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Why is it important to avoid unnecessary shifts in verb tense?

The verb tense expresses a sense of time in a sentence, paragraph, paper, or longer work. Generally, the writer should establish the time perspective (past, present, or future) in the opening sentence and maintain that tense consistently throughout his or her work.

Although there are occasions when a shift in tense is appropriate, unnecessary and inconsistent shifts—especially within a sentence—are distracting to the reader and can cause a break in overall coherence.

How can you correct unnecessary shifts in verb tense?

  • In a passage where an unnecessary shift has occurred, go through and highlight each of the verbs and verb phrases.
  • Change the tense of the inconsistent verbs or verb phrases to align them with the primary tense that has already been established.
  • Reread the passage aloud and listen for consistency in verb tense.
  • Refer to a list of irregular verbs in a dictionary or style guide as an aid for choosing the proper form of the verb.

Let’s look at an example:

Inconsistent verb tense: Advocates of thorough hand washing believe this practice will help prevent illness; there have been those who challenged this view.

Consistent verb tense: Advocates of thorough hand washing believe this practice helps prevent illness; there are those who challenge this view.