Monday, October 21, 2013

Present? Past? Make up your mind!

"With one hand she takes the ice cream cone, and with the other, she grabbed her purse."

What's wrong with this sentence?

If you say, "nothing," then I have a feeling you are not going to get the point of this blog post. If you say "present and past tense are both used in the same sentence for no apparent reason" -- BINGO! You got it.

"Take" is present tense; "grabbed" is past tense. I suppose it is possible that I am the only reader in the world who is confused/bothered/annoyed by this, but I doubt it. Even if you don't know the names of all the tenses and their uses in English, the above sentence very likely interrupts the flow for you, causing you to mentally stumble.

As a writer, you don't want your readers to stumble. If you are writing fiction, you don't want to interrupt the flow of your story or pull the reader out of the mood you're trying to create. Although there may be individuals who don't notice tense changes, you are really limiting your potential fan base if you play fast and loose with tense.

I am currently reading a sample from a self-published novel in which the writer jumps back and forth from present to past tense within scenes, within paragraphs, and even within sentences. I have whiplash by the time I get to the bottom of a page. There is a very good chance that I will not keep reading this book even though the story line and characters are compelling. It just isn't worth being jerked around like that.

There are reasons for using present tense and reasons for using past tense. In order to decide which is best for a particular piece you are writing, you can try both. But in the final product, please be consistent. Choose one and stick with it.

Oh -- and as Linda points out below in her Comment -- that second comma needs to go. I am usually much better these days about not overusing commas, but sometimes old habits are hard to break!


  1. I get very tense when sorting tenses LOL

  2. I think many people do, Helen! I don't have any problem with past vs present, but I do get tangled up sometimes when sorting past, present perfect, and past perfect!

  3. Scotti,
    I read right over the verb tense error. That's not usually the case for me. Perhaps if I had been reading aloud it would have made me stumble. I was debating whether the second comma was essential. Isn't it odd how different things trip us? up.

    1. Linda, you're right -- that second comma needs to go!

  4. Hi. I found your name written in a discarded library book entitled Becoming American:Young People in the American Revolution by Paul Zall. Dr. Zall was my teacher. How did you come by the book? Did you know him? Michele Rainis

    1. Hello Michele. I did not know Dr. Zall. I purchased the book while I was doing research for a book I wrote called Liberty's Children. That's why my name was written in it. My book was published in 2004. I no longer needed the book so I donated it.


So, what do you say?