When describing objects in telling a story, should the objects be referred to in past tense or present tense, if the effects of the story still hold true on them? Since it is a story it should be in past tense but if the objects remain the same to the present time from the story it should be present tense. Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't it poor grammar to mix past and present tense in a sentence?

I thought of this when writing the following: I just bought something from the deli at the grocery store and was surprised my receipt had one number.

Should it be had or has? I still have the receipt and it still has one number. A simpler example is "The man walked into a room that had red walls." vs "The man walked into a room with red walls". Assuming the walls are still red upon the telling of this story, which is correct?

Furthermore, I notice when people are unsure if something is untrue they tend to use the past tense. For example if there had been a car crash and someone observed the backed up traffic but left the scene before they saw the traffic resume to normal flow, they would say There was a car crash and traffic was backed up. I'm not sure if it is flowing again. Is common to speak of things in the past tense when unsure, for example why not replace was with is or is either acceptable?

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    This question appears to be off-topic because it is not a real question. – user19148 Jul 30 '13 at 20:21
  • @Carlo_R. are you going to argue your point? – Celeritas Jul 30 '13 at 20:43
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    Celer, arguing is difficult, but, as far as I can tell, the relationship between past tense forms and their correlated past events is primarily semantic, and, more generally, since a morphological structure, especially in reference to time-framed actions, can be captured solely based on semantic relationships, the question, which alludes to a syntactical perspective of functional grammar, is not real. That's all. – user19148 Jul 30 '13 at 22:22
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    This question appears to be off-topic because it is about writing advice rather than English usage. – Bradd Szonye Aug 1 '13 at 9:27
  • We have writersSE that may be of help. – Kris Aug 1 '13 at 10:17

Your structure guides your tense. Most stories are not told in the present tense. You are describing what has already happened

. . . I was surprised my receipt had one number.

The events you are describing are in the past, both your being surprised and your noting the characteristics of the receipt. In fact, it is possible you have destroyed the receipt, and it no longer has one number.

In your traffic situation, patterns are regularly changing. For an occurrence that is being discussed in the past tense, its characteristics should also be in the past tense unless you are trying to emphasize the continuing nature of the condition, in which case you should be explicit. If you knew that the traffic backup continued, you could say

There was a car crash, traffic was backed up, and it still is.

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  • What about a fact that doesn't like where a person is originally from? For example "His name was Bob and he was from New York" vs "His name is Bob and he is from New York"? – Celeritas Feb 6 '15 at 7:49

In the context of your sentence you are describing not the state of the receipt or the walls but the state of mind of the subject, so past tense is correct.

In your traffic example it is not the certainty that dictates the tense. The sentence correctly using the current tense when discussing your current belief and the past tense when discussing the past observations upon which it is based.

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By default the verbs in a narrative about the past will be in a past tense. Clearly, this must be so for action verbs: I bought, the man walked, etc. But the same is true for stative verbs: the receipt had, the walls were, the traffic was, etc.

However, if the speaker is explicitly interested the present state of the stative verb, then the present tense can be used. For example:

I visited a shop yesterday which has red walls. You really must go see it.

I got a receipt that only has one number. Here, take a look.

I had a call from Mary last night. She seems really distraught.

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    I disagree with your last example. Surely "She seemed really distraught" [when you spoke with her last night]. You don't know whether she seems distraught [today] unless you've spoken to her (or heard about her from someone else) today - which is unlikely since otherwise you would be mentioning today's contact, not last night's contact. – TrevorD Jul 30 '13 at 22:14
  • @Trevor, In The English Verb by Michael Lewis there is a chapter entitled The importance of the speaker. Lewis states that the speaker "exercises certain choices when speaking. These depend both on objective facts and on the speaker's understanding and interpretation at the moment of speaking. ... the speaker needs the additional connotational meanings of the chosen form rather than the form that was not chosen." – Shoe Jul 31 '13 at 5:25
  • [continued] So in this case, the speaker chooses the present tense because his interpretation of the call (and knowledge of Mary) is that she will still be distraught at the time of reporting it early next morning. Using the past tense would not convey such an interpretation. But clearly, the present tense would not work for a call received two weeks ago. – Shoe Jul 31 '13 at 5:25
  • I accept what you say, but still think that it would sound odd to my native ears! Do you have a link to your reference? – TrevorD Jul 31 '13 at 14:01
  • Perhaps a better sentence than my third one to exemplify the point I was making is: I had a call from Mary a couple of days ago. She _likes_ your idea of meeting up in London and suggests the last week in June. The Lewis book is sitting on my shelf, but here's a link to to part of it available online. The section I quoted is in chapter 5: englishpatterns.com/community/viewtopic.php?f=12&t=2512#5. – Shoe Jul 31 '13 at 14:36

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