Tense Shifting: I Read an Article About it and Now I Doubt Myself. Help


To Whom It May Concern: 

Stemming from an insightful "5 Lessons for Mixing Past and Present Tense"  (“5 Lessons”) (http://www.dailywritingtips.com/5-lessons-for-mixing-past-and-present-tense/), --I have come to regretfully (and obsessively) question my frame of writing more than usual, and even the way others communicate (even those on TV). 

I get there are instances in which tenses can change in a writing.  However, is the type of tense used really relative to how the writer wants to communicate? Why I ask this is because I have come across situations of scholarly work that seem to contradict one another—like the aforesaid article and an online handbook of the Pearson Education, Inc.. In this online handbook, it makes this example:

“Naming the five best movies of last year was easy. Ninety percent of the movies I see are lousy, and that leaves only a handful that are even worth considering.

“Here, the sentence unnecessarily shifts from the simple past tense ("Naming . . . was easy") to simple present ("the movies I see") to present progressive ("are even worth considering").

“Revision: Naming the five best movies of last year was easy. Ninety percent of the movies I saw were lousy, and that left only a handful that were even worth considering.”


As to the above example, I'm thinking it actually should read as follows:

"Naming the five best movies of last year WAS easy. Ninety percent of the movies I saw ARE lousy, and that left only a handful that ARE even worth considering."  The latter sentence (particularly the CAPS), as I indicated, is my version that I believe is most accurate and correct, though this seems to go against the handbook publisher's teaching.  I also think this publisher's teaching goes against the aforesaid “5 Lessons” article, so I have effectively pit one publisher (Pearson) against another (the “5 Lessons” article, given author’s background as a professional publishing editor), it seems.

What do you think?

Again, I think what I wrote is more accurate and, thus, more appropriate.  I realize the movie determination was made in the past, but the distaste for 90% of the movies is still present--they're still lousy even though I saw them last year.  Please reinforce this as correct if it is. 

Also, what do you think about tense in this cliché: “When did you know she was the one (to whom to be married)?” Originally, I had not second-guessed this tense use, but since the “5 Lessons” article above, I really think it should be written as this:  “When did you know she is the one?” Granted the determination of finding the ‘one’ was long ago, but unless the couple is divorced or otherwise incapacitated, what made her the one then exists to today, and, hence, the present tense of “is”; am I right on this as well?

I'm sorry to bother all of you on this forum, but, for some reason, I have found myself questioning my English proficiency, and this is a bit alarming for me because I graduated with the highest honors from the university I attended, and I excelled in the advanced English courses I took then.  Further, I need to know whether I'm right because, while I'm done with undergraduate studies, I will be taking the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), and a large portion of it consists of writing a thesis.  Please help.



tense shifted parallel asked May 05 '13 at 11:14 Heather New member

"When did you know she was the one?" poses a question in the past tense, therefore it is is correct to use the past participle, "was" to form the query. If the question were posed as "[d]o you know that she is the one?" the present participle would be correct.

The LSAT is more concerned with logic and problem solving than the nuance of proper grammar. Relax when it comes to the writing section. The fact that you can ask the question you did is evidence that you are a conscientious writer. (I am an attorney who also holds a Ph.D. in Learning Theory.)

Andrew L. WeitzJun 06 '13 at 10:54

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2 answers


Heather, I understand your confusion. Your writing style suggests you are a native speaker, and your mention of the LSAT suggests that you have completed a couple of years of college. I'll assume that is the baseline from which you view writing and grammer. Now, let's look at the Internet resources that you cite. Are you the target audience for their advice?


When thinking about that question, I ask you to consider another question. When you were in third grade, your teacher probably told you that you can't begin a sentence with"And". My friend, a third grade teacher, tells me that if she didn't enforce this rule, EVERY sentence would begin with AND. By the time you reached college, you probably began to realize that many excellent writers open sentences with AND -- and there is no rule of grammar that prohibits this usage (if you don't believe me, look it up in the Chicago Manual of Style, the MLA Handbook, or the APA style guide). The lesson: when teaching English and writing, it is often necessary to start with very broad and overly general "rules."


Now lets look to my original question -- who is the audience for the Internet advice that has you confused? Is the advice intended for a middle school writer, or for a college student with aspirations of becoming a lawyer? Is the advice intended for an ESL student or a native speaker?


In the case of Longman's (or Pearson Longman), the intended audience is English as a Second Language (ESL). Pearson Longman is a British imprint (so the relevant baseline is British English rather than American English) whose market is focused on ESL students in China and South Asia. Knowing this, we can assume that the advice given is broad and generalized -- perhaps too generalized.


With respect to QUESTION 1, Longman's advice is, in a general sense, correct. But switching tense in the example sentence is not wrong. There is a tense called the LITERARY PRESENT and the example uses it. Works of art -- literature, movies, and plays in particular -- are assumed to exist in an eternal, timeless present. Typically, one uses the present tense to describe the plot. In your example, not only WAS the movie bad, the movie IS still bad -- that is, the experience of the critic did not change from being bad to good with the passage of time.


Do you see the subtle distinction made by changing the tense in the example? So while the change may not have been necessary, it is not wrong. Of course, try teaching the LITERARY PRESENT to third graders -- and you can see why Longman's says what it does.


I hope this ehlps.

link edited May 06 '13 at 01:44 Jeff Pribyl Grammarly Fellow

Excellent answer, Jeff. I read this question earlier today and was coming back to it now that I have some time. No need!

Patty TMay 05 '13 at 23:45


HeatherMay 06 '13 at 23:31

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For question #2:I have heard both ways. I think "is the one" is more likely to be used when someone is newly engaged rather than when they have been married a long time. Of course, he could have decided she was the one twenty years ago, but doesn't think she is the one anymore.

link answered May 05 '13 at 23:47 Patty T Grammarly Fellow


HeatherMay 06 '13 at 23:32

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