I am writing a short story using past tense, but I am a little bit confused when it comes to writing this part:

She had never seen a man as athletic as him before. She knew Japanese men (were / are) not as tall as British men...

Is it appropriate to shift tense here? Or do I use the past tense throughout? The narrator is stating a fact about a fictional world in my story.

Hope my question and explanation makes sense. Thanks!

  • 2
    At the very least in the same sentence the tenses need to match. In your example 'were' is essential. You might benefit more from the EL and L site.
    – WS2
    Commented Mar 9, 2014 at 8:37
  • You need to be aware that fiction writing has its own conventions and those conventions differ among its writers. Read a lot of fiction, study it, and copy the conventions that you want to use. Your specific question is probably more appropriate for a fiction writing site/forum. imo. :)
    – F.E.
    Commented Mar 25, 2014 at 21:00
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    @WS2: I think that's a highly misleading comment. There's no reason other than personal stylistic preference to distinguish between "I told him I was male" and "I told him I am male" (unless you want to drag in contrived contexts involving sex-change operations! :). Commented Jun 23, 2014 at 20:42
  • @FumbleFingers Perhaps I was being over-dogmatic when I wrote this back in March. Even so I am having difficulty thinking of an instance where I would ever say 'I told him my name is xyz'. Even where a future event is concerned one normally says says 'I informed them I was leaving tomorrow'. However where the first tense is future, one could naturally switch to present, or past as in 'I will notify them that I am the owner'; or 'I will tell them who committed the crime'.
    – WS2
    Commented Jun 24, 2014 at 8:31
  • 1
    @WS2: I absolutely agree you tend to use past tense consistently in "reported speech / continuous state" contexts even when the specific state obtains in the present / future. But it's certainly not essential, and sometimes you might very deliberately choose present tense simply to emphasise that the state remains true. If we were on ELL (per your suggestion) I'd strongly endorse the idea that people who aren't sure what they're doing and why should maintain tense consistency. But that's not to constrain competent speakers on ELU. Commented Jun 24, 2014 at 13:35

4 Answers 4


As far as I know, it is possible to shift tenses in a sentence, which is usually done to show that the statement is true in the present. But it is recommended to be consistent, especially in a narrative story.


Tense shifting is complicated and rather flexible but there are certain things that are strongly discouraged. This example would be considered incorrect, even within the scope of creative writing:

She knew Japanese men are not as tall as British men.

You could say, however:

Japanese men are not as tall as British men, and she knew this.

She knew that Japanese men are not as tall as British men.

She knew this: Japanese men are not as tall as British men.

In this case, you need to more explicitly split the tense of the "fact" from the tense of her knowing.

More information on tense shifts can be found at this IUP page and it discusses a few of the more common instances of appropriate tense shifting.

  • Per my comment to WS2 under the question, I don't agree at all that the tense of (past) knowing must match that of the thing known. Admittedly, we're more likely to speak of those in the past who knew that the earth was round. But the facts haven't changed, and there are plenty of references to those who knew that the earth is round. Commented Jun 23, 2014 at 23:28
  • The earth being round is a static fact. Height differences between ethic groups is not and can change over time.
    – MrHen
    Commented Jun 24, 2014 at 3:35
  • You are right that it is strongly discouraged in prescriptive grammar; I added the 'descriptive-grammar' tag for that reason. Do you think this is a backshift exception because the statement still holds true?
    – Third News
    Commented Jun 24, 2014 at 3:43
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    @ MrHen: Average heights (and associated differences between ethnic groups) change so slowly that in the context of most "natural" references to them, they might as well be considered "static facts". I have little interest in "prescriptive grammar" when it appears to be telling me I should avoid what seem like natural usages to me. I'm perfectly literate, but not on the basis of having studied "rules" of that nature. Commented Jun 24, 2014 at 3:51
  • @FumbleFingers: Actually, I looked at your earth example again and it matches the example already in my answer. The inclusion of "that" fixes the problem to my ear. It is also entirely possible this is a regional thing. "knew Japanese men are not as tall" sounds incorrect to me.
    – MrHen
    Commented Jun 24, 2014 at 13:10

Shifting tenses is proper tool in sentence construction. Your example is a backshift

Changing from one verb tense to another (usually from past to present, or vice versa) within a sentence or paragraph.


Deictic Word
Gnomic Present
Habitual Present
Historical Present
Literary Present
Simple Present

Potential rewording:

She had never seen a man as athletic as him before. She knew Japanese men have long held a reputation for being shorter than British men...

This continues using past tense when referring to "She", while the reputation is also in the past and may possibly still hold true in current tense.

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