Style Matters# 15: It’s wise not to tangle your tenses


One of the guidelines for good writing is to ensure tenses are consistent throughout a sentence and, usually, throughout a paragraph or section of a story as well. In rare cases, however, mixed tenses can also be appropriate.


Because she is keen to compete, she may turn up on Saturday. (correct)
Because she is keen to compete, she might turn up on Saturday. (incorrect)

The man said he wanted to play. (grammatically correct)
The man says he wants to play. (also correct)
The man said he wants to play. (not correct, unless you intended to mix tenses to suggest his desire is ongoing)

Yet, as a copy editor, it’s not uncommon to see mixed tenses creep into a writer’s copy where they shouldn’t be, especially where direct speech (quotes) have been re-written as indirect speech.

Perhaps this happens when writers/reporters are in a rush, but it then becomes someone else’s job to clean the copy up and with ever-tightening deadlines in newsrooms, the originator needs – more than ever – to take responsibility for their own copy.

(By the way, for those reading this who are not reporters, the usual verb of attribution in news stories is the past tense “said”.  Even if the quoted speech is in present tense, the verb of attribution stays in past tense. The present tense “says” is usually only used in feature stories.)

As writers turning direct speech into indirect speech, we need to be clear what tense the speaker actually used and, therefore, what the speaker meant.


(Original direct quote)
“I will be representing my clients in court,” their barrister said.
(Rewritten as indirect speech)
Their barrister said he would be representing his clients in court. (correct)
Their barrister said he will be representing his clients in court. (incorrect)

“She will be going,” he said.
He said she would be going. (correct)
He said she will be going. (incorrect)

“I have been out riding,” she said.
She said he had been out riding. (correct)
She said he was out riding. (also correct)

“I loved my girlfriend,” the boy told the court.
The boy told the court he had loved his girlfriend. (correct if he no longer does/can)
The boy told the court he loved his girlfriend. (correct if that love is ongoing)
The boy told the court he loves his girlfriend. (incorrect)

Of course, when writing multiple sequential sentences consisting of past tense, indirect speech that will be attributed to the same source, you do not need to put s/he said at the end of every single sentence or paragraph after the speaker’s identity has been established at the outset. Allow the tense of subsequent sentences/paragraphs to indicate you are still in indirect speech mode.

Reporters and writers also need to be careful when applying tenses so as not to “kill the living” or “resurrect the dead”.

For example, if writing about people who have been injured, say:

“Those injured in the crash are … (not were).”

And, if writing about fatalities, say:

“The victims of the crash are believed to have been (not believed to be).”


If you like what you’ve read here, you can see reporting4work’s similar posts at Style Matters

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s