I've noticed that, in daily conversations, when people are telling stories in the past, they often shift the tense back and forth between the past and the present - even they're native speakers. For example, people might say:

_It was almost 5 a.m. He hadn't come home yet, and his phone was off. I'd been so worried that couldn't sleep at all. Then I heard the door knocked fiercely. Of course it's him. He's got a bottle of whisky in his hand and smelt like a tramp. He stumbles in, ignoring me at all. I was like, stopping him, asking where he's been. He suddenly turns around, shouts at me, pushing me crazily out of my flat and locks me out. I am totally petrified. I've never seen him like that. That's why I asked you if I could come here._

I made up this scenario because I couldn't come up with an exact example I've heard, but it happens all the time. The tenses shift. On one hand, I don't have any problems understanding the story. I wouldn't misinterpret the timeframe just because I heard the tense jump to the present. But on the other hand, I would feel a bit uncomfortable and think, "isn't it wrong?." Furthermore, when it comes to me telling stories, I've been struggling with this usage. I can't judge if this usage is proper, educated, and "correct." Also, if this is proper, are there any rules I should keep in mind so that I won't confuse the listeners? Should I insert something like "I was like" from time to time to remind the listeners that I'm still talking about the story in the past? Or should I shift to the present tense only when I tend to bring the scene more lively to the listeners? Is it a good idea to tell the whole story in present tense once the time has been set, in this case, after the first sentence? Finally, since I feel the present tense is generally easier to be spoken more fluently, would it be recommended to use the present tense throughout the whole story, given I'm sure the timeframe has registered with the listeners?

Any suggestions will be greatly appreciated.

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    Pick either the past or the present, and stick with it. – Peter Shor Dec 2 '13 at 0:57
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    I'd say that there is not much that is "right" or "wrong" in spoken English if both the speaker and the listener understand what is being said. I'd call the use of the present tense that you describe, an describe quite well, the cinematic present. The speaker is attempting the immediacy of film. – Michael Owen Sartin Dec 2 '13 at 0:59
  • If you want to be strict with the rules, then be strict about it. Stick with one tense. – Lester Nubla Dec 2 '13 at 2:03
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    This question has been asked a couple of times before. – Blessed Geek Dec 2 '13 at 3:15
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    But, when speaking, people often don't "stick with" one tense. For many, it is an automatic, unconscious slip into the present tense, which also sounds totally natural to the listener. So it is not "wrong" or a marker of lack of education. If a non-native speaker wants to sound like a native speaker, this is an important "skill" to master. – nxx Jan 13 '14 at 21:33

There is a valid literary technique that will subtly shift from past to present but it is much safer to pick one tense and stick with it.

An example of this device, which I copied from About.com's page on the subject:

Off the road there was what appeared to be a reviewing stand, and I sat there for a few moments, taking in the museum and the cold blue Sunday sky, taking stock, what to do, what to do next, I'd really hate to cancel dinner tonight . . . I'm breathing normally now, it's OK A-OK, I won't even tell my wife, nor Tim, especially not Tim, I feel fit as a fiddle now.

The page linked above has a handful of various thoughts and examples on the subject. It does explicitly note that we often do this sort of thing during informal speech:

What is an example of an unmotivated shift in tense in writing? One example is starting a story in past tense and suddenly shifting into present tense:

Last week I was walking along a street when this man walks up to me and says...

We do this in speech all the time, but in formal writing it's considered to be an error.

(Edward L. Smith and Stephen A. Bernhardt, Writing At Work: Professional Writing Skills for People on the Job. NTC Publishing, 1997)


The shift to present tense indicates heightened emotion on the part of the narrator. This is also supposed to be more emotive for the listener. It's a normal and mostly unconscious part of spoken English. (It is seen as slightly more "lower-class" or "less-educated" or possibly even "female", but this is also because emotional speech is, rightly or wrongly, assumed to be more prevalent in those groups.)

The safest bet, if this type of usage still seems weird to you, is to use the past tense for all past occurrences. When you get more advanced, you'll develop an instinct for when to use the present.

BTW: Notice that we don't actually use the simple present tense to describe most presently occurring events - apart from verbs of belief and a few others, we tend to use the present progressive. The use of the simple present, therefore, does mark the action as happening at a non-present time. When I say, "He looks at me like I'm an idiot", you know I'm either describing a regular, repeated occurrence, or telling a story about the past (otherwise I'd say "He is looking...").

protected by user140086 Mar 7 '16 at 4:59

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