Meaning of Tense Shift in Verbs

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Signposts pointing to the past, present, and future
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In English grammar, tense shift refers to the change from one verb tense to another (usually from past to present, or vice versa) within a sentence or paragraph.

A writer may temporarily shift from past tense to present tense in order to enhance the vividness of a narrative account.

In prescriptive grammar, writers are cautioned to avoid unnecessary shifts in tense. Unmotivated shifts between present and past may obscure meaning and confuse readers.

Examples and Observations

  • "The bridge was still open then, and I was up there one day mowing the grass alongside the road, just minding my own business, when I see something moving out of the corner of my eye." —C.J. Fisher, The Legend of Diadamia. AuthorHouse, 2005
  • "Staring rigidly up at it, Justin is listening to her joyous protestations at his right side. Dizzy from travel, laden with last-minute hand luggage, the two of them have minutes earlier arrived here from London for the first time." —John le Carré, The Constant Gardener. Hodder & Stoughton, 2001

Gliding From One Tense to Another

"It is possible to glide from one tense to another in the course of one sentence, but the key to doing it is always to be in control, to know what you are doing, what effect you are hoping to achieve. 

In The Literary Review (February 2006), Francis King comments with admiration on how D.J. Taylor in his novel Kept 'frequently shifts gears from past tense to present to tauten a scene.'

And in an essay 'Glitches' (Granta 27), John Gregory Dunne writes:

Off the road there was what appeared to be a reviewing stand, and I sat there for a few moments, taking in the museum and the cold blue Sunday sky, taking stock, what to do, what to do next, I'd really hate to cancel dinner tonight . . . I'm breathing normally now, it's OK A-OK, I won't even tell my wife, nor Tim, especially not Tim, I feel fit as a fiddle now.

He wasn't though, but that's another story, told by his wife, Joan Didion, in The Year of Magical Thinking. Just notice the tense shift." —Carmel Bird, Writing The Story Of Your Life. HarperCollins, 2007

The Effect of Tense Shift in A Tale of Two Cities

"A Tale of Two Cities [by Charles Dickens] has a tense shift at a great moment of the story. After the trial and after Sydney Carton has taken the place of Charles Darnay in jail, the drugged Darnay and his family are fleeing in the stagecoach from Paris. Suddenly we find that the story is in the present tense. This adds vividness and excitement and here marks a peak which encodes part of the notional structure denouement of the story." —Robert E. Longacre, The Grammar of Discourse, 2nd ed. Plenum Press, 1996

Legitimate Tense Shifts

"Sometimes writers shift from past to present tense when telling a story to add vividness to the events. This legitimate tense shift is a literary device called the historical present. It is familiar to readers of epic poetry, but people also use it when relating everyday anecdotes:

I was walking down Delancey Street the other day when a guy comes up to me and asks me for the time. —(The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Houghton Mifflin, 2005)

Usage Tips: Avoiding Needless Tense Shifts

  • "What is an example of an unmotivated shift in tense in writing? One example is starting a story in past tense and suddenly shifting into present tense:
    Last week I was walking along a street when this man walks up to me and says . . .
    We do this in speech all the time, but in formal writing it's considered to be an error." —Edward L. Smith and Stephen A. Bernhardt, Writing At Work: Professional Writing Skills for People on the Job. NTC Publishing, 1997)
  • "Tense places the action of the verb in time: Today I go. Yesterday I went. Tomorrow I will go. Different verbs in a sentence or paragraph may logically use different tenses to reflect actions at different times.
    We will play tennis before we eat breakfast but after we have had our coffee.
    The tense you select to describe most of the actions in your paper is called the governing tense. Once you establish it, do not use another tense without a good reason. . . .
    "The literary present tense is used to describe literature or art. If you use it, do so consistently." —Toby Fulwiler and Alan R. Hayakawa, The Blair Handbook. Prentice Hall, 2003
  • "It is common practice to analyze literary works in present tense. Thus, you would write, 'Pearl is a difficult child' rather than 'Pearl was a difficult child' in an analysis of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. If you are quoting a critic who has used a past tense verb in a particular sentence, you may change the tense of the critic's verb by typing the tense you wish to use in square brackets. This bracketed change of tense avoids an awkward verb tense shift in your text.
    "As a general rule of thumb, however, avoid changing the tense of verbs in the text of a literary work you are analyzing." —Linda Smoak Schwartz, The Wadsworth Guide to MLA Documentation, 2nd ed. Wadsworth, 2011
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Meaning of Tense Shift in Verbs." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Meaning of Tense Shift in Verbs. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Meaning of Tense Shift in Verbs." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).