To Tense, Or Not To Tense

Photo by Olya Kobruseva on

The feedback from my beta readers is trickling in. I’m excited to see what they think. Then my pesky bugaboo surfaced. Several readers thought that my switching tenses was jarring. Oh boy, I was afraid of that. Honestly, I don’t even know what they are talking about. I think I failed that part of grammar.

I could ignore the suggestion, but then I would forever have the nagging feeling that I didn’t do my absolute best. Time to do a deep dive into tenses. Wow! Sure are a lot of tenses. Way too much for me to absorb. Let’s narrow it down to the tenses I need for my memoir.

Memoirs are essentially essays, but a very long form of them. In essays, you would normally use past tense or present tense or both. Still too complicated for my poor brain. Time to simplify this so I can remember and recognize tense changes. I’ve come up with a few rules.

Rule 1

Never mix tenses in a sentence.

That’s all well and good, but how about an example?

Who said writing is easy?

Incorrect because the first verb is past, and the second is present.

Two ways of correcting this.

Who says writing is easy?

Who said writing was easy?

Both sentences now agree with their respective tense.

Seems simple enough. Hold on there before we continue. There is an exception to this rule. Sigh! Dialogue changes everything. Simply adding quotation marks makes the first incorrect sentence corret.

Who said “writing is easy?”

Thankfully, I don’t have many lines of dialogue, so I can pretty much ignore this exception.

Rule 2

Never mix tenses in a paragraph.

If the first sentence is present tense, then all the sentences in the paragraph need to be present tense. Same rule applies if the first sentence is past tense, all sentences must be past tense.

Let’s check and see if there is an exception. Double sigh. Of course there is. However it is used in very rare instances and only by a skilled writer that is deliberately going for a certain effect. This doesn’t apply to me, so I can safely ignore the exception.

Rule 3

You can change tense from paragraph to paragraph or section to section or chapter to chapter, but you MUST signal the reader. This let’s them know that you are changing tenses. Here’s an example with the signal in bold.

Riding the daily commuter train, I sat down on my usual seat by the window. Looking out at the fields rushing past with hints of colorful wildflowers is soothing.

Four months ago, the fields were covered in snow and looked pristine.

Thankfully no exceptions to this rule. Grammar rules are complex enough as it is. With this new found knowledge, I can go forth and tense-mix never more.


8 thoughts on “To Tense, Or Not To Tense

  1. It may be easier to think of decisions about tense as a matter of identifying when in time events take place, particularly when in time they take place in relation to each other. It’s a way of ensuring that the reader is firmly grounded in place and time.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “Riding the daily commuter train, I sat down on my usual seat by the window. Looking out at the fields rushing past with hints of colorful wildflowers is soothing.” In that paragraph, I would have written “wildflowers is soothing” because “I sat” in the previous sentence. But tenses mess with my head if I think about them too much!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.