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Elegant English: A tense situation

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In some languages, tenses can be manipulated in storytelling for dramatic effect. In Russian, for example, when it is clear from the context that the events are happening in the past, the author may suddenly switch to the present tense, even though the past is still implied. This gives the text a feel of immediacy, so that the action has greater impact, creating the impression that the reader has been transported back into the past and is experiencing events at first hand.

In English, however, this does not work in quite the same way. Mixing tenses can cause confusion and sound strange to the native ear. If something happened in the past, it is usually best to stick to the past tense. Consequently, the past tense is by far the most popular in fiction. For example:

He walked into the pitch-dark room and pressed the light switch, but nothing happened. Cautiously, he attempted to make his way across to the desk, arms out in front of him, feeling for obstacles, and feet shuffling in tiny steps to avoid bumping into anything. Finally, he felt the smooth surface of the writing table, located the top drawer and opened it as slowly and quietly as he could. Putting his hand inside, he fumbled around, searching for the object he so desperately needed. At last, his fingertips made contact with the cold, hard sphere and, as he picked it up, he couldn’t help letting out a sigh of relief.

The present tense, on the other hand, lends itself well to a journal-type narrative:

Dear Diary,

Everything’s so confusing right now. Why do I care so much about what he said? Surely I should just be able to brush it off and get on with my life, but for some reason I can’t. His words keep going round and round in my head, and the whole thing is making me feel sick with worry. What am I going to do?

In this case, it is as if the writer is having a conversation with the diary itself, in the present tense, so there is no need for the past, except to refer to events that have already happened, eg. ‘what he said.’

In conversation, the rules are less strict, as people tend not to think too much about grammar while they are speaking. Mixing tenses in this way, though, sometimes creates a colloquial style. Tense-switching in dialogue can have a subtle effect on the character who is speaking, possibly making them appear less well educated, and may be coupled with non-standard grammar, plenty of slang and regional expressions. For example:

“I went to me mate’s ‘ouse last night, and ‘e says, “’ave you seen them new phones?” So I tell ‘im, “Yeah, nice aren’t they? But the price is a bit steep.” But when I got back ‘ome, there’s me girlfriend with one she’s just bought, and I wonder ‘ow she could afford it.”

Probably the best way to get a feel for informal dialogue like this is to listen carefully to the way people speak in different places, and notice the patterns they use. Regional variation, however, is a huge subject in its own right and I will explore this in a later instalment.

So, as a general rule, in English, if the action takes place in the past, use the past tense, unless you are using a journal format or similar. The present tense is for things that are happening now, or for dialogue, since the characters are speaking in what is, for them, the present. However, switching between past and present in the narrative may be confusing and is usually best avoided.