that confuses.

            Once upon a time, a beautiful woman cries because her wicked stepmother was having a horrible, terrible, very bad day and refused to let the woman attend the annual party held the day before.

What’s Confusing about that?
·      Once upon a time implies a story that took place in the past, yet the woman cries in the present moment.
·      The woman’s tears appear to be the result of a wicked stepmother, but is the stepmother wicked because she had a bad day or because she refused to let the woman go to a party that has already taken place?
·      Huh?

Consistent Tenses: An example that is not confusing.

            Once upon a time, a beautiful woman cried because her stepmother was wicked. Every day was a horrible, terrible, very bad day for the stepmother, but one day was worse than others so she refused to let the woman attend the annual party and that caused the woman to cry.

Choosing Tenses for Literary Analysis: Use the present tense. Romeo dies each time some student writes about him, but Romeo died before Juliet when writing about the chronology of events in the play.

In conclusion, another terrific resource offers Rule 21 as follows:

Do not shift from one tense to another if the time frame for each action or state is the same. (

Reading Challenge:

Read the latest edition of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. The Fiftieth Anniversary edition is still only eighty-five pages of text, and a limited edition is illustrated. Enjoy.
Writing Challenge:

Tell the story of your first day of school or your child’s first day. Write at least 350 to 500 hundred words, using simple past tense unless the time frame for the action or the emotional state is not simple past.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):  This post is a grammar and usage lesson so let it suffice.