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A shift is a confusing change in person, verb tense, voice, mood, or number; it is kind of like wearing two different shoes. Your reader looks at your writing to be dressed one way, but elements of the sentence just don't fit. The key is consistency—of voice, verb tense, person, and mood, —and proofreading your writing to ensure that this consistency is maintained. In this module students will learn to . . .
identify and correct shifts in verb tense, voice, mood, person, and number in their writing.
Shifts in Verb Tense
A verb tense shift is a shift in time, for example, from present to past, or past to future tense. Sometimes such shifts make perfect sense, as when one describes an event that takes place before another event:
But sometimes, writers slip up and shift tense when there should be no shift, as in the following sentence:
The way to avoid inappropriate shifts in verb tense is to visualize the actions described: Does one event really occur before another, or are they simultaneous? Apply this technique in the following sentences:
Shifts in Voice: Passive vs. Active Voice
A sentence is said to be in active voice when the subject performing the action is emphasized:
A sentence is in passive voice when the subject performing the action is de-emphasized:
Most often writers use active voice in order to emphasize agency—a subject performing some action, and to make writing energetic. Occasionally, however, writers want to emphasize the object in a sentence rather than a subject's actions. Consider the emphasis in these active and passive sentences:
Problems arise, however, when a writer shifts from active to passive or from passive to active voice within the same sentence:
Shifts in Mood
Mood in sentences is not like mood in people, who have emotional moods—joyful, melancholy, irritable, lazy, etc. In writing, there are two moods: indicative and subjunctive. A sentence in the indicative mood is a statement of fact, an assertion. A sentence in the subjunctive mood indicates that something is conditional, hypothetical, or doubtful. In a sentence in the subjunctive mood, therefore, it is very common to see an "if" clause. In addition, in the subjunctive mood, "I was" becomes "I were," and "It was" becomes "it were." Take a look at the following sentences in the subjunctive mood:
It is not correct to write "If I was rich. . . or "If I was you . . . etc. These mistakes are considered shifts in mood.
Shifts in Person
There are three forms of narrative voice in writing:
It is common for students to shift person in written sentences, because in everyday speech, such shifts are common, for example,
Note: In general, it is better to avoid "you" constructions altogether in academic writing. The personal "you" is a bit too informal and too direct for academic writing.
Shifts in Number
A shift from singular to plural, or vice versa is a definite no-no. These shifts confuse the reader and break the coherence and unity of your writing. One source of shifts in number is an indefinite pronoun such as "anyone" or "none" or "all, especially when these pronouns are followed by a prepositional phrase such as "of us" or "of the students."
1. Shifts in verb tense
2. Shifts in voice
3. Shifts in mood
4. Shifts in person
5. Shifts in number