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Generally, I've been told that I should maintain consistency of tenses in my writing. That is, if I begin a piece of writing in the past tense, I should ensure that all verbs agree with that through the document. But as I read more articles, books, and other such things, I get confused by the verb tenses used by these other authors.

For example, I copied a portion of an article below. I believe it started in the past tense, yet the second paragraph switched to the present tense (it sounds like the...) In the third paragraph, the past and present usage is mixed (the word gave is in past tense, yet remain is in the present tense). I understand that the writing in the article is most likely correct. But why can it switch verb tenses and be ok while I was told in school by my professor to keep my essays in a single tense? Is there a guideline I can adhere to?

REPRESSED for decades, the anger burst like a summer storm. Rioting youths flooded city streets. The shaken regime granted hasty concessions: freer speech; an end to one-party rule; real elections. But when Islamists surged towards victory in the first free elections the army stepped in, provoking a bloody struggle that lasted until the people, exhausted, acquiesced to a government similar in outlook, repression and even personnel to that which they had revolted against in the first place.

It sounds like the recent history of several Arab countries: Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen, the states of the 2011 Arab spring, have seen some or all of the story unfold. But this is also, and originally, Algeria, a quarter of a century earlier—the first major political crisis in the age of modern Islamism.

A flurry of freedom in the late 1980s gave way to a vicious civil war in the 1990s that left as many as 200,000 dead and Algeria’s Islamists more or less defeated, but not eradicated. Today the country’s citizens remain powerless spectators to a continued stand-off between what they call le pouvoir—the entrenched oligarchy that controls the state, the oil money and the army—and the now-marginalised Islamist radicals, who serve more as a justification for ongoing repression than as any sort of inspiration to ordinary people.

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5 Answers 5

The excerpt changes tenses because it's talking about things at different times. The first paragraph describes completed actions which took place in the past, hence the use of past tense. The second uses the present because it's talking about things at the current time or the recent past. The third begins by talking about the past, then proceeds to discuss the current state.

Think of the first paragraph like a big quotation. It's not describing any specific actual events - indeed, the second paragraph says that the first could describe several places - just some generic history. Because it's talking about history, it's in the past tense.

It sounds in the second paragraph is talking about the first paragraph. This is in the present because you're currently reading the article. Its words sound a certain way at the time you read them. Incidentally, I find this:

But this is also, and originally, Algeria, a quarter of a century earlier—the first major political crisis in the age of modern Islamism.

somewhat confusing; specifically, the aside about Algeria. I get the meaning (I think!), but I think the remark should be expanded a bit, and probably in the past tense.

The third paragraph opens by discussing completed actions in the past:

A flurry of freedom in the late 1980s gave way...

This first sentence sets the stage with some historical context. After giving us a bit information about the past, it goes on to describe the present state of affairs, appropriately shifting to the present tense to do so:

Today the country’s citizens remain powerless spectators...

Past, present and future match up with the times being described. Very generally speaking, you should work towards maintaining a single tense in your writing, especially if you aren't comfortable with the fine details of changing them. But there are plenty of reasons to change tenses. For example:

  • Simple descriptions of events, as commonly seen in news, should be in the relevant tense (past events in past tense, etc).
  • Literary foreshadowing might call for future tense: he gazed over his shoulder at her. He would never do so again.
  • Dialogue written as spoken or thought by persons involved should be tensed as it normally would when speaking; e.g. she said, "I will go to the store tomorrow."
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thank you for you thorough reply. Switching verb tenses in a writing seems daunting for me. It's confusing to me baucause it's contradictory to what my professor had told me, which was to keep the tense in my essays in the past tense. Is it because there are different categories of writing? Is there a general guide on categories of writing, whats the tense of verbs should be used. And how one can go about the writing correctly without making shifts in verb tenses? Thank you! –  user133466 Jul 7 at 18:17
    
The main body of your writing should be in a single tense (either past or present). In, say, a novel, this means the general narrative and exposition, not the dialogue. In a news report, it's the discussion of the main point or argument, not predictions or additional context. I'm afraid there's no easy guide to this. Learning to write English well is extremely challenging, and many, perhaps even most, native speakers never master it. For now, try to keep everything in the past tense except for direct quotations and spoken dialogue. Use "after that", "then", etc to help set the time frame. –  Esoteric Screen Name Jul 8 at 0:58
    
I think a more general guideline might be: "Always use the same tense for the same point on the timeline from a given perspective" For example writing from the present about the past could use the historical present or the simple past, but once selected, you should stick with your chosen tense. –  Jim Jul 8 at 2:02

It is not a hard-and-fast rule that there needs to be the same prevailing tense throughout an entire article or even in one paragraph. You are allowed to change verb tenses to reflect the temporal relationships between what has happened in the past (seen in the entire first paragraph) and the authors commentary that is being made at the present time (in the second paragraph). The present nature of the second paragraph is emphasized in the expression to "have seen some ... of the story unfold"--the story is not over yet and cannot be expressed entirely in the past tense. In the third paragraph the use of two tenses is necessary for explaining how the current state of affairs is influenced by past events.

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The first paragraph is telling us what happened in the past, so it's properly past tense.

The second is talking about the story told by the first. Even though the story is about the past (Algeria, 28 years ago) you are reading the story now, so it is present tense.

The last paragraph mixes it up. It starts taking about the past state, and then in the next sentence talks about the current state.

It ok to use different tenses, as long as they remain consistent to the information being delivered. You don't want to use present tense with history, or past tense for describing future plans. It's ok to talk about history and future plans in the same piece though, or even the same sentence

You asked a question so I will submit this answer.

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This block of text seems so clear to me as an English speaker that I get the impression you're adventuring into reading texts which are beyond your own level of comprehension - which is often a very good way to learn.

What concerns me is that you misunderstand what is being said in the second paragraph - which is pretty much what would be said in any language.

I'm sure that if your read this paragraph again carefully, it should become clear that the writer is talking about "how the history reads" today.

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The 2nd paragraph above is a good example of why you wouldn't want to change tense. It shifts to present tense to discuss relatively recent history, but it's still history. The events happened 3 years ago and should probably be in past tense. The switch is especially confusing in the sentence about Algeria doing something both now and a quarter-century ago. That's probably the sort of confusion your professor wants to help you avoid.

Rewritten 2nd para:

The recent history of several Arab countries mirrored these earlier events. Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen, the states of the 2011 Arab spring, saw some or all of the same story unfold. Algeria, a quarter of a century earlier, was the first major political crisis in the age of modern Islamism.

Rewriting this paragraph keeps the verb tense more consistent until the last paragraph when the discussion explicitly shifts to "today" and present tense. It's not entirely clear from the text whether the author considers "Algeria a quarter century ago" to be the first major political crisis, or rather is saying that "the Arab Spring" was the first.

It is generally good advice to remain consistent through a paper as a whole, but you must consider the context. It's clear in the 3rd paragraph above that the time frame switches to compare "the 1980s" to "today," so it wouldn't make sense to use all past tense. The important thing is that you have enough context and correct subject-verb tense agreement to make clear which events happened when.

Example where 1 action has happened; the other is happening now or hasn't happened yet.

OK: (different tenses, each appropriate for the time when the action occurs)

"I ran to the store last week, but today I am walking/will walk."

NOT OK: (consistent verb tense, but it doesn't make sense)

"I ran to the store last week, but today I will walked."

"I run to the store last week, but today I will walk."

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Any particular reason for a downvote, or just having a bad day? –  mc01 Jul 8 at 15:17

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