Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Sequence of Tenses

If you want to achieve clear writing, you must be careful with the tenses of verbs. A wrong tense can change the meaning of a sentence and confuse your reader. Here is a highly visible example.

In a recent Salon article about the Alaskan Independence Party (AIP), David Talbot (photo) mentions a controversy over whether Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and her husband Todd Palin were members of the party. Mr. Talbot writes:

“The Alaskan Independence Party burst into the national spotlight when [AIP Chairman Lynette] Clark released a statement reporting that Sarah Palin and her husband, Todd, were both members. After the ensuing uproar, Clark issued an apology and correction, declaring that only Todd was an actual member of the AIP. (He belonged from 1995 to 2002.)” (Boldface added.)

The verbs issued and was are both in the Simple Past tense. Therefore, according to the Sequence of Tenses,* the sentence implies that Ms. Clark’s statement meant that Todd was still a member. But Mr. Talbot's parenthetical statement indicates that Todd is no longer a member.

Assuming that the parenthetical statement is true, Mr. Talbot should have written this or something close to it:

After the ensuing uproar, Clark issued an apology and correction, declaring that Todd had been a member of the AIP but Sarah had never been a member.

The tense of had been is Past Perfect (also called Pluperfect). A Past Perfect verb refers to an action completed before the action referred to by a Simple Past verb (in this case, issued).

The Takeaway: When you are referring to events in the past or future, be careful to follow the Sequence of Tenses to avoid confusing your readers. Whenever you are in doubt, consult a reference. A good one is this concise and handy summary of the Sequence of Tenses on the web site of Purdue University.

*The Sequence of Tenses is the set of grammatical rules that describe how to use verb tenses to indicate the sequence in which events occurred or will occur.

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