A verb tense shift occurs when a writer changes tense within a single piece of writing. Tense is the term for what time frame verbs refer to. Standard American English has a number of tenses, each of which is a variation on past, present, or future. Any switching of tense within a sentence, paragraph, or longer piece of writing is a verb tense shift.
Are verb tense shifts always wrong?
No. Verb tense shifts are useful for informing readers of the different times at which things happen.
When I opened the door, Laurie was standing there there in the pouring rain.
The verbs opened and was standing tell us slightly different things about when those actions happened. The door was only opened once in the past; this action was quickly over and done with. However, the verb was standing tells us that Laurie was already there when the door opened; she may or may not continue standing there after the door opens.
Although there’s a verb tense shift in this sentence, the different tenses give us important information about precisely when actions happened in relation to one another and whether those actions were ongoing or one-and-done.
Verb tense shifts can also be used for other purposes. Literary writers may use them to establish different settings and different characters’ points of view, or to distinguish between descriptive passages and characters’ dialogue. Academic writers may use verb tense shifts to quote or paraphrase secondary sources according to various style guides, like the MLA and APA.
Verb tense shifts can sometimes be unintended by the author and confusing for the reader. If your content does not require a verb tense shift, your verb tense shift runs the risk of confusing the reader and being interpreted as an error.
How can I tell if I have a verb tense shift?
To identify a verb tense shift, first identify the verbs in your writing that describe actions being taken by the subjects named in the writing.
When I opened the door, Laurie just stands there in the pouring rain.
In this example, we have identified two verbs. Because they are acting on subjects, they have tenses; in other words, we can pinpoint where on a timeline from past to present to future these actions happened.
The next step is to determine whether the verb tenses in the sentence(s) are the same or different. You can do this without knowing all the grammatical tenses. (There are quite a few! Watch the verb tense table video on the right to learn about them.) Determine whether the tenses are different by identifying whether the two actions happened at the same point in time or if they happen at different points on a timeline.
Ex: When I opened
Past: It’s already over and done with.
Ex: Laurie just stands
Present: It’s happening right now.
Because these verbs pinpoint different points on the timeline of actions in the sentence, you know the verbs have different tenses. This sentence contains a verb tense shift.
It’s now up to you to decide whether or not the verb tense shift should be revised.
How can I revise a verb tense shift?
If you decide that the verb tense shift in your writing is not conveying an intended time shift, you should revise your writing, so the tenses are consistent.
When I opened the door, Laurie stands there in the pouring rain.
This sentence is a good candidate for revision. For a reader, it’s confusing for the description of the door being opened to take place in the past, while Laurie stands there in the present. Placing these two actions in this way on a timeline doesn’t make sense.
To revise this sentence, make both verb tenses either some form of past or some form of present, depending on which is more appropriate for the writing context.
Revised: When I opened [past] the door, Laurie just stood [past] there in the pouring rain.
Revised: When I opened [past] the door, Laurie was standing [past] there in the pouring rain.
Revised: When I open [present] the door, Laurie stands [present] there in the pouring rain.
Revised: When I open [present] the door, Laurie is standing [present] there in the pouring rain.
In each of these revisions, both verb tenses are either some version of past or some version of present tense. This consistency eliminates the verb tense shifts.