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Avoiding Shifts

Writers should keep the elements in a sentence consistent, avoiding any unnecessary changes in tense, voice, mood, person, number, and discourse.  Such unnecessary changes, or "shifts," may make reading difficult and obscure the sentence's  meaning for the reader.

Avoid shifts in

1. verb tense

    Except for special cases where the intended meaning requires a change in tense, maintain the same tense within a sentence.


    Error:- shift in verb tense


    The sentence above begins in the past tense but shifts, without reason, to the present tense.

     Error repaired



2. voice

    The voice of a verb may be either active or passive in a sentence.  When a sentence contains two or more verbs, both verbs should maintain the same voice.

    Error - shift in voice 


    The sentence above begins in active voice but shifts without reason to passive voice.

    Error repaired



    Example -  emphasis on subject requires shift in voice


Here, the use of passive allows the sentence to focus on the subject.


         3. mood

    Shifts in mood often occur with directions, where the mood shifts from indicative to imperative or from imperative to indicative.

Error - shift in mood


Error repaired



4. person

    English has three "persons" or points of view:

  •     first person - the speaker
               I, me, my, mine, we, us, our, ours
  •     second person - the person spoken to
             you, your, yours
  •     third person - the person or thing spoken about
             he, him, his, she, her, hers, it, its, they, them, their

    Unless the meaning of a sentence clearly requires a change, keep person consistent within a sentence.

    Shifts in person usually occur with changes from the third to the second person point of view.

    Error - shift in person


    Error repaired



    If the meaning of a sentence clearly requires a change, then you may change person as needed.

    Example requiring a change in person


    Since both I and the others are doing something in the above sentence, the shift in person is justified.

5. number

    Use singular pronouns to refer to singular antecedents; use plural pronouns to refer to plural antecedents.

        Error - shift in number


        Error repaired



    There are two ways to recount someone's words.  Each way requires its own format.

    A direct quotation gives the exact words of a speaker, surrounding the words with quotation marks.



  An indirect quotation paraphrases the speaker's words and does not place them inside quotation marks.  Even if the indirect quotation paraphrases a question, the sentence ends with a period.



  Note the difference in the formats above:


    A shift in discourse occurs when, within a sentence, the writer uses the format of one form and shifts some part to the format of the other.

    Example - shift in discourse



    Error repaired with indirect discourse


      Error repaired with direct discourse



7.  sentence construction

    A shift in sentence construction occurs when words or phrases intended for one purpose are used for another, upsetting the natural flow of the sentence.  Below are examples of three frequent errors that shift sentence construction.  Below each error is an example showing one or more ways to repair the error.

    Error -prepositional phrase used as subject




    Error - faulty subject




Using  is because, is where, or is when  in a sentence often creates a construction shift.  Avoid this phrasing.

    Error - is because




     Error - is where




    Error - is when




For further information on these resources, contact
Margaret L. Benner

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