I've read a number of questions here on SE English as well as from Google searches, however I'm still unclear on something.

Consider the following:

Alice walked carefully along the uneven lawn, making sure to keep her ankle straight.

Bob felt as if he was forgetting something as the bus stopped at the curb.

I'm confident these are both correctly conjugated, but as a native English speaker I also know I have a lifetime of repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

The question is why is it that these two are both correct despite one mixing tenses, and what "test" can be used to determine such things?

Some things I read before asking this:

I've read more, but I'd rather not fish through my history just to show that I'm not just asking due to being lazy.

  • One of those isn't a real URL, so you should either fix it or delete it from the post. Otherwise, this post looks really good.
    – Laurel
    Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 2:16

2 Answers 2


In your example

Alice walked carefully along the uneven lawn, making sure to keep her ankle straight.

there is only one verb marked for tense, i.e. establishing when something occurred relative to the time of utterance, and that is the finite verb agreeing with the subject: walked.

The participle making is present in form, but does not itself have tense. A present participle can be used with a finite verb in any tense, indicating that the action/state described by the participle takes place at the same time.

Next year I’ll visit all the major museums in Rome, making sure I have at least three days for the Vatican. [Future]

Hold the board in place, making sure it's perfectly flat. [Present]

A perfect participle indicates a prior action/state relative to the finite verb:

Having first made sure his shirts were properly ironed and folded, John got down to the business of packing.

  • Ah, thank you. That how I was justifying it to myself (that the second verb is present tense in respects to the first/main verb) however I didn't know the rule. In the second example the third verb (was forgetting being the second) is in parallel with the first so must agree, correct? Or is "as" functioning as a conjunction?
    – Nero gris
    Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 3:27
  • The main takeaway here is that only finite verbs have tense. Non-finite verb forms (participles, infinitives) express time only in relation to a finite verb. He seems to spend all his money as soon as he gets it (habitual present) He seems to have spent all his money (The seeming is now; the money was spent some time in the past). He seemed to have spent all his money_ (The statement is made in the past; the spending is prior to the time of utterance).
    – KarlG
    Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 11:49

Both those two statements are correct, as you're using a participle to add information without using "and" to attach a clause to your sentence. It's somewhat of a grammatical shortcut, but it also adds more of an action affect to the writing, rather than having it seem like a simple retelling of events. This is often used in writing to make the reader feel as if a story in passed tense is happening right before them.

Such as the sentence, "Mia teetered over the chasm, straining and reaching for the dagger that balanced precariously on the ledge not three feet from her."

As opposed to, "Mia teetered over the chasm, and strained and reached for the dagger that balance precariously on the ledge not three feet from her".

Now, there are other ways to phrase that sentence, and what you do depends on personal style, but it is a grammatically correct way of describing a series of actions.

  • Such use of the participle means that what is about to be described is a result of the sentence up to this point. If we attempt to use it to describe part of what has happened it can fail to latch onto the verb it should follow. So: 'I have a cup and saucer, falling to the floor' works while 'I have a cup and he has a saucer, falling to the floor' means we are not sure if it is the saucer or the cup and saucer that is/are falling. Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 6:52

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.