I received some critiques on my writing where the reader indicated it read fine but there was just something off about my tense. However, he couldn't put a finger on what, exactly, was wrong with it. I've been scouring for ages to uncover what could be a mistake in my learned writing and believe it's related to shifting tense.

Say the story was written in past tense. Here's an example of the shifted tense:

He walked to the store. Disapprovingly shaking his head at the banners, he continued onward.

From what I understand, the comma use here implies that he's disapprovingly shaking his head while continuing onward. Perhaps this is erroneous or jarring to the reader?

I could write it like so:

He walked to the store. He shook his head at the banners disapprovingly, and continued onward.

I'd like to avoid so many 'they did this' sentence starters, if possible. Breaking it up as in the first sample looks a bit nicer to me, but perhaps my tense is slipping in these areas and I'm unaware of it.

via. Richmond's Writing Center:

eg. Mrs. Mallory sees her returning son and, in her excitement, twisted her ankle rather badly. Her sister calls the doctor immediately.

I think this one example reads poorly even when the statement included in the commas is removed, as the sentence no longer carries the same tense:

Mrs. Mallory sees her returning son and twisted her ankle rather badly.

It should be:

Mrs. Mallory saw her son returning and twisted her ankle rather badly.

Is what I'm attempting considered a "timeless" noun phrase? Any help is appreciated!

1 Answer 1


The problem is not verb tenses. The problem is subject placement. You don't quite have a dangling participle, because there is no other person being discussed who could be shaking his or her head nor is there any non-person being assigned the head-shaking by accident, but the sentence reads awkwardly.

Starting a sentence with an adverb and gerund is problematic. It's not impossible, but it's hard to do. I appreciate that you want to vary sentence structure, so try something more like this:

He walked to the store and noted the banners, but they weren't worth making a fuss about. With a disapproving shake of his head, he continued onward.

Move some of the context (the banners) to the previous sentence so it's not weighing down the opening clause, and then rewrite the parts of speech so they flow a bit more. It's still inverted and still not He did this and then he did that, but you aren't struggling to figure out whose head is shaking.

Separately, when you have a gerund phrase like that, it describes continuous action. Make sure that you describe actions in the order they occur.

  1. He goes to the store.
  2. He sees the banners.
  3. He shakes his head in disapproval.
  4. He continues on.

Shaking his head describes a situation where 3 and 4 are happening at the same time. This is fine as long as you structure the sentences to reflect that.

He walked to the store and noted the banners, but they weren't worth making a fuss about. He continued onward, shaking his head in disapproval.

This describes him walking (continuing) away from the store without having stopped, but after he sees the banners and while he is walking, he's shaking his head.

  • I agree with the advice. I would add that "disapprovingly" is a mouthful of an adverb to start a sentence with. "Shaking his head in disapproval, he continued on" would be another possible revision.
    – user8356
    Jun 3, 2021 at 18:42

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