A photograph of a woman singing into a microphone at an audition.

Source: 20120913-A-3103P-004, Joint Base Lewis McChord, Flickr

When contestants on The Voice hit flat notes, the judges are not likely to choose them. Writers sometimes hit flat notes as well. One of those flat notes is related to tense. When you’re careless with tense, it causes discord for readers, confusing them and forcing them to reread. For example, the next sentence uses present and past together in a way that doesn’t ring true.

When the buzzer rings, the contestant jumped.

Avoid hitting those flat notes as a writer by using consistent verb tenses.

When the buzzer rang, the contestant jumped.

If you don’t want your reader straddling the time zones of writing or having to stop to reread, you should pick a tense—usually either the past or the present—and stick to it throughout your whole paper. Generally, you should use the past tense to narrate events and the present tense to discuss the contents of a literary work.

A photograph of a woman singing on stage.

Source: Kellie Pickler, rbglason, Flickr

Using the same tense throughout a sentence may seem simple, but what about when the time frame changes, which requires a shift in tense? You will need to make these kinds of time distinctions as you edit your writing. These examples show how to correctly use two tenses in one sentence.

Even though the contestant loves country music, she agreed to sing a rock ‘n’ roll hit on The Voice. (Loves is present tense because she continues to love country music, but agreed is in the past because it already happened.)
Before the battle round began, the judge had decided which singer would win. (Began is in the past tense; had decided is in the past perfect and refers to a time before the action of began.)
By the time the singer finishes the song, the interest of the audience has waned. (Finishes is present tense, and has waned is present perfect.)

The main tense in Rudyard Kipling’s story “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” is the past. Below is an excerpt from the story, but with a few changes: some of the verb tenses have been altered as a challenge to you. 

Your job is to find the five unnecessary shifts to the present tense. Each suspicious shift can be found in a sentence that contains at least one past-tense verb. Read the text aloud, locate each incorrect verb, and click on it. If the word highlights, you have selected correctly. After you highlight all five verbs, answer the questions that follow this excerpt.

icon for interactive exercise

“She [Nagaina] headed straight for the long grass by the thorn-bush, and as he was running Rikki-tikki heard Darzee still singing his foolish little song of triumph. But Darzee’s wife was wiser. She flew off her nest as Nagaina came along, and flaps her wings about Nagaina’s head. If Darzee had helped they might have turned her, but Nagaina only lowered her hood and goes on. Still, the instant’s delay brought Rikki-tikki up to her, and as she plunges into the rat-hole where she and Nag used to live, his little white teeth were clenched on her tail, and he went down with her—and very few mongooses, however wise and old they may be, care to follow a cobra into its hole. It was dark in the hole; and Rikki-tikki never knows when it might open out and give Nagaina room to turn and strike at him. He held on savagely, and sticks out his feet to act as brakes on the dark slope of the hot, moist earth.”

take notes icon Using your notes, answer these two questions for each sentence that contains a highlighted word. When you are finished, check your understanding to see possible responses.

  1. In each sentence, what is the past-tense verb that gives away the error?
  2. Which form of the wrong verb would a writer use instead to correct the sentence?
Check Your Understanding

Sample Responses:

Sentence 1: “Flew” is the past tense in this sentence. “Flaps” should be “flapped.”

Sentence 2: “Lowered” is the past tense in this sentence. “Goes” should be “went.”

Sentence 3: “Brought” is the past tense in this sentence. “Plunges” should be “plunged.”

Sentence 4: “Was” is the past tense in this sentence. “Knows” should be “knew.”

Sentence 5:“Held” is the past tense in this sentence. “Sticks” should be “stuck.”