Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Keeping Time

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Keeping Time

Article excerpt

What tangled tenses we weave.

Keeping track of them seems simple enough. Things happen in the past, present or future. But our stories often make things far more complicated. We jump from one tense to another, willy nilly, almost as if we were trying to confuse readers. We trap ourselves in complicated perfect tenses. Or we ignore the sequence of tenses that should govern the relationship of subordinate and main clauses.

Ultimately, we meet ourselves coming and going, like a star ship passing through a time warp.

Consider this chronology on the development of an Oregon Trail Visitor's Center:

"Planners ENVISION a huge $43 million living history community springing up on Abernethy Green .... The idea WAS MODELED on such East Coast attractions as Old Sturbridge Village, which RE-CREATES pilgrim life .... The money never MATERIALIZED, so planners PROPOSE a more modest $4 million preview center .... Construction BEGINS .... To Oregon City's embarrassment, the anniversary CAME AND WENT .... Executive director Eric Epperson RESIGNS a year after he started. Interim director Paul Vogel TAKES over. Vogel RESIGNS as expected; David Porter HIRED. High winds TEAR part of the cloth .... Opening PUSHED back from March to June. Public opening. Admission IS free."

Either simple past or simple present tense would work for this straightforward chronology. But the writer -- or editor -- randomly shuttled back and forth between them for no apparent reason.

Even more tenses enter the picture in this muddled passage:

"Two men posing as police officers COME to Shire's house in the wee hours, saying that they WERE there for follow up on a burglary that HAD OCCURRED three days earlier. Shire LET them in, only to realize after a few minutes that they WERE phonies."

Inasmuch as the writer began the passage in present ("come"), the sensible approach called for sticking with present. "Shire LETS them in ... only to realize ... that they ARE phonies."

Which is not to suggest that a writer won't occasionally shift tenses for dramatic effect. Truman Capote was a master at slipping into present tense to signal a change of scene or to raise the immediacy of a dramatic moment.

But such changes should take place between scenes or other clearly segregated blocks of copy. The first rule of tense, in fact, probably is that you should never change it within a paragraph. …

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