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Is it acceptable to switch to present tense when writing in third person POV past tense? (Not only within dialog.)

For example:

"They marched in two perfectly formed lines. Their footsteps echoing through the hall."

The above version seems more appealing than:

"They marched in two perfectly formed lines. Their footsteps echoed through the hall."

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It works, but only if you do it within the same sentence. So your first example needs to be corrected to:

They marched in two perfectly formed lines, their footsteps echoing through the hall.

...which definitely flows better than your second example.

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Like F1Krazy said, you can do it if you turn your first example into a single sentence separated by a comma.

However, the reason for this is that "Their footsteps echoing through the hall" is not present tense! "Echoing" is a participle, and the whole thing is a phrase/subclause which modifies the main sentence. (A nominative absolute including a participle, apparently, for those interested in the grammar.) This means that:

  • it must be attached to a main clause, and
  • said main clause can be past tense with no problems.

Present tense would be

Their footsteps echo through the hall

or (present progressive)

Their footsteps are echoing through the hall

and you can definitely not use either of those in combination with your first, past tense sentence.

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  • 1
    This is a very valuable addition - I knew intuitively that my answer was correct but didn't know the actual grammatical rules behind it. – F1Krazy May 14 '20 at 8:57
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    I had to do quite a bit of Googling to find the terminology, I admit! I went to the effort because I didn't want to leave the asker with the impression that tense switching is OK here. Tense switching is not OK, but this isn't tense switching. – Tau May 14 '20 at 15:08
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Some writers use what is called the historic present tense. Done badly and it looks like you don't know the difference between the past and the present. Done well and it can increase tension. Anthony Horowitz, for example, uses it to great effect.

Compare the following passages.

Passage one

Alison was scared. She slowly placed one foot in front of the other and edged forward. Her mind was confused. She had found out that her best friend had betrayed her. Her future was at the best bad, at the worst terrible. She wept as she crept along the narrow bridge.

Passage two

Alison was scared. Slowly placing one foot in front of the other she edges along the narrow bridge. She had found that her best friend betrayed her. Now her prospects were bad, if not terrible. She weeps as she takes her next steps.

Passage three

Scared, Alison placed one foot in front of the other and edged her way along the narrow bridge. One wrong step would mean death. Finding that her best friend had betrayed her had devastated Alison. Weeping she takes another step. She had to go on.

Passage four

Alison was terrified. She stood frozen with fear. The platform led to a narrow bridge. She needed to cross it. One step at a time she makes the journey. Each step is a gamble with death. Each step is accompanied by the racing drumbeat of her heart. Each step is distance between her and her enemies. As she took the last step the bridge behind her crumbled and fell. She was safe.

Passage one only uses the past tense. Passage two, however, uses two sentences in the present tense. Passage three uses the participles ‘finding’ and ‘weeping’, the conditional modal verb ‘would’ and the present tense verb ‘takes’. Passage four takes a different approach: a whole paragraph is written in the present tense. This is a technique that should only be used very rarely. Using the present tense can add immediacy and pace. It can make your writing more exciting. It can be used when you are writing in the first person as well as the third.

Passage five

I couldn’t go on. Exhaustion had chained my body to the spot. But the desire to survive pulls me forward. Crawling on hands and knees I move along the corridor. I can see the door ahead. Pain washes over me. Ten feet. Five feet. Then the door opened and I saw him.

The present tense can also be used in first-person narratives to suggest someone talking to themselves.

Passage six

I struggled to my feet. I am not going to die on my knees. I am not going to give him the satisfaction. Pain cut like a razor through my thigh muscle, but I would not let him see my weakness.

Some people like to put inverted commas around thoughts like this or use italics when typing.

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    I don't really understand the difference between your examples. With Alison, the first version makes sense to me, but the other three look like you've picked sentences almost at random to put into present tense, and I find it confusing rather than exciting. The same for passage five. Perhaps you could add an example from a published book? (You mentioned Anthony Horowitz, so maybe one of his?) Passage six I like - personally I would probably use italics for the thoughts, as you say, but that's a personal choice. – DM_with_secrets May 18 '20 at 6:38
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The definition of a gerund is : (in certain languages, as Latin) a form regularly derived from a verb and functioning as a noun, having in Latin all case forms but the nominative, as Latin dicendī gen., dicendō, dat., abl., etc., “saying.” See also gerundive. the English -ing form of a verb when functioning as a noun, as writing. In Writing, it is a form similar to the Latin gerund in meaning or function.

A participle is defined as: an adjective or complement to certain auxiliaries that is regularly derived from the verb in many languages and refers to participation in the action or state of the verb; a verbal form used as an adjective. It does not specify person or number in English, but may have a subject or object, show tense, etc., as burning, in a burning candle, or devoted in his devoted friend.

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  • Please could you add something here to specifically address the original question? Thanks! – DM_with_secrets May 19 '20 at 23:58

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