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Error 10: Inappropriate Shifts in Person/Tense (shift)

Person: In grammar, person refers to the distinction among the person talking (first person), the person spoken to (second person), and the person, object, or concept being talked about (third person).

All nouns are 3rd person. Teacher, student, lifeguard, person, etc. are all 3rd person words.

The first person pronouns include I, me, mine, we, us, and ours. The second person pronouns are you, your, and yours. The third person pronouns are he, him, his, she, her, hers, it, its, they, them, theirs.

Writers need to be careful not to shift person. Shifting person means changing from first person pronouns to third person nouns or pronouns or from second person pronouns to third person nouns or pronouns, without a logical reason.

In the following sentences, there is no shift in person.

  • People should not drive when they have been drinking. (Both people and they are third person.)
  • One should not drive when he or she has been drinking. (Both one and he or she are third person.)
  • You should not drive when you have been drinking. (Both yous are second person.)

Most of the time, when writers wrongly shift person, they shift from third to second person, like this:

  • Shift in person example: If a person works hard, you can accomplish a great deal. (Person is third person and you is second person.)

Instead of shifting person, writers should be consistent.

  • Correct: If you work hard, you can accomplish a great deal.
  • Correct: If a person works hard, he or she can accomplish a great deal.
  • Correct: If people work hard, they can accomplish a great deal.

Tense: Tense shows the time of the verb’s action. There are several verb tenses: present (e.g., sits), past (e.g., sat), future (e.g., will sit), past perfect (had sat), present perfect (has sat), and future perfect (e.g., will have sat). You don’t need to know all this verb terminology, though, in order to understand the following:

First, it’s important to recognize that sometimes it is perfectly logical to change verb tenses within a sentence.

  • Logical change in tense: Last week I wanted (past tense) my own apartment, but now I am (present tense) happy living in the dorm. (Here, it makes perfect sense to use the past tense verb wanted in the first part of the sentence and the present tense verb am in the second part of the sentence because the first part of the sentence is talking about the past, and the second part is talking about the present.)

An inappropriate shift in tense occurs when writers move (shift) from one tense to another without a valid reason.

  • Inappropriate shift in tense example: Jill answered her cell phone, and then she sits down for a long conversation. (Here answered is past tense and sits is present tense, and there’s no reason to switch tenses in this case.)
  • Better: Jill answered her cell phone, and then she sat down for a long
    conversation.
  • Better: Jill answers her cell phone, and then she sits down for a long
    conversation.

Exercise

Please print this exercise, mark the correct answers, and check your work against the version with answers.

Exercise on Inappropriate Shifts

Exercise on Inappropriate Shifts with Answers

 

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