Tense about Tenses

Last night I got a complimentary, please-subscribe-to-us magazine in the mail.  I read through it, loved what it stood for and found one glaring error that prompted this post.

The issue?  A tense change in mid sentence.  Or, more exactly, two.  In one sentence.  Written by the editor.  So as not to injure the integrity of the magazine, I will rewrite the sentence while keeping the same verbs.

Last year, she placed the lamp in the window where passing pedestrians can see its beauty and hung a for sale sign on the shade.

Past, present, past.

By nature, most people speak in gramatically correct tenses.  However, when we try to convey our thoughts on paper, we often get confused.  One of the easiest ways to keep tenses consistent is to highlight them (on paper or in our minds) and read an abbreviated version of the sentence.  The example sentence might read like this:

She placed it so pedestrians can see it and hung a sign on the shade.

Written this way, it is very easy to “hear” the tense change.  Below are examples of this sentence with consistent tenses.

Past tense: She placed it so pedestrians could see it and hung a sign on the shade.

Present tense: She places it so pedestrians can see it and hangs a sign on the shade.

Consistent tense is a tense issue for writers.  Improperly written passages confuse readers.  Too many throughout an article or novel can turn readers off completely and force them to put away our writing. 

One of the biggest concerns budding writers have with present tense is the use of

Words Ending in -ed

Back in the day when English teachers wrote on chalk boards and the warm scent of mimeographed papers filled the air, we were taught that adding ed to a word makes it past tense.  However, since our language is as consistent as a summer storm, I will address this tense issue in plain English.

 Earlier in this post, I used an “ed” word right smack in the middle of present tense writing.

However, when we try to convey our thoughts on paper, we often get confused. 

In the above example, try and get are the verbs.  Confused is not.

But, isn’t confused a past tense verb?  Yes.  But not here. 

To check whether a word is a verb, put a subject (we) next to the questionable word (try/get) and read the phrase out loud.  We try.  We get. 

These make true sentences with a subject and a verb.  Their answers can be found in the rest of the sentence. 

When we try [to convey our thoughts], we get [confused]. 

If we do this with confused, our sentence is incomplete because there is no answer in the sentence.

When we try [to convey our thoughts], we confused [?]. 

Written that way, it a)becomes obvious that the tenses are wrong and b)makes absolutely no sense.  We want to know what got confused, but the sentence doesn’t tell us that and could mean anything.  For example: When we try [to convey our thoughts], we confused [the dog for a pteradactyl].

 So what is confused?  In this case, it describes us as writers.  It modifies, or makes something more clear about our present state.  For those painfully reverting back to tenth grade English, modifiers are adjectives and adverbs.

Another way to tell the difference between a modifier and a verb is to substitute another descriptor for the questionable word.  Confused becomes loud, tired or angry. 

We get loud.  We get tired.  We get angry.

If we tried to substitute these words for our verb-suspect (confused),these sentences would read: We loud.  We tired.  We angry.

Which would be fine if we still lived in caves and clubbed woolly mammoths for dinner and learned from chalkboards and mimeographed paper.

Inspired by a writing buddy who asked about tense this morning, here’s another example that will illustrate all the methods described above:

I make sure my kids get polished up every morning and double-check their teeth before they go to school.

Our verb check shows us that make, get, double-check and go are our verbs. 

I make [sure], kids get [polished], I double-check [teeth] and they go [to school] are all present tense.

Kids polished [?] is a) the wrong tense and b) does not provide the answer. 

If we substitute, we get green kids, funny kids, happy kids or dirty kids, which means that polished is a modifier.

If this post made you tense, don’t worry, most likely you are not alone.  However, if you are anything like my Oldest who thinks capturing a woolly mammoth in present day Florida would be easier than mastering grammar rules on paper, this simplified version may help put your tenses in their proper place.

~cat

*disclaimer: this post is filled with practical application and is in no way meant as a substitute for instruction on the proper use of mechanics by a trained professional such as your previous English teacher or Grammar Girl.

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4 responses to “Tense about Tenses

  1. Tense changes in the “real” world drive me nutty! My students at school get used to me screaming AAAAHHHH when I find one :) They tend to learn pretyy quickly!

  2. I find reading things aloud really helps with this problem too. The rhythm just won’t feel right if you don’t keep your tenses consistent!

    Tense confusion is one of those things that leaps out at me and makes me crazy when I read it in someone else’s writing, but which is, of course, easy to create in my own writing . . . language is such a funny beast!

    • Michelle, I definitely find it much easier to find errors in everyone else’s writing than my own. I guess that’s why editors still have jobs : )

      I think reading aloud goes a long way in correcting many errors. We hear our writing much better when it’s spoken.

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