Monday, September 27, 2010

The sequence of tenses (2)

If you want to achieve clear writing, you must be careful with the tenses of verbs. In particular, you must follow the Sequence of Tenses.* A wrong tense can change the meaning of a sentence and confuse your reader. There are two wrong tenses in this paragraph:

“I inspected the ruins of the [sic] New York’s Twin Towers, atop which I often dined, right after the attack. Downtown Manhattan was enveloped by a hideous, stinking miasma from the attack. I have never smelled anything so awful. It took me days to scrub the foul odor off my body. As a native New Yorker, I was shaken to the core by 9/11 – but hardly surprised, as I had predicted a major attack on the US nine days earlier.”


Fortunately for the reader, the two tense errors in the paragraph do not cause much confusion; the reader will probably guess the author’s meaning in each case.

In the first sentence, the verbs “inspected” and “dined” are both in the Simple Past tense; according to the Sequence of Tenses, these verbs imply that the author inspected the ruins of the Twin Towers in the same time period in which he often dined atop the Twin Towers.

But the reader sees that this is absurd, so he infers that “dined” should have been in the Past Perfect. The sentence should have read something like this:

Right after the attack, I inspected the ruins of New York’s Twin Towers, atop which I had often dined.

In the third sentence, “I have never smelled” is in the Present Perfect tense, which implies up to the time of writing the article. The reader quickly sees that the author probably means up to the time of inspecting the ruins, which calls for the Past Perfect:

I had never smelled anything so awful.

The Takeaway: When you are referring to events in the past or future, be careful to follow the Sequence of Tenses. Yes, your reader can often guess your meaning when you get a tense wrong. But don’t make him guess. Whenever you are in doubt as to the correct tense, consult a reference. I recommend this concise and handy summary of the Sequence of Tenses, on the web site of Purdue University.

See disclaimer.

*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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