Handling Shifts in Verb Tense

If you worry about using different time frames in writing, let common sense guide you. If you begin writing a paper in past time, don't shift back and forth to the present unnecessarily. If you begin in the present, don't shift to the past without good reason. In the following paragraph, the writer starts in the present and then shifts to the past, then shifts again to the present:

In the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Jean Louise Finch is a little girl who lives in the South with her father, Atticus, and her brother, Jem. Everybody in town calls Jean Louise "Scout" as a nickname. When Atticus, a lawyer, chose to defend a black man against the charges of a white woman, some of their neighbors turned against him. Scout protected her father by appealing to the humanity of one member of the angry mob. In this chapter, five-year-old Scout turns out to be stronger than a group of adult men.

All the verbs should be in the present:

In the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Jean Louise Finch is a little girl who lives in the South with her father, Atticus, and her brother, Jem. Everybody in town calls Jean Louise "Scout" as a nickname. When Atticus, a lawyer, chooses to defend a black man against the charges of a white woman, some of their neighbors turn against him. Scout protects her father by appealing to the humanity of one member of the angry mob. In this chapter, five-year-old Scout turns out to be stronger than a group of adult men.

This sample paragraph discusses only the events that happen within the novel's plot, so it needs to maintain one time frame—the present, which we use to write about literature and repeated actions.

However, sometimes you will write about the present, the past, and even the future together. Then it may be necessary to use these different time frames within the same paragraph, each for its own reason. For example, if you were to give biographical information about Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, within a discussion of the novel and its influence, you might need to use all three time frames:

Harper Lee grew up in Alabama, and she based elements in the book on experiences from her childhood. Like the character Atticus, Lee's father was a lawyer. She wrote the novel in his law offices. To Kill a Mockingbird is Harper Lee's most famous work, and it received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in. 1960. Lee's book turned forty years old in the year 2000, It will always remain one of the most moving and compassionate novels in American literature.

The previous paragraph uses past (grew, based, was, wrote, received, turned), present (is), and future (will remain) in the same paragraph without committing the error of shifting. Shifting occurs when the writer changes time frames inconsistently or for no reason, confusing the reader (as in the first example given).

Adapted with permission.