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I'm having difficulties with a sentence (and others like it) in the prose of a story. I've heard a lot of advice to both remain consistent with tense but also to not be too rigid about it. Could someone please advise whether or not a sentence like the following would be considered correct if writing a story in the past tense?

His secretary Ivy, holding her head up with one hand, slowly spun the Rolodex with a level of boredom fast approaching insanity.

My question is specifically regarding the tenses of holding and approaching vs. spun, which are obviously different, but does that affect the sentence in a negative way? I realise I could write something like the following:

His secretary Ivy held her head up with one hand and slowly spun the Rolodex with a level of boredom which fast approached insanity.

But before committing to a story-wide tense parsing, would like to know whether it is entirely necessary to do so.

(In this example, Ivy is being introduced, if that makes a difference at all.)

  • I see no issue with your first example. Perhaps there's a subliminal problem with slowly and fast being in such proximity? – Stu W Mar 6 '16 at 2:19
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Your example is perfectly fine, provided the secretary has two arms.

The -ing words in sentences like this are not present tense verbs, they are present participles, and you are using them in participle phrases where the whole phrase functions as an adjective to describe the state of the secretary.

So, for example these are equally valid ways to describe Ivy...

Ivy, bored, spun the Rolodex.

Feckless Ivy spun the Rolodex.

Having no interest in the affair, Ivy spun the Rolodex.

Ivy spun the Rolodex wearing her usual expression of boredom.

Although a present participle might sound like you are supposed to use it in the present tense, that's not the case at all. It's to describe something that is true or occurring in the 'present' relative to your main verb. So it works in past, present or future. For example:

Barney, feeling hungry, looked in the fridge.

Becky, tired of his excuses, puts down the phone.

Rufus, being the King's eldest son, will claim the crown.

This is why your secretary needs two arms. The participle phrase must be true while she performs the action in the verb. If she only has one arm, she can't be holding her head up while spinning the Rolodex. The following are other examples which are incorrect, because they can't be happening at the same time:

Loading her gun, she fired three times.

Looking out to sea, he closed his eyes and thought of home.

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    I can confirm she has two arms. Thank you for this excellent answer. – N. Anderson Mar 6 '16 at 10:03

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