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One of the most common grammar errors I see in stories that teens write is switching tenses, or slipping back and forth between past tense and present tense. I’ve read hundreds (if not thousands of teen stories), and though I’ve never tracked it, I’d say that well over half of the fiction pieces teens write have this error, and sometimes, the error will appear in almost every other sentence. It’s that common.

But what is it?

Most teens write their stories in past tense. For example, they’ll write:  “The boy crept silently up the stairs, trying to avoid all the creaking floorboards.”

The verb “crept” is in the past.

To write this same sentence in the present tense, we would write: “The boy creeps silently up the stairs, trying to avoid all the creaking floorboards.”

Tense errors happen when a writer switches tense in the middle of a story. Sometimes they will switch back and forth between sentences, but most often, writers flip between tenses when intense action starts.

I think this is because writers envision what’s happening in their heads as its happening, or in the present, so that’s how they describe it. When the action ends, the writer goes back to past tense.

Let me give you an example:

The boy crept silently down the stairs, trying to avoid the creaking floorboards, but he forgot one. The third step from the top. As soon as he set his foot on it, the board let out a low moan, and the voices emanating from the kitchen fell silent.

Crap.

They hear him. Now they knew he was here and had seen what they’d done. He quickens his steps and runs as softly as he can down the hallway. Where can he hide? He glances into his sister’s room but her room is so freaking clean that there’s nothing there for him to hide behind. He reaches the end of the hallway when the first heavy footstep hits the bottom of the stairway behind him.

They were coming. His heart lurches in his chest as he rushes into the empty master bedroom. Everyone is gone at the Christmas party. Why did he decide to stay home? He can’t remember as he drops to his knees and crawls underneath his parent’s bed. It’s the most obvious place to hide but maybe the intruders won’t find him. He scrinches his eyes shut tight and listens as the footsteps come closer and closer.

He thought about his family. Sure, his sister drove him crazy, but he wasn’t ready to never see her again. He wondered if they’d kill him or kidnap him. He hoped they didn’t torture him. Pain wasn’t his thing…at all.

Can you find where it switches tenses? There are five switches from past to present. See if you can find them.

If you can’t, review the strategies for finding the tense switches before looking at the highlighted version below.

4 Strategies for Finding and Fixing Tense Errors

1) Read your story out loud. If you’re a native English speaker, you will “hear” it, and then you can fix it as you read. This is actually a great strategy for catching all kinds of errors.

2) Look for the “to be” verb which is the most common verb in our language. If you’re writing in present tense, make sure you’ve used “is,” and if you’re writing in past, make sure you’ve used “was.”

3) Check your dialogue. If you’re writing in present tense, you will use “say,” and if you’re writing in past tense, you will use “said.” Make sure it’s consistent.

4) Have a friend or writing buddy read your story. This is one of those errors that is easier for others to catch.

This error can be one of the most difficult to find in our own writing, so don’t be discouraged, just be aware of it if it’s an error you tend to make. I do it too! In fact, I had to rewrite the entire climax of a scene I was recently working on because I switched to present tense right in the middle.

If you weren’t able to identify the tense switches in the example I provided, here’s the “answer.” The bold sections have switched into the present tense.

The boy crept silently down the stairs, trying to avoid the creaking floorboards, but he forgot one. The third step from the top. As soon as he set his foot on it, the board let out a low moan, and the voices emanating from the kitchen fell silent.

Crap.

They hear him. Now they knew he was here and had seen what they’d done. He quickens his steps and runs as softly as he can down the hallway. Where can he hide? He glanced into his sister’s room, but her room is so freaking clean that there’s nothing there for him to hide behind. He reaches the end of the hallway when the first heavy footstep hits the bottom of the stairway behind him.

They’re coming. His heart lurches in his chest as he rushes into the empty master bedroom. Everyone is gone at the Christmas party. Why did he decide to stay home? He can’t remember as he drops to his knees and crawls underneath his parent’s bed. It’s the most obvious place to hide, but maybe the intruders won’t find him. Dust filled his nose and with horror, he realized that he’s about to sneeze. He pinches his nose and scrinches his eyes shut tight and listens as the footsteps come closer and closer.

He held his breath, trying to hold in his sneeze as he thought about his family. Sure, his sister drove him crazy, but he wasn’t ready to never see her again. He wondered if the intruders would kill him or kidnap him. He hoped they didn’t torture him. Pain wasn’t his thing…at all.

Hopefully, you were able to find them, but if not, keep practicing. To avoid making this error and switching tenses at all, be sure to write in whatever tense comes most naturally to you which is probably past tense. It’s a little bit easier to maintain.

Is this an error you make? If not, what’s the most common error you make when writing? Share in the comments below.