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I work in a company that sells simple children's books. A customer complained that the book changes tense randomly, and they're right. This book was created years ago and needs updating to ensure it uses correct grammar.

The book starts out like this:

Once upon a time in a faraway land, Princess $Name$ lived in a beautiful castle atop a high hill. She had a very busy schedule, each day slightly different from the last.

That's fine, however on all subsequent pages, the text is written in present tense, like so:

On this particular morning, Princess $Name$ awakens to the sound of a songbird singing outside her window.

The story is designed to work in present tense, so rewriting from present tense to past tense is not an option. I'd like to rewrite the first page so it's also in present tense, but I'm not sure how.

Does it make sense to use "once upon a time" in present tense? For instance:

Once upon a time in a faraway land, Princess $Name$ lives in a beautiful castle atop a high hill. She has a very busy schedule, each day slightly different from the last.

But that reads weirdly to me. Alternatively, if that doesn't work grammatically, is there another way to write "once upon a time" such that it sounds ok in a present tense sentence?

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    Keyword: historical present. – Laurel Jun 12 at 0:08
  • @Laurel Unfortunately that doesn't help me know how to handle this situation. Does the concept of "historical present" allow "once upon a time" to be used in a present tense sentence? I don't know enough about English grammar to be able to deconstruct the sentence and figure it out from a technical point of view. – Clonkex Jun 12 at 0:15
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    The simple present tense has an all-inclusive time reference -past, present and future times. In a faraway land, Princess X still lives in a beautiful castle atop a high hill. She has a... will do to bring the story into a present-time perspective, won't it? – mahmud koya Jun 12 at 1:01
  • @OldBrixtonian Of course! It's so obvious. I was stuck trying to force the beginning of the story far into the past, yet allow the rest to be in the present, but historical present tense only really works if you have a narrator describing another story from within the story, otherwise it's just confusing and weird. It makes sense now: "once upon a time" can never work in present tense because it's specifically intended to mean "long ago", i.e. in the past. If you move your comment to an answer I will accept it. – Clonkex Jun 12 at 1:39
  • @Clonkex Thank you. Good luck with the book. – Old Brixtonian Jun 12 at 2:04
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I don't think "Once upon a time" can work with the present tense. There's no present tense equivalent.

Why not start,

In a faraway land, in a beautiful palace atop a high hill [there] lives a princess. Princess $Name$?

Or you could use the Middle Eastern "There is, there is not", though that too is usually in the past tense.

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    This is right. You are dealing with a long established literary convention, not grammar. It is that fairy stories are set as remote in time and place. The ‘historic present’, as the name implies, renders narrative set in the past vividly before the reader as ‘present’. So the equivalent phrase is ‘il y avait une fois’: ‘there was once’. I should add that as a matter of style using the historic present throughout rather destroys the point of the historic present. It no longer conveys that special vivid presence, or not with the same force. – Tuffy Jun 12 at 7:00
  • @Tuffy I agree. I wish I could rewrite the whole book to more carefully use present tense or just stick with past tense throughout, but I don't have the time :( – Clonkex Jun 12 at 23:14
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The "historical present" doesn't have to be used in all sentences. It's fine to use the present tense "on all subsequent pages" despite using the past tense in the first two sentences. The customer's complaint isn't justified, so I would simply ignore the complaint and leave the tense as it is.

Leaving out "Once upon a time" would substantially change the backdrop of the story.

  • The target audience for these books is very young and the story is very simple, so I actually don't think it matters that much. – Clonkex Jun 12 at 3:49
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    @Clonkex There was no grammatical reason to change anything about the tense in the first place, let alone by removing 'once upon a time'. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. – JK2 Jun 12 at 4:29
  • Actually it was pretty jarring to read, and I agreed with the customer. It may have been technically correct but it was awkward to read. I was able to make it flow much better by changing the first page text to present tense and replacing "Once upon a time" with "Long ago" and adding a comma. – Clonkex Jun 12 at 5:39
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    If "once upon a time" cannot be used with the present tense, neither can "long ago" with or without a comma. They're both past-time adjuncts. Technically, you could use a past-time adjunct along with the historical present in the same sentence in some rare context such as a timeline, but as the other answers say, it might not be a good idea to mix a past-time adjunct with the present tense, especially in a children's book. – JK2 Jun 12 at 6:09
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    On the contrary, using the historical present in a separate sentences that don't have any past-time adjunct is neither "jarring" nor unusual. In fact, most storytelling books for kids use this type of technique to smoothly transition from the past tense to the historical present. – JK2 Jun 12 at 6:10
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"Once upon a time" isn't followed by the present tense. Searching the Corpus of Contemporary American English to see what verbs follow "once upon a time" shows this pretty clearly:

All of the results for "is" are false positives, mainly about the TV show Once Upon a Time.

See the query and its results here—you should not need to make an account to do this.

  • That's interesting information, thanks! – Clonkex Jun 12 at 3:52
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A customer complained that the book changes tense randomly, and they're right.... I don't know enough about English grammar to be able to deconstruct the sentence and figure it out from a technical point of view.

Inconsistent tenses can drive a reader nuts. That was true however many years ago the book was originally published and it's still true.

You can use different tenses in different parts of the book if you are careful not to drive the reader nuts. Some considerations to keep in mind:

  • Switching tenses as a narrator should be avoided within the same paragraph.

  • Think of the tense change as if you are in an elevator. If the elevator starts to go up, then suddenly switches direction, and then switches again, you'll probably be nauseous by the time the elevator reaches your floor.

  • The less sophisticated, and the younger, the audience, the more careful you have to be.

  • If it's a book that will be published, it might be a good idea for your fledgling editing efforts to be checked by someone with more experience

  • "fledgling editing efforts" haha. Nah I've been doing this for years. These are personalised books where the focus is more on the personalisation than the story, so the company hires crappy amateur writers and hasn't traditionally cared about the quality of the story. I disagreed and over the years have pushed the books to progressively higher standards of quality by editing them myself. This particular book just bamboozled me, and I couldn't think how to fix the first page. – Clonkex Jun 12 at 23:12
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    @Clonkex - Sorry, I took "I don't know enough about English grammar" too literally! Congrats on the progress. // For a children's story, it might be nice to start with an intro like "Princess $Name$ lives in a beautiful palace atop a high hill in a faraway land," which is inspired by the mouse's intro to the delicious podcast Wooden Overcoats. – aparente001 Jun 13 at 2:00
  • Haha all good :) I just meant it's been a long time since I learned about parts of speech in school :P – Clonkex Jun 13 at 4:48

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