When writing stories in past tense (which is majority of the time) whether it be an essay for class or an unassembled essay for home and in my own time, I often find myself writing some of my sentences in the following way:

"No!" I yelled, ignoring him completely.

I always get corrected with the words after the comma. I have been told it is not written in the right tense...I don't understand how the tense would be wrong?

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    Perhaps it's because if you yelled "No!", then you did not ignore him completely.
    – ddunn801
    Aug 14, 2017 at 21:24
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    @ddunn801 That is a funny point, but due to a lack of context we can't say for sure. If someone tells you don't do something and you say no I will do it anyways, you are ignoring their advice. If someone is mid talking and you shout no, you are not paying attention to what they are saying and cutting them off, and ignoring what they have to say by cutting them off. Or he could be walking off while this person is talking and he is not paying attention to anything they are saying and just shouts no like a child throwing a tantrum.
    – ggiaquin16
    Aug 14, 2017 at 22:19
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    @ggiaquin except, he is ignoring him completely. Not ignoring the advice, not ignoring what he's saying, ignoring him completely - which he's not doing if he's yelling at the person.
    – mcalex
    Aug 15, 2017 at 7:45
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    @ddunn801 I could have yelled "No!" to her while ignoring his attempts to mediate our argument. Aug 15, 2017 at 9:34

3 Answers 3


The tense is not wrong.

Guessing as to why you are being told it is wrong: English grammar is a system of explanation, not a set of rules, and it is incredibly complicated, and even as complicated as it is, still does not adequately describe all forms of common English usage. In this system of explanation, "Yelled" is past tense and "ignoring" is a present participle. One "past", one "present", therefore your critics think it is wrong.

BUT present participles are used to form the past continuous tense. (I told you it was complicated.) "Ignoring" is (in this sentence) in the past continuous tense. So the tenses match.

At least, that is the best analysis I can give. But there are those here who are far more ardent and learned grammar wonks than I, and they may explain it a different way.

But like I said, you are dealing with a system of explanation that often has a very hard time categorizing what are very common English phrases. You are far more likely to learn to use tenses correctly in English by observing and imitating common English usage.

Your sentence is common English usage.

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    "grammar is a system of explanation, not a set of rules" This should be said more clearly in most classrooms. Linguistics is mostly a describing discipline, not a normative one.
    – Arthur
    Aug 15, 2017 at 7:08
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    No need to revert to "it's not in the rules, just common English". It is valid English even according to "the rules", see ell.stackexchange.com/q/7255/10607. The "while" is implicit in this sentence.
    – Sanchises
    Aug 15, 2017 at 10:58
  • @Sanchises I didn't say it wasn't. I simply pointed out that the "rules" are not rules at all, but a system of explanation that is both complex and inadequate. One of the ways in which it is inadequate is that to make it work it often needs to insert "implicit" words in order to fit the rule to the case. There are no implicit words in any sentence ever (implied ideas, certainly). If a grammatical system can't account for its meaning without adding additional "implied" words, that grammatical system is incomplete. English, a hopeless polyglot, continues to defy systematic grammar.
    – user16226
    Aug 15, 2017 at 11:09
  • @MarkBaker I suppose that is one way of looking at it. Anyway, thought a link to a relevant ELL question would be helpful, if the OP wants to find out more about constructs like these, and/or likes having a set of rules to rely on (don't worry, I'm also not saying there is a full set of rules that describes the English language, but for some, a fixed rule is easier than "feeling" what is common usage).
    – Sanchises
    Aug 15, 2017 at 11:15
  • @Sanchises, agreed, a set of rules, even if incomplete, can be useful at the beginning of study. But it should always be made clear to people that the system of rules is incomplete and that they are going to meet idiomatic constructs that the rules (even the full set, let alone the subset they have been taught) is not going to fully account for, and that following the rules faithfully will often produce completely unidiomatic expressions. Reaching true fluency requires absorbing the tacit grammar that we cannot (yet) fully make explicit.
    – user16226
    Aug 15, 2017 at 11:27

I would accept the sentence you have written, usually. It depends on the context.

Tenses in English are actually incredibly complex. (I have recently written a simple guide for distinguishing between the past/present/future simple/progressive/perfect/progressive perfect, which, to be perfectly honest, doesn't cover all tenses.)

Usually, I advise students to stick to one tense when writing a story -- past or present tense. However, things are not that simple. For example, in past tense narratives, present tense sequences can be very effective for creating tension and suspense. As well, sometimes future statements are appropriate.

If you are considering non-fiction, the past tense is conventional. However, talking to my wife, who is a professor of Greek history, she often uses the present tense to talk about past events.

I guess that you are not a native English speaker and you are trying to work out how to please an examiner/teacher/etc. All I can suggest is that you look for examples of the types of constructions you use in standard English texts (e.g. Victorian novels which are availble online for free) to show the person who thinks this construction is wrong.

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    I think it is very important to stress that stories do not have tenses. Individual verbs has tenses. It is not a requirement that all the verbs in a sentence be in the same tense. "Tom said he will go to the store tomorrow." "Jeff is saying that he will propose to Brenda next Tuesday." It is certainly not a requirement that all verbs in a story have the same tense. Stories may be told in the narrative present or the narrative past, which is neither the same as the present or past time or the present of past tense.
    – user16226
    Aug 14, 2017 at 20:39

Your sentence is correct. I went to the current issue of The Economist, looked up the first article I saw about English literature, and found two similar constructions. Here’s one (emphasis added):

The Economist, reviewing it in 1847, argued that it was “perfectly fresh and lifelike” and, as such, “far removed from the namby pamby stuff of which fashionable novels are made”

It has been completely acceptable in the most formal English for centuries, to wit:

And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth.

Or more recently:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed [....]

(And if your instructor accepts those, you get to start sentences with conjunctions. Also to write sentence fragments.)

Why is it getting marked as incorrect? It might be a hypercorrection, like how I’ve had some people try to convince me that it’s always bad style or even bad grammar to use the word was. I’ve seen the claim that the construction you’re talking about is often misused, and that sometimes leads to the misunderstanding that there is a rule against it.

Let’s look at a sentence that some would accept as correct grammar and some would not: “He started his car, backing it out of the driveway.”

One usage that some people flag as an error is using this construction for two actions that are not simultaneous. A driver first starts the car, then backs it out of the driveway; he was not backing it out of the driveway while he started the car. Others would accept this when the action in the simple past tense occurs immediately before the one that gets the present participle, as in this example. It is at the very least a common idiom. Fewer would accept, “She married him, divorcing seven years later,” as correct.

We see another pitfall with the sentence “He started his car, backing it out of the driveway,” when we compare it to, “She swerved out of the path of the car backing out of the driveway.” The clause backing it out of the driveway modifies he, but the noun immediately before it is car, so it is arguably a misplaced modifier. Using commas the way I just did can fix that ambiguity, but writers don’t do so consistently.

If I say, “I went up to the girl singing that song,” is she singing or am I? This construction, where the present participle comes after a main clause containing more than one noun, can be ambiguous about which noun the phrase is modifying and some people think you should always avoid it. Therefore, some sources say that “Singing that song, I went up to the girl,” is correct, but not the other way around.

Either might be the origin of your instructor’s belief that this usage is always wrong.

(I added an even earlier example here, at one point, but on a closer reading, I no longer think it is grammatically parallel.)

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    sounds like he jump-started the car in reverse? Getting it started while backing it down the driveway.
    – Beanluc
    Aug 15, 2017 at 22:00
  • @Beanluc So if you don’t want to sound like you’re saying that, or you didn’t mean to say that shouting “No!” was ignoring someone else, you should avoid that figure of speech.
    – Davislor
    Aug 15, 2017 at 22:01

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