Another problem we see cropping up in papers is verb tense consistency -- it might seem obvious, but surprisingly, this mistake is made more often than you might think.
A real-life example from a student:
"Bonfires were lit to praise the sun because the days were getting shorter and the sun appeared to get weaker..."
Ok, so what's the problem? If we are going to use were lit and were getting then let's say was appearing (use was, not were, since sun is singular and bonfires and days are plural).
A better way to phrase this sentence would be:
Bonfires were lit to praise the sun because the days were getting shorter and the sun was appearing to weaken.
That just sounds so much better and now our tenses are consistent.
For more practice grab a paper and pencil (yes, I know it's July) and try your hand at the Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL) Tense Consistency Exercise. Answers are included and there are four different exercises.
Sometimes it is appropriate to shift your verb tenses within a paragraph. This depends on what is being written and how the information is conveyed. There is a great example of correct tense shift in the first example of OWL Exercise 4. Can you find the two instances where the present tense is used correctly? The rest of the paragraph examples are more challenging -- see if you can do them without peeking at the answers!
Verb tense consistency can be trickier than you think. It always helps to read your writing aloud -- it will often reveal inconsistencies that you did not realize existed.
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I wake up to the cry of my little brother who lies beside me on the creaky cot, my blurry vision adjusting to the baby only wearing a cloth diaper due to the hot July air that creeps through the window shutters. I fix myself in a cross-legged sitting position, carefully easing my fingers under my sibling’s back to put him against my shoulder. I pat his back in reassurance that everything is fine. I look through the window to see the usual Sunday morning chores being done outside in the streets of Kandahar.
With my brother in hand, I walk into the only other room in our dwelling, the kitchen. The warm aroma of freshly made bread clogs my nostrils as I near my mother. We greet each other with the normal “hellos” while the baby is taken into her arms, a cold breeze hitting my left side at the loss of warmth. I hear the scratch of bristles against the concrete floor, leading my eyes to find my older brother concentrating hard on his task. I decide to go make the beds as breakfast is being made.
I travel back to the bedroom, stealing a quick glance out the window to see the civilians scramble off the streets and into their houses. I make my way closer to the window, only to hear the faint whipping of helicopter propellers. It is getting louder, and louder as it edges near. I know what’s happening...war.
I turn around sharply and speed into the other room that holds my family. By the looks on their faces, I can tell they already know what’s about to happen. We abandon our recent stances and all huddle into a corner, preparing for what’s to come, the brick wall protecting us from anything that will happen just outside our house.
The first shot is fired, causing our ears to deal with a few moments of pain. A heart-wrenching scream is heard soon after it, worry washing through all of us. The sound of cascading bullets is muted, for what seems like a millisecond before the front door is broken open. A pair of ice-cold eyes meets mine; no sign of emotion seems to be present. The arms that are protectively wrapped around me begin to tremble, tightening their grip. Tears evading my eyes, I bravely look back up.
This is it.
This week's quick tip comes from a problem we see creeping up too often in papers these days: mixing singular nouns or pronouns with plural nouns or pronouns (or vise versa). For instance, can you spot the problems in the following sentences? These are sentences from two different papers, written by two different students.
"If they were wealthy, men would be given a small picture to get an idea of what his bride would look like."
"The wives were left to take care of the children in the absence of her husband, giving her limited time away from home."
Did you immediately spot the mixing of plurals with singulars? Upon closer inspection we realize that we have not matched up correctly our plural pronouns or nouns with other pronouns (or nouns) we used later in the same sentence.
There are some other issues with the sentences, but for now let's focus on the following:
In the first sentence, we have they and men (a plural pronoun and a plural noun) so we need to make sure we do not switch to a singular pronoun when referring to these nouns again...his (bride) is a singular pronoun, so now we have a problem. Replace his with their and we match up. Please note that you will have to make picture and bride plural, too. It is incorrect to say "...men would be given a small picture to get an idea of what their bride would look like," unless more than one man is sharing a single bride. Not likely.
We would have made this sentence singular. It sounds better to say, "If a man was wealthy, he would be given a small picture to get an idea of what his bride would look like." These little choices can make a big difference, and ideally it's preferable to start the sentence off with the noun (man) than with the pronoun (they). We know right from the get-go whom we're dealing with!
For the second example, we have the same issue rearing its head. We see wives but then we jump to the singular pronoun her, and use it twice in the same sentence. For this one, we would go ahead and stick with the plural forms, and substitute their and them for each her, in that order. Don't forget to make husband plural, even though it is more plausible that multiple women might be sharing one.
If you enjoyed this week's tip, please pass it on to your friends and neighbors.
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