Shifts in Verb Tense
Can You Identify a Tense Shift?
Take a look at this short story and see if you notice a problem with the verbs:
One day a princess went into the forest to play. She threw her golden ball into the air and almost caught it. It falls into the pond, and she starts to cry. A frog hops onto a lilypad and asks her what is wrong. The princess told him that she had dropped her ball, and he offered to get it for her.
Were you able to figure it out? If you noticed that the verb tenses changed back and forth between present and past tense, you’re exactly right. If you didn’t notice this time, don’t worry—by the end of this lesson you’ll be able to pick out this error, which is called a tense shift.
Definition: Tense shifts happen when writers accidentally switch from one tense to another in the same sentence, paragraph, story, or essay. Sometimes a shift is necessary, but accidental shifts happens when writers become distracted. Writers may begin their story in the past, as if they are watching it from the outside—but then, as they become absorbed in the story, they may switch to the present tense. Some writers continue shifting back and forth throughout their pieces.
It’s important to choose a tense and stick to it. When you begin a piece, decide whether you want to use past or present tense. Most narratives or stories about events that have already happened are written in the past tense. Some authors use the present tense to pull the reader into the story. This can be very effective, but only if done carefully.Note:Even if a story is told in the past tense, dialogue and quotations can be in a different tense (usually the present). This is because dialogue and quotations repeat exactly what people say from their time frame and their perspective.
Here is the same story with all the verbs in the past:
One day a princess went into the forest to play. She threw her golden ball into the air and almost caught it. It fell into the pond. She started to cry. A frog hopped onto a lilypad and asked her what was wrong. The princess told him that she had dropped her ball, and he offered to get it for her.
Sounds much better, doesn’t it?