I have been taught to use only one tense in one sentence/paragraph, but I've always been confused...

For example, in the following sentence:

"In one study, there were only deficits observed in adolescents and not in children, and it was proposed that development of the emotion recognition ability is slower in adolescents with ASD compared to typically developing controls..."

So the overall sentence is in past tense, but in the phrase "emotion recognition ability is slower"... that's present tense? Is that considered as incorrect?

Would be great if someone can let me know...

  • 3
    Revelation 1:8 contains: 'the One who was and is and is to come'; admittedly that's a translation, but I'm not going to say that that Author / Speaker makes any mistakes. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 11 '13 at 23:36
  • "use only one tense in one sentence/paragraph" -- what is the source? Have you checked its validity and where it may be applied if valid? That goes much before the present question. – Kris Dec 12 '13 at 4:54
  • This question is based on a misconception/ misunderstanding. – Kris Dec 12 '13 at 4:54

This is a very common misunderstanding in my view. The idea of restricting tense within a paragraph (as I've heard it) is intended to be a restriction in narrative for the sake of clarity, to show the reader when things were happening. If that's clear, then that "rule of style" certainly doesn't mean that ideas within the sentence can't be addressed in the appropriate tense.

This concept seems hard for many to articulate, and for some, hard to decode within text. My best explanation is to use the following examples:

I was sick yesterday, but today I am fine. I'm all better now.

Locally, the was is past tense, but I never shift the notional view of "speaking from now" - the present, as when I was writing. I was narrating past events from the present, then describing the present. I stay always in the "present".

He loaded a pistol. He cocked the hammer. He takes aim and he's firing his gun at me.

This breaks the rule. Firstly, it sounds like I've survived the attack and am writing about a past event. Then part way though it seems like it's happening now. Regarding style, much is written in this form of present tense (apparently) to give it greater impact on the reader and reduce 'psychic distance' - to get the reader more involved.

You can refer to past events, future, present, all in one paragraph - or sentence even, otherwise you couldn't express much in the English language at all. But the governing tense of the paragraph, or sentence, should not be mistaken as the tense of any individual word therein, but rather, recognised as the overall 'temporal position' in which the portion of narrative is given.

Hope that helps.


I don't know who taught you that, but they were wrong (or perhaps drastically oversimplifying).

In this particular case, either is or was can be used (in my view, is is more formal and was more colloquial). Since the sentence is reporting a general, timeless finding, is probably makes more sense.

protected by tchrist Jul 8 '14 at 23:28

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