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Maintaining Good Tense Control In Your Writing

Keep your tenses under control

What is tense control in writing?

It is staying in your selected primary tense and time and then using other tenses to highlight changes in the time frame.

Can you switch tenses in writing?

Yes, of course, you can change tenses and time. But only when you need to indicate a distinct change.

Time and tenses in writing

You can write in past, present, or future time in any form of writing. In each time setting, you have a choice of verb tenses you can use.

For example, if you write in the present, you will mostly use the present simple, present continuous, and perhaps present perfect tense.

Writing in the past uses past simple, past continuous, and the past perfect form.

When writing in the future, you use will, going to, or any other future form.

Changing tenses in writing is always necessary for variety. But you need to be careful with changes in time.

Your choice of time and tense depends on what you intend to write.

It will be different for an essay, an article, a story, a research paper, a literary work, or a business proposal.

 

Tenses for writing projects

tenses

Story writing tenses

For short stories and novels, the past is the most common choice. In fact, the simple past tense is often called the storytelling tense.

You are recounting a series of events in the past through your narration and dialogue.

You indicate changes or switches in the time order of events by using good tense control and selection.

For example, the past perfect says that it is an event older than an event in the past simple.

You can use it for flashbacks to what your characters might have gone through and how they felt at an earlier time.

Switching from past to present tense in a story is possible, however. But it is not an easy feat.

There are possibilities when the narrator moves into the present to talk about facts or generalities.

But generally, you would write most stories in the past in the narrative tenses.

One other choice you need to make is your point of view when you write any story.

 

Essay writing tense

The general rule is to use the present simple tense when writing an essay.

You would only use past tenses if you needed to write a narrative essay, which is quite rare.

In an essay, you are usually expressing facts, your understanding or beliefs, or your opinions.

You can only express these aspects by using present tenses.

The one possibility to change tense in essay writing is when you express a possible future outcome related to your facts or opinions.

Here is a quick example.

In the book, the author says that our waterways are highly polluted and that it now affects our domestic water supply.

I believe this will become a significant problem for our children in the future.

 

Blog and article writing

When you write an online article or blog post, you are often talking about something that has happened. Blog writing is frequently like news reporting.

You are telling the reader about events that occurred before you sat down to write.

In this case, you would always use past tenses.

However, if you are writing evergreen content like how-to articles or advice posts, you will probably choose to use the present tense.

Anytime that you are giving advice or instructions, you use the present simple or even the imperative.

Think here about a recipe article. You would always write it in the present.

You should always be clear about your tense choice before you start and avoid changing tenses in your writing.

 

Professional and academic writing

You can usually classify this type of writing into three main categories. You are going to write either a plan, a report, or a statement.

For a plan, such as a business plan or a proposal for a new curriculum, you will use future tenses and forms.

If you need to write a sales report or the results of a survey, you should only use past tenses.

A statement like a code of ethics, a statement of purpose, or a press release are most often in the present.

For these three writing tasks, when you start writing in a particular tense, you should be consistent unless there is a compelling reason to switch between tenses.

 

Common mistakes in changing tenses in writing

The most common error is switching from past to present tense at a sentence level.

One of my favorite examples of mixing tenses in a sentence is this one.

Who said writing is easy?

It is incorrect because the first verb is past, and the second is present.

There are two ways to correct this sentence with the right tense agreement.

Who says writing is easy?

Who said writing was easy?

Both sentences now agree.

Here are a few more examples of incorrect tense agreements and how to keep tenses located in the same time.

 

I was walking down the stairs, and there he stands, staring at me. Incorrect

I was walking down the stairs, and there he stood, staring at me. Correct

 

I saw Mary this morning, and she says that she is moving to Canada. Incorrect

I saw Mary this morning, and she said that she was moving to Canada. Correct

 

After I booked my flight to London, I am finding that all the prices for tickets were falling. Incorrect

After I booked my flight to London, I found that all the prices for tickets were falling. Correct

 

Changing tense in a paragraph is also an area that can cause problems.

It often happens when you use a pronoun linking back to the previous sentence.

You need to be careful with this and that. This is for present and future references. That is for a past reference.

 

The police believe the suspect is armed and is suffering from a severe mental disorder. That was why everyone in the district should be on alert. The detective in charge said all precautions were being taken. Incorrect

The police believe the suspect is armed and is suffering from a severe mental disorder. This is why everyone in the district should be on alert. The detective in charge says all precautions are being taken. Correct

 

With future tenses, mistakes often occur in first and second conditional sentences.

You can only use the future with the present and not with the past.

 

If I win the lottery, I’d buy a Ferrara. Incorrect

If I win the lottery, I’ll buy a Ferrara. Correct

If I won the lottery, I’ll buy a Ferrari. Incorrect

If I won the lottery, I’d buy a Ferrari. Correct

 

Use natural tenses

You can write more naturally if you first work out what tenses you would generally use when you speak.

You’ll save a lot of time and spend less time editing and revising.

If you write in perfect tenses that you’re not familiar with, such as present perfect or future perfect, you might find yourself shifting back to a more natural tense.

You need to stay in your comfort zone and your natural variety of English with tenses.

For US writers, past simple is much more common than present perfect. However, for UK writers, the opposite is true.

You should stay within your local voice, but still, pay attention to any mixed tense mistakes.

 

Get some help

It’s so easy to mix your tenses. Every writer is guilty of it on occasions.

If you’re not sure, get some help. Find a friend or family member who can read your text and check.

You don’t need to hire an editor, but a fresh pair of eyes always helps.

But don’t rely too much on online grammar checkers. They are great for finding basic grammar errors, but for tense shifts, they are not as reliable.

 

Conclusion

You can write in three different times, present, past, and future.

The English tense system has four tenses, or verb forms, for each time.

They are simple, continuous, perfect simple, or perfect continuous.

As long as you use the correct tenses for your time setting, you won’t make a mistake.

If you are writing a story, stick with the past tenses.

For an essay or advice article, stay with present tenses.

If you want to write about a plan, use the future.

It’s that easy.

By Derek Haines

A Cambridge CELTA English teacher and author with a passion for writing and all forms of publishing. My days are spent teaching English and writing, as well as testing and taming new technology.

5 replies on “Maintaining Good Tense Control In Your Writing”

Hi Lisa,
I have been reading (and rereading) your articles on writing. I have found them to be very interesting and very inspiring.
I am enquiring if I can download all your articles into a Word document, so I can read the offline.
I know I could this without your knowledge but I find it polite to ask permission to do so.

Hi Lisa,

I’m from Philippines, greetings from filipinos! Such a good starter pack about writing. It’s very useful, keep it up! :)

Hi Lisa-
Thanks for the heads-up to writers about the need that “other set of eyes”, professional eyes of an editor. It seems we have a bad rep from some writers, but all we really want to do is help; help the writer with clarity and simple corrections. All this so that the reader is not confused or distracted.

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