Rhetoric and Composition/Unnecessary tense shift

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What is a tense shift?[edit]

Verbs are action words. “Tense” refers to the time when an action takes place: past, present, or future. Necessary tense shifts simply make it clear to your reader when actions have taken, are taking, or will take place. When you “shift tense unnecessarily,” however, it means you change the times when actions are taking place within a chunk of text in a way that doesn’t seem to make sense. Notice how the tense changes cause confusion in the following examples.

Examples of confusing tense shifts[edit]

  • In February 2003, the Sefton City Council passed an ordinance that limited the number of dogs city residents could keep on their property to three. Several residents objected and formally petitioned the council to repeal the ordinance, but the council upheld it. Their reasoning is that having more than three dogs creates potentially dangerous situations. In November 2004, however, changes in the Council’s membership resulted in the ordinance being repealed.
  • While St. Cloud struggles with keeping rental housing from dominating the housing market, other communities in central Minnesota undertook several initiatives to build more apartments and condominiums.

The best way to find unnecessary tense shifts is to read a piece of writing through one time just looking for tense and asking yourself whether each verb tense accurately reflects the time period it took place, takes place, or will take place in. Start by using a highlighter to mark each verb, and then ask yourself if the “time” is correct for each one.

The correction:

  • In February 2003, the Sefton City Council passed an ordinance that limited the number of dogs city residents could keep on their property to three. Several residents objected and formally petitioned the council to repeal the ordinance, but the council upheld it. Their reasoning was that having more than three dogs creates potentially dangerous situations. In November 2004, however, changes in the Council’s membership resulted in the ordinance being repealed.

(No reason exists to believe that those who then thought that three or more dogs in a household created a dangerous situation have changed their minds or that dogs' behavior in a group of three or more has changed. The composition of the council had changed, and the composition of the city council having changed, the city council voted differently).


  • While St. Cloud struggled with keeping rental housing from dominating the housing market, other communities in central Minnesota undertook several initiatives to build more apartments and condominiums.

if referring to a situation in the past -- or --

  • While St. Cloud struggles with keeping rental housing from dominating the housing market, other communities in central Minnesota undertake several initiatives to build more apartments and condominiums.

if referring to a current situation.