Thursday, March 24, 2011

And the Number One Error IS......

I was thinking yesterday about how, after six years of teaching Creative Writing, I've probably graded somewhere in the neighborhood of six hundred short stories and first chapters (<--another assignment I give). And every single time I grade a batch of those, one grammar error pops up over and over again. It's, bar none, the most frequent error I see in Creative Writing papers. And the winner is:

...........*drum roll*..............

Verb tense shifts

Sounds exciting, doesn't it? In a nutshell, it means that a story starting out in present tense suddenly, and for no reason, shifts into past tense (or, vice versa). Here's an example (not an actual student example, just a quick, made-up one):

Melanie walked to the counter and examined the envelope again. She notices something this time--the initials "PK," smudged in pencil at the corner. Pushing down the anxiety, she reached for the knife and slices open the envelope.

Look at all those verbs - past tense, then present, then past tense again, and so forth...

Because that very first verb ("walked") is in past tense, the rest of the entire story should be written in past tense. (And - if a story begins in present tense, the only excuse for shifting to past tense is a flashback).

My students always tell me, "I guess I do that (verb tense errors) because it's the way I talk." A very good point! I think that's exactly why these verb errors are so frequent. We're all guilty of shifting in and out of past/present when we speak, not even giving it a second thought.

But in a piece of writing, that sort of shifting is distracting for the reader. And, more importantly, it's a grammar error that should always be avoided.

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