Shift in Tense

The tense of your verb tells when events are taking place—whether in the past, the present, or the future. Early in your writing process, establish a "base tense" for your paper, and shift away from it only for good reason. If you're writing about past events, use the past tense as your base tense. If you're writing about the present or the future, build around one of those tenses.

Early in your writing process, establish a "base tense" for your paper, and shift away from it only for good reason.

 

Change: We went into Bruno's and ordered a pizza. The waitress comes over and brings us our drinks. I can see she's going to spill one.

to:

We went into Bruno's and ordered a pizza. As the waitress came back with our drinks, I could see she was going to spill one.

 

The first example, perhaps effective in casual conversation, isn't precise enough for writing. We can't tell what happened when. The second version locates the experience in the past. Of course when, as in the following example, logic insists you change tense—you should.

During high school I lived with my parents, but now I live with a close friend. Someday I will have a family of my own.

Activity

4.15 Edit the following paragraph for consistency in tense.

The first thing I hear was the terrible scream of somebody's voice blending into the squeal of rubber as we come hurtling down on the Honda from behind. It's my little sister, both hands pressed to the sides of her head, while my dad tried to push the brakes through the floor. Then suddenly we're going sideways, and I see a big church come floating across the windshield. Then I knew we'll crash.