Verb Tenses, Anyone?

Verb changes from past to present sometimes confuse writers. I often see mistakes like this:

Joan tiptoed to the bedroom window without waking Sam. Or so she thinks. He’s lying there perfectly still, pretending that he was asleep. INCORRECT

“Tiptoed” is past; “he’s lying there perfectly still” is present tense. 

When you’re telling a story, you can’t jump back and forth between present and past. Those sentences should be written like this:

Joan tiptoed to the bedroom window without waking Sam. Or so she thought. He was lying there perfectly still, pretending that he was asleep. CORRECT

But that doesn’t mean you can’t mix tenses (past, present, future) in the same sentence. Here’s an example combining past and future that I would find perfectly acceptable:

Although the dress rehearsal went badly, tonight’s performance will be much better.  CORRECT

It’s true that there are so-called authorities who insist on a one-tense-per-sentence policy. But that’s not how the real world works. This is how that example sentence would look if we let them have their way:

Although the dress rehearsal went badly, tonight’s performance would be much better.  INCORRECT

Would” is the past tense of “will” (isn’t language amazing?), so we now have a perfectly consistent sentence. The problem, though, is that nobody would ever say it that way.

Bottom line: Be cautious about mixing tenses – and remember that real-world English usage trumps every rule.

a sign pointing to the past, the present, and the future

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2 thoughts on “Verb Tenses, Anyone?

  1. ballroomdancer Post author

    Use a comma before “and” to join two sentences: Linda called me, and she’s stopping by later.
    If you don’t have two sentences, omit “and”: Linda called me and is stopping by later.
    Using a comma before “and” in a list is optional. Newspapers don’t use it; most books do. Check the style sheet for the company or organization you’re writing for. If you’re writing on your own, you can make your own decision. (It’s called the Oxford comma.)
    We had pizza, breadsticks, and iced tea. CORRECT
    We had pizza, breadsticks and iced tea. CORRECT

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