I was taught to pick a tense when writing a story. So normally I choose past tense. But how to deal with this ambiguity?

  • John was brave the day before.
  • John was a kind person.

Does this mean John is no longer kind?

In the story time line John is still brave as of now. But since the story happened in the past I have to use "was". How can I convey presentness within the past?

English is not my first language. I hope this make some sort of sense!

  • This is the phrase John is brave yesterday, backshifted so it is in the past. It doesn't make much sense in the present tense, and it makes equally little sense in the past. Nov 24, 2017 at 15:33
  • Descriptions of people in a story refer to the time in which the events were happening, whether that is a hundred years ago or yesterday. 'John was kind' is how the other characters experienced him; it is not ambiguous. Sometimes, though, an author may tell a story through the eyes of one character and have them tell the reader that things are different now. Nov 25, 2017 at 9:46

1 Answer 1


Since everything usually in the present tense has been shifted to past tense, technically speaking everything in the past tense should be backshifted again to pluperfect (past perfect): John had been brave the day before, but he was cowardly today.

But if you have a long line of events that happened in the past, it's usually sufficient to use the pluperfect only for the first verb and simple past for the rest; the reader will understand that the entire "scene" is in the past.

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