Sequence of Tenses

Today’s topic is sequence of tenses. That’s a fancy name for rules governing verbs – such as when you use past tense (went, liked, saw) and when you use past-perfect tense (had gone, had liked, had seen).

In conversation, you’re probably not going to pay much attention to the rules I’ll be reviewing. (At least I don’t.) Sequence of tenses starts to become important when you want to showcase your skill and precision for a professional writing task.

Let’s start by clearing up a common misconception: You should use the same tense for all the verbs in a sentence. No, no, no. It’s perfectly ok to mix verb tenses.

Take a look at these examples. (All are correct.)

My doctor told me that headaches are a possible side effect of the medication. (told is past, are is present)  CORRECT

The meteorologist said the storm will be over by 8:30. (said is past, will be is future)  CORRECT

Joe recommended taking Central Boulevard because it tends to be quiet this time of day.  (recommended is past, tends is present)  CORRECT

We spent some time discussing store hours for Christmas Eve, which falls on Sunday this year.  (spent is past, falls is present)  CORRECT

If you’re looking for a rule, here it is: trust your common sense. Take a look at this sentence, which needs two past-tense verbs:

Theodore Roosevelt declared that he would not run for a second term.  CORRECT

Let’s go on to past-perfect. In general, past-perfect is needed when two events happened at different times in the past. Use the past participle and had in front of the event that happened first. Most past participles will end with –ed, but a few verbs have special forms: gone, seen, done, and so on.

Although Karen had invited me to stay with her, I booked a hotel room instead.  CORRECT

I returned the DVD when I realized I had seen the movie with Jeff.  CORRECT

There’s an exception. When the sentence includes a time marker (last week, yesterday, in 1902), you don’t need to bother with a past-perfect verb.

After Joan told me about Grisham’s latest novel last week, I reserved it at the library.  CORRECT

Does it seem like there’s a lot to remember? It’s really not as much as you might think. If you review the rules a couple of time and practice writing a few sentences, you’ll quickly master sequence of tenses.

Verbs concept


Short Pencil Point Deviant Art ok

Instant Quiz ANSWER

Be careful not to confuse altogether (“completely”) with all together (combined in one group). You probably would interview applicants individually, so altogether is the correct word for today’s sentence.

By the end of the day, we had interviewed five applicants altogether.  CORRECT


What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You is available in paperback and Kindle formats from and other online booksellers.
What Your English Teacher Cover not compressed
“A useful resource for both students and professionals” – Jena L. Hawk, Ph.D., Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College

“Personable and readable…Jean knows her subject forwards and backwards.” – Adair Lara, author of Hold Me Close, Let Me Go


Problem Sentences

Think about a paintbrush. It’s a tool, like a screwdriver – a lifeless object that gets its power from the person holding it. In gifted hands, a paintbrush can create amazing works of art. But without a human hand, the paintbrush just lies there, powerless and inert.

Artist's paintbrush

Language is a different kind of tool. Words can take on a life of their own hours, days, months – even years after they were spoken or written down.

Someone unearths an old speech or memo, and a promising career comes to an end. An overheard conversation wrecks a long friendship. A clumsy sentence destroys a promising business proposal. A typo on a resume aborts a job offer. Or…to give you an everyday example…someone orders a pizza with peppers and gets a pepperoni pizza instead. (That has happened to Charlie and me more than once.)

People tend to underestimate the power of language. When something goes wrong, we call it human error, carelessness, or incompetence. We mistakenly believe that language is completely logical and rational. If you memorize the parts of speech, learn how to diagram a sentence, and master the rules of syntax, you can exercise total control over language.

The truth is that language often finds a way to escape from our curbs, restraints, and intentions. At least that’s what postmodern language experts tell us, and I think they’re right.

Today I’m going to talk about several sentences that seem slippery to me. Somehow they’ve managed to escape the conventional language principles you and I were taught in school.

Let’s start with this pair of sentences. They seem innocent enough, but….

  1. If you want to take the lower bunk, I’ll sleep in the upper one.

2. If you’re looking for a place to spend the night, we have a spare bedroom.

A grammarian might say these are conditional sentences. The first half of the first sentence – your choice of a lower or upper bunk – determines what happens in the second half – the place where I’ll be sleeping tonight. Clear and simple, right?

But take a look at the second sentence. It’s similar to the first one (an adverbial clause starting with if, followed by an independent clause). But the first half of the sentence doesn’t determine the second half. That spare bedroom will be there even if you’re not looking for a place to spend the night.

Can we still call it a conditional sentence? And if put it into a different category, how can we justify that? There’s no syntactical difference between Sentence #2 and Sentence #1.

And what about this sentence?

If you need a ride home, I’ll be at the train station at 6:15.

Talk about slippery! The sentence could mean I’ll come to the station only if you need a ride. That would fit the definition of a conditional sentence.

But the sentence could also mean I’ll be at the station whether you need a ride or not. For example, maybe I’m planning to pick up another passenger at 6:15. In that case, it wouldn’t be a conditional sentence any more. But then what would we call it? And how can we justify placing it in a different grammatical category when none of the words and punctuation have changed?

 *  *  *  *  *

When my husband was writing one of his gardening columns last week, he came up with something like this:

We’ve had five straight days of heavy rain. But the water level in Lake Howard hasn’t risen, at least to a degree the average person would notice.

I thought the second sentence might confuse some readers. After some discussion, Charlie and I came up with this revision:

We’ve had five straight days of heavy rain. But the water level in Lake Howard hasn’t risen, at least not to a degree the average person would notice.

Now the meaning is perfectly clear. But did you notice what happened? We added the word not – yet the meaning of the sentence stayed the same. That can’t be, can it? Shouldn’t adding not completely change the meaning?

I do like apple pie.

I do not like apple pie.

OK, one more example – and this one is just for fun. I can’t resist including this delightful sentence pair I saw on a chalkboard one day:

Time flies like an eagle.

Fruit flies like a banana.

Ah, language!



More about Strong Sentences

My friend Janis Koike and I often talk about language issues and writing problems. Recently I put up a post about strengthening weak sentences. Janis quickly responded with an excellent example of her own. Here’s the original sentence, from a business email:

“I am copying Donna to make sure I haven’t missed anything.” (Donna is the manager.)

Janis commented that anything raised a red flag. (I heartily agree!) Here’s her version:
“I am copying Donna to make sure there are no misstatements or omissions.”  STRONGER
Janis’ revision inspired me to compile a list of potentially troublesome words and phrases. Note that these are cautions, not rules. If you find that an expression on the list is working for you, that’s great! Don’t feel obligated to change it.
1.  In today’s society

When I was teaching college writing courses, I noticed that this phrase turned up again and again in weak, poorly developed papers. It seems to be something that nervous students grab on to when they don’t have a strong position about a topic.

My advice: Avoid generalizing about today’s society. Find some data – tell some stories – get a strong statement from an expert. Always aim to start your papers with a bang.

2.  In my opinion

The English language is full of opinion words and phrases like good, better, worse, should, must, right, wrong. If you think the college library needs to expand its weekend hours, that’s already an opinion. Adding “in my opinion” or “I think” is weak, redundant, and unnecessary. Worse, it sounds like you’re apologizing for what you think.

I can’t resist adding that it drives me crazy when someone says something like this: “I’m sorry, but I think [whatever] is unacceptable.” It feels like they want me to congratulate them for taking a stand. Yuck!

3.  Existing
Often you can just delete existing. If your topic didn’t exist, you wouldn’t be writing about it.
4.  Individual
This is another word that’s often unnecessary. There’s no difference between members and individual membersstudents and individual students….You can probably think of many more examples.
 5.  Etc.

Etc. can cause a sentence to sputter like a car running out of gas. Revise the sentence to avoid the need for etc. For example, you can introduce the list with “like,” “such as,” or “examples include,” as I did in #2 above.

 *  *  *  *  * 

Dashes are another route to stronger writing – and so is breaking a long sentence into two short ones. Take a look at the three sentences below. Although the basic information is the same in all three, #2 and #3 sound better to me than #1.

  1. For my birthday, my parents gave me an Apple Watch, which I use to enhance my fitness program.

2.  My new Apple Watch –  a birthday gift from my parents – enhances my fitness program.

  3.  My parents gave me an Apple Watch for my birthday. In two weeks my blood pressure had dropped, my heart rate had slowed, and my waist was an inch smaller.

Try experimenting on your own when you sit down to write – it’s a great way to sharpen your sentence skills.

Apple Watch


Cat Stevens

No Instant Quiz today. I wasn’t planning to do any blogging this weekend…but I’ve just read a magnificent New Yorker article about Cat Stevens, and I had to put up a link for you.

Of course I love Morning Has Broken, but I know very little of Cat Stevens’ other work.

No matter. The article – the sheer writing of it – is what I’m so excited about (and, to be honest, a little weepy). The writing in the New Yorker is always good, but this is exceptional even for them.

You, out there, wanting to write better – click the link and read the article. And think about it. And then go forth and do likewise. 

Meaning: Make a connection to whatever you’re writing about. Pay close attention. Be there. And bring with you whatever is hiding in your soul. (That advice applies to me as well.)

(And it wouldn’t hurt to listen to “Morning Has Broken” a couple of times, as I’ve already done this morning.)

                                       Cat Stevens




What Did You Learn in High School?

I was an English teacher for more than 30 years. Ours is a noble profession that has helped countless students become skilled writers. I remember my high school English teacher – Bill Testerman – with fondness and gratitude, and there’s a little bit of him in everything I write.

But there’s a gap between what’s often taught in high school English classes and what’s required for success in real-world writing. Today I’m going to discuss three important differences that you might want to look for in your own writing.

1.  Grammar

Very likely you had a teacher or two who told you that memorizing grammatical terms and labeling parts of sentences would magically turn you into a writer. Not true. Most good writers acquired their sentence skills through reading (tons of it, often with a flashlight under the bedcovers when we were growing up).

2,  Sophisticated vocabulary

I used to work with an instructor who endlessly complained about the lack of sophistication in her students’ essays. I wish I’d thought of thrusting one of those essays into her hands and asking her to rewrite it. I can guarantee that the results would have been pompous gobbledygook. You can’t stuff fancy words into an essay about – say – your grandmother’s kitchen or your part-time job at Dairy Queen.

Mind you, I’ve read marvelous – even publishable – student papers about those topics: lively, insightful, and full of vivid detail. But calling your grandmother’s stewpot a “large capacity culinary vessel” doesn’t make for good writing. What’s worse is that the fancy-words habit is difficult to break later on, when you need strong, vigorous writing in the workplace.

3. Hedging

High-school students don’t have the life experience and critical-thinking skills needed for in-depth writing about topics like prison reform, medical marijuana, or legalized prostitution. Not surprisingly, some instructors tell their students to take a cautious middle path when they write about a controversial subject. The papers that come in a week later are empty of content and loaded with qualifiers: rather, somewhat, in most cases, for the most part, usually

It’s not difficult to see why teachers might want to rein in their students’ writing this way. But this cautious approach means that students may never learn how to write with passion and conviction.

Gifted teachers like my beloved Bill Testerman find age-appropriate ways for students to develop the writing and thinking skills needed for real-world success. Today, though, I’m talking to writers, not teachers. Do you have some leftover writing habits that are holding you back? Are you ready to build some new habits that will serve you better? And are you determined to start today?

Bill Testerman

                                    Bill Testerman



Jean Cries “Uncle”

Some of you may not be familiar with the “cry uncle” idiom. It means “to admit defeat.” Yes, I am defeated.

During our unwelcome visit from Hurricane Irma last weekend, Charlie and I had no TV and no Internet. I passed the time by rereading one of my favorite books: Watch Your Language by Theodore Bernstein. He was the head copyeditor for the New York Times, and I am indebted to his books for rounding out my knowledge of English usage.

I stretched out on our bed and read – stopping every now and then to read the funniest bits to Charlie – until I came to this, on page 92:

Although, now that this subject has come up, there is a recent president of Columbia whose syntax falls a trifle short of perfection.  FRAGMENT

There was a loud crash as the universe came down around my ears.

I hate that although construction. It’s wrong, dammit. Any idea that starts with although is a fragment…plus you’re supposed to know better than to put a comma after although.

Here are two ways to write this sentence correctly:

However, now that this subject has come up, there is a recent president of Columbia whose syntax falls a trifle short of perfection.  CORRECT

But now that this subject has come up, there is a recent president of Columbia whose syntax falls a trifle short of perfection.  CORRECT

I’ve always assumed that this careless use of although was a recent development. But there it was, in a book by one of my favorite writers…back in 1958.

And the outrage didn’t end there. The very next day the universe mocked me with this Dustin comic strip:

Uncle. I give up. Although, I’ve vowed never to use that construction myself in this blog.


Hurricane Irma

Early this morning, Hurricane Irma went up the west coast of Florida, not far from where Charlie and I – and our cat – live in Central Florida. We live in a big, old, and strong hotel that’s been converted into condos. So we are safe.

I have a hurricane-themed activity that I often use with writing groups. You might like to try it yourself. How would you revise this press release?

The Board of Directors may elect to close the Carter Community Center in the event of an unexpected and severe weather emergency or other event that could aversely impact the safety of citizens and/or staff. The Directors will monitor conditions and reopen the Center when conditions are deemed suitable. Emergency closings will be announced at Citizens who do not have access to a computer can tune in to radio station WLCG 620 and TV channel 9 LCTV for emergency closing information.

How did you do? Here are my comments:

  1. Nobody cares who’s going to decide when to close the center. Delete the references to the Board of Directors.
  2. Obviously the directors are going to monitor conditions! Get rid of that sentence too.
  3. All emergencies are unexpected and severe. More deletions.
  4. Anyone – not just citizens who don’t use computers – might want to listen to the radio or watch a TV announcement.
  5. There’s a lot of gobbledygook here: “in the event that,” “aversely impact the safety of citizens and/or staff,” “deemed suitable.” Use everyday language when you make an announcement. For example, “if” works better than “in the event that.”

Here’s a simpler announcement that does the job more efficiently:

The Carter Community Center may close for emergencies. Information will be posted at You can also get updates from radio station WLCG 620 and TV channel 9 LCTV. 


Plain Language Part 4

Language is not just the simple communication tool we learned about in school. In this post I’m going to discuss three language categories that can help writers make decisions about vocabulary, sentence structure, and other issues: badge, barrier, and bridge.

Let me tell you about a memorable language badge. Back in the early 1950s, the Honeymooners was a popular TV comedy show. Although only 39 episodes were filmed, The Honeymooners still has legions of fans (including me) who still loyally watch the reruns.

Years ago I read a TV Guide article that nostalgically looked back at the fun the two central characters in the show – Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton – had as members of an all-male lodge called the Racoons.

Did you notice that misspelling? On the show Racoon was always (whether deliberately or not) misspelled with one “c.” It’s something any true Honeymooners fan would know.

That TV Guide writer (I wish I knew his name) was using Racoon as a badge. (I’ve always wondered how he convinced his editor to allow that misspelling. Maybe the editor was a fan too!)

Badges can be fun and useful – a way for professionals in a particular field to identify and talk to one another, for example. But badges can also create barriers in situations where bridges are needed.

Consider this scenario: A patient is suffering from a worrisome medical condition. She needs a bridge to the doctor who’s managing her treatment.

What he does instead is to show off the terminology he learned in medical school. He’s using language as a badge to impress her…a totally unnecessary effort because she already trusts his professional knowledge. (Why else would she have made the appointment?)

Instead of strengthening the patient-doctor relationship, his medical jargon is putting a barrier between them. What’s heartbreaking is that this scenario is probably repeated thousands of times every day by professionals in various fields.

(What about you? Are you impressed when someone substitutes a fancy word for a simpler one – or are you annoyed?)

* * * * *

The next time you tackle a writing task, take a moment to look for hidden intentions. Are you reaching out to your readers (building a bridge), erecting obstacles (creating a barrier), or putting yourself on display (wearing a badge)?

Sometimes badges are useful to build bonds between writers and their readers. Barriers make sense when you’re narrowing the pool of applicants for a job or performing a similar sorting task.

But most of the time a writer’s job is to build bridges.

              Two Famous Racoons


Plain Language Part 3

Imagine you’re attending a social event in your community. You start talking to a personable young woman who tells you she’s a pediatrician. Later, at the same party, you talk to a personable young man who tells you he’s a children’s doctor.

Which one is more qualified to treat sick children?

Participants at a recent business-writing workshop had a lively discussion about this question. At first several members of the group thought the pediatrician was more qualified because she would have been through specialized university training for treating children. Soon, though, they realized that any children’s doctor would have gone through that program.

So what’s the difference between a pediatrician and a children’s doctor? The answer is none. They’re two names for the same thing. The only difference is that pediatrician is derived from a Greek word (paid) meaning “child.” Children’s doctor is English.

Ironic, isn’t it? We’re proud that we can speak English, a language that’s used all over the world – but we also harbor an unconscious prejudice against it. The uneasy feeling that a “children’s doctor” is less qualified than a “pediatrician” is a remnant of an old misconception that Latin and Greek are better languages than English. For many years schools did most of their instruction in those two languages. (William Shakespeare attended one of those schools.)

The result is that we often lapse into Latin or Greek words when we want to sound smart and important. In reference to sounds more intellectual than about. Cogitate sounds better than think…and so on.

* * * * *

I’ve always envied couples who have mastered the West Coast swing, a smooth and sexy dance that never looked quite right when I tried it. Some years ago I saw a local dance teacher doing a tantalizing West Coast swing with one of her students. I called her the next day and set up a few lessons to learn the moves she was doing.

About 15 minutes into the first lesson, I started to realize why that particular dance had always eluded me. The teacher showed me a better way to count the beats of music. She corrected my posture and head position. She showed me how to work through the parts of my feet – toe, arch, heel – more precisely.

A few minutes later she walked over to the CD player to choose another song. When she came back to the dance floor, I told her I was going to keep coming back so we could work on all the ballroom dances – foxtrot and waltz, rumba and cha cha, two-step and hustle, and all the rest.

Years have gone by, and I still take one or two lessons with her every week.

 * * * * *

Ballroom dancing has its own vocabulary, and my new teacher could have tried to impress me by talking about contra body movement position, proprioception, hip abductors, guapacha timing, and so on.

But she didn’t. Instead she focused on teaching me what I came for: becoming a better dancer.

When I go to a doctor, a dry cleaner, a service station, a dance studio…I look for signs that the people there know what they’re doing and can provide whatever it was that I came for: a cure, a clean dress, a car repair, a chance to learn.

And there’s something else I look for: someone who can answer my questions without making me feel inferior. Businesses should encourage their employees to think about this question: Do you use words to put yourself on display – or to help your customers?

(How would you answer that question?)

In my next post – the last in this series about Plain Language – I’ll be talking about using words as a bridge, a badge, or a barrier.

                  Ancient Roman Forum