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According to Purdue OWL, the following paragraph is correct:

By the time Tom notices the doorbell, it has already rung three times. As usual, he has been listening to loud music on his stereo. He turns the stereo down and stands up to answer the door. An old man is standing on the steps. The man begins to speak slowly, asking for directions.

But I have the temptation to write this:

By the time Tom notices the doorbell, it has already rung three times. As usual, he has been listening to loud music on his stereo. He turns the stereo down and stands up to answer the door. An old man stood on the steps. The man begins to speak slowly, asking for directions.

Why is my version of stood incorrect? Can you recommend a good tutorial or practice at improving verb tenses?

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  • Why do you think it's incorrect? (Although certainly some English teachers would say it is.) Commented Oct 22, 2013 at 16:11
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    @PeterShor I think it's because it drifted away from the primary tense of the paragraph, in this case the present tense.
    – user133466
    Commented Oct 22, 2013 at 16:13
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    It's jarring. What is true of the sentence you want to write that is not true of any other sentence in the paragraph? Commented Oct 22, 2013 at 16:13
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    @PeterShor Do you mean to assert that it is acceptable to disregard verb tense agreement? Or am I reading something into your comment that isn't there?
    – Lumberjack
    Commented Oct 22, 2013 at 16:35
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    @Lumberjack: It's certainly not acceptable to disregard most verb tense agreement, and it's not acceptable to vary erratically between tenses. This is a present-tense narrative, and these are much more informal; I'm not completely sure about the rules for these, especially if they're spoken. Commented Oct 22, 2013 at 16:38

2 Answers 2

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This a narrative form in present continuous. The author is putting us there, in the action, and we are experiencing the action with the actor, in real time. Even with that, though, there is still the concept of past actions, so it is reasonable to say that the doorbell has rung three times.

When you change "is standing" to "stood", you are being inconsistent in that you are changing only one of the verbs in the paragraph to the past historic, or preterite, tense. Your conversion is not, in itself, incorrect; it is incorrect only if you don't do it to all verbs in the paragraph" "by the time Tom noticed the doorbell it had already rung three times...", and so on.

Tutorial advice to you, then, would be "maintain consistency of tense in a paragraph".

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  • I'm having trouble at telling why using "stood" is inconsistent. Just like "has rung" is in past tense, the old man was already standing at the door Before the door was opened. That's why I thought "stood" was appropriate..
    – user133466
    Commented Oct 24, 2013 at 18:31
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If from a narative in a historical present, which constitutes a sort of a time travel so that the real past becomes a make-believe present, you suddenly jump back forward into the real present — you have, practically, created a parenthesis. A parenthesis is a word or phrase inserted as an explanation or afterthought into a passage which is grammatically complete without it.

The problem is (never mind now the fact that in your story it'd be illogical to parenthesize the information about the "old man on the steps," because such a crucial piece of information can hardly be an afterthought) that a parenthesis in writing is usually marked off by brackets, dashes, or commas. If you render it as simply another sentence (e.g., An old man stood on the steps.), you leave your poor readers with a tangle of time references; you as a narrator end up being all over the place, thus being difficult to follow. It might not break any grammar rules proper, but it's bad writing.

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