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I’m reading and hearing conflicting advice on this topic. I’m writing a history book and I am getting tripped up on tenses when the time period shifts when referencing the same topic. Some are telling me it should always be past tense if it’s referencing the past, but some tell me it’s recommended to change the tense when the time shifts.

For instance… which of these is most correct?

ABC company opened in 1900. Board members approved its charter the previous year. It expands in 1910 and closes in 1920.

ABC company opened in 1900. Board members approved its charter the previous year. It expanded in 1910 and closed in 1920.

ABC company opened in 1900. Board members approved its charter the previous year. It will expand in 1910 and close in 1920.

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Your big problem is consistency. Pick a context and work with it.

Here's an example using all simple past tense:

ABC company opened in 1900. Board members approved its charter the previous year. It expanded in 1910 and closed in 1920.

There's nothing grammatically wrong with that, but the second sentence is somewhat out of place. Perhaps it should have gone first to keep the narrative in order of occurrence, but it's there in the second spot, so you might address that by using past perfect:

ABC company opened in 1900. Board members had approved its charter the previous year. It expanded in 1910 and closed in 1920.

Now the second sentence is fine where it sits because it addresses the inconsistency in ordering. It tells you that the second event happened before the first.

If you were using a present-tense context to express past events (not the best course of action, but still doable) you would still need to address the inconsistency:

ABC company opens in 1900. Board members have approved its charter the previous year. It expands in 1910 and closes in 1920.

I don't know why you would want to express past events in this manner (it's usually used to express more immediacy in the narrative, but the dry facts of this particular example don't seem to warrant that in the same way that, say, the story of a murder might), but if you do you could use present perfect for the second sentence to respect the time context. Note that the present-perfect in the second sentence might be better used if that sentence were reduced to a clause:

ABC company opens in 1900, board members having approved its charter the previous year. It expands in 1910 and closes in 1920.

The following example begins in the simple past, then uses past perfect to reference a time before the first sentence, then the imperfect future using would to move the narrative perspective beyond the initial context:

ABC company opened in 1900. Board members had approved its charter the previous year. It would expand in 1910 and close in 1920.

There are other ways to deliver the information, but no matter what you choose you should remember to respect the context of the events and the order in which they happen, even if you do not express them in the logical sequence.

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    In your third example using a present-tense context to express past events, I have some doubts about using present perfect tense have approved along with the past time adjunct the previous year, which equates in context to 1899. Are you sure you can say (even in the historic present) Board members have approved its charter in 1899?
    – JK2
    Jun 16, 2021 at 4:00
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    @JK2: From the perspective of 1900 as "present" I would say yes. Consider another example: "It's late September, 1066. King Harold has used the feord to shore up defenses on the southern coast of England, but now he will face another challenge from the north that will call for all his resources."
    – Robusto
    Jun 16, 2021 at 13:23
  • I didn't know you could use the present perfect and the future 'will' in the historic present. But your example sounds fine to me. That said, I would still object to Board members have approved its charter the previous year and to King Harold has used the feord to shore up defenses on the southern coast of England the previous year. In fact, you may have shared my doubts to change have approved to having approved. By the way, the latter is not the "present" perfect.
    – JK2
    Jun 16, 2021 at 15:52

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