Shifts

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  • 1. Verb Tense and Shift
  • 2. Verb Shift and Tense Errors
    Keep your tenses straight. Be consistent in your use of tenses. Don't switch from one tense to another without reason. Make sure that the sequence of events is clear. If one action happened before the other, you must adjust the tenses of each action's verb.
  • 3. Keeping Universal Truths in the Present Tense
    A universal truth is always true. That's part of its being universal. We express this by casting such statements in the present tense: "The earth's gravity holds us on the planet's surface." To put such a statement into the past sets us adrift among the heavenly bodies.
  • 4. Verb tense and writing about literature
    The same rule applies when writing about literature. Huck is always floating down the Mississippi, and Ahab is always chasing the white whale. Of course, there will be times when writing about the sequence of events in a book that you will have to use a tense other than the present, but keep your base tense the present tense: "It turns out to be true that Gatsby had been an officer during the war."
  • 5. Shifting Verb Tenses
    Many grammar texts consider shifting verb tenses within a sentence or paragraph an error – yet most of us would not see anything wrong.
    A simple example is:
    She said she is going to Europe. Said is in the past tense; is is in the present, so we have a shift in tense. If the grammar texts are correct, then to avoid this we should say either of the following:
    She said she was going to Europe.
    She said, “She is going to Europe.”
    Depending on the meaning of the first sentence, the second example may change the subject of the second she. If this person were talking about herself then it would have to be She said, “I am going to Europe.” In either case, because the second verb is in the direct quote, there is no problem with shifting the tense.
  • 6. The Prentice-Hall Handbook for Writers …
    The Prentice-Hall Handbook for Writerssays quite clearly and definitely, on page 72, “Do not shift tense or mood” and offers as an example, the following:
    Faulty: He sat down at his desk and begins to write.
    Revised: He sat down at his desk and began to write.
    On page 203, they soften their position somewhat by saying, “Avoid unnecessary shifts in person, tense or number within a paragraph.” This suggests that there may be necessary shifts, but they don’t elaborate
  • 7. The Transitive Vampire
    Even The Transitive Vampireleaves the situation unclear. “Verbs may be tense and moody, but don’t assume you can shift their tenses and moods whenever the whim strikes you” says Gordon, but then she provides the following example:
    Right: This story recounts the adventures of a hypochondriac who has been plagued by an aberrant kneecap and has tried several miracle cures and then takes matters into his own hands and drowns himself.
    This example has several shifts, apparently all-acceptable to the author.
  • 8. Simon and Schuster Handbook for Writers
    The Simon and Schuster Handbook for Writerssays shifts in tense are sometimes necessary.
    Tense refers to the ability of verbs to show time. Tense changes are required to describe time changes: We will go to the movies after we finish dinner. If a tense shift within or between sentences is illogical, clarity suffers.
  • 9. The McGraw-Hill Handbook of English Grammar and Usage
    The McGraw-Hill Handbook of English Grammar and Usagegoes even further and provides, I think, the best explanation (on page 178):
    When should we shift tenses?
    What we have said to this point makes it sound like tense shifting is a bad thing. Certainlyshifting tenses unnecessarily is a bad thing. However, we need to shift tenses whenever weshift from narration to generalization or statement of fact – something we do quite often.
  • 10. Hereis an example of legitimate and necessary tense shifting (verbs in italics):
    Shakespeare wrote Hamlet around 1600. The action of the play is set in Elsinore Castlein Denmark, though there is no evidence that Shakespeare ever visited Denmark.
    Wrote and visited, of course are in the past tense; the two instances of is are in the present. Later, on page 179, they say: Probably the most common single situation in which writers fail to shift tenses when they should shift is when they embed a piece of factual information inside a past tense narrative.
  • 11. Here is a typical example (verbs in italics):
    We then visited Key West, which was the southernmost city in the continental United States. The use of past tense (visited) for a narrative is normal and expected. However, in this case, the writer mistakenly stays in the past tense (was) while giving a statement of fact. The writer makes it sound as though Key West is no longer the southernmost city in the continental
  • 12. For another example of this error, the first sentence in this document says:
    One of the items identified as a grammatical error last evening was a passage including a shift in the tense of verbs.
    This suggests that one of the items identified used to be a passage including a shift in the tense ofverbs, but isn’t anymore. I’ll bet few of us noticed that a literal interpretation of what I wrote was not what I intended, so used are we to this kind of error. Corrected, it would read:
    One of the items identified as a grammatical error last week is a passage including a shift in the tense of verbs.
    It was identified then (past tense) and it was then and it still is now (present tense) a “passage including a shift in the tense of verbs.”
  • 13. Shifting verb tense—the question
    So, to go back to the original problem, is “She said she is going to Europe” incorrect? I don’t think so. But when I say (not read) “She said she was going to Europe,” it sounds correct, too, and I am not confused into thinking that she isn’t anymore. In fact, it would have to be said with emphasis on the was to convey the meaning of “but no longer going”: “She said she was going to Europe.” This is a situation where our “ear” clearly isn’t much help.
  • 14. Can you hear it?
    Part of the difficulty is that we cannot hear the presence (or absence) of quotation marks. But following McGraw-Hill, whether or not the statement made is a direct quote, it is a narrative reporting a fact and a shift in tense is appropriate. And the same is true (I think, anyway) about the paragraph about the survey results, where I have no problem agreeing and where I think it would sound funny to put all verbs in the past tense. There is no doubt some of the texts, at least, would seem to take a much harder line. And given the treatment in these texts, and the unreliability of our ears, it is no wonder there is confusion.
  • 15. Adapted from the following adaption:
    Source: Business and Tourism Department
    Accelerated Accounting Program
    COMM 272: Business Communications