A tense situation

Remember in elementary school, maybe even high school, when your teacher gave the “don’t switch tenses” talk about writing?

Have you thought, in the years since then, how utterly ridiculous that statement is?

Let’s just look at what I’ve written prior to this sentence. (We have to have boundaries, after all.) “Remember” is present tense. (There’s a “do you” that’s not present, but it’s understood.) “Gave” is past tense. “Don’t” is “do” plus “not,” and “do switch” is present tense. That’s three switches already, and we’re only half finished.  “Have thought” is past (I’m simplifying, here, just roll with it); “is” is present. Let’s take a count. Two “pasts,” three “presents.” So much for not switching.

What our teachers meant to say, but didn’t, is this: don’t switch tenses without a good reason. Decide what tense your overall narrative needs to be in. Then use other tenses to keep the reader grounded in the proper time, relative to the overall narrative setting.

How ridiculous is that original statement? Let’s recast those first two sentences completely in present tense.

Remember in elementary school, maybe even high school, when your teacher gives the “don’t switch tenses” talk about writing?

Do you think, in the years since then, how utterly ridiculous that statement is?

Reads pretty oddly, doesn’t it. That “gives” doesn’t make sense to us, because we’re being asked to think about the past, but the verb’s in the present. That’s silly. Use the past tense to talk about the past.  “Do you think” (I went with that, but there are other options) is present tense, but “in the years since then” feels wrong. It’s a syntax thing. We’re asking about an ongoing process (thinking) over a period of time (in the years since then), so “do you think” or even the utterly stilted “think you” (Heya, Shakespeare!) both feel wrong. Because they are. We need a past tense there. We could even go nuts and use a past progressive (“have you been thinking”), but I wouldn’t recommend it. It feels weird. It’s not wrong, per se, but it’s weird. We’re not asking if you’ve been thinking about this during that entire time. We’re asking if, once in a while, you’ve thought about it.

Anyway, here’s the thing. Don’t listen to that teacher. Use different tenses within a work. Hell, use them within a single sentence if it’s complex and you need to anchor or direct the reader so the sense is clear. Decide on the overarching time-anchor for your writing, and vary the verbs as required. (Take a look at the verbs in this paragraph. Present tense, every one of ’em. I don’t need to use another tense, because I’m not referencing past or future occurrences.)

Don’t switch tenses without a good reason. Or, as I’d prefer it:

Switch tenses to keep your reader oriented in time.

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