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Tutorial for Shifts
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What are they?

A shift is a sudden, unexpected change in person, verb tense, voice, mood, or level of language that may confuse your readers.

I discovered that you could touch some of the museum exhibits.

(The sentence shifts from the first-person pronoun I to the second-person pronoun you.)

Shifting from an indirect question to a direct question or from an indirect quotation to a direct quotation can also confuse readers.

The defense attorney asked where were you on the evening of May 10.

(The sentence shifts from an indirect question to a direct question.)

How to find them

  1. In a shift in person, the references to yourself, your audience, or the people you are writing about are inconsistent. Pay special attention to pronouns.

    When people study a foreign language, you also learn about another culture.

    (The person shifts from the third-person pronoun people to the second-person pronoun you.)

  2. In a shift in verb tense, the verb tenses are inconsistent when the meaning of the sentence does not require you to change tenses.

    The virus mutated so quickly that it develops a resistance to most vaccines.

    (The verb tense shifts from past to present.)

    Notice that sometimes the meaning requires you to change verb tenses in a sentence. The following sentence is correct because the meaning requires a change in verb tense:

    Last spring, robins built the nest that the blue jays now call home.

    (The past-tense verb is used to describe a time in the past, and the present-tense verb describes the present.)

  3. In a shift in voice, the writer needlessly uses both the active and the passive voice, which results in disorienting and wordy sentences.

    One group of volunteers was given a placebo, and the researchers treated another group with the new drug.

    (The first clause is in the passive voice, and the second clause is in the active voice.)

  4. A shift in mood occurs when the writer moves among commands or directions; statements or questions; and wishes, suggestions, or conditions contrary to fact.

    Keep your goal in mind, and you need to practice, practice, practice.

    (The first clause is a direction, and the second is a statement.)

  5. Shifts in level of language, such as from a formal to an informal tone or vice versa, can also disorient readers.

    Plazas and shopping districts crowded with pedestrians attract more pedestrians. For some reason, people seem to get a charge out of hanging out where lots of other folks are hanging out, too.

    (The second sentence is much more informal in tone than the first sentence.)

How to correct them

  1. Refer to yourself, your audience, and the people you are writing about in a consistent way.

    If you begin with a pronoun in first, second, or third person, change any inconsistent pronouns to match.

    When people study a foreign language, youthey also learn about another culture.

  2. Maintain consistency in verb tense throughout a paragraph or essay, unless the meaning requires you to change tenses. Change any inconsistent tenses to match the appropriate time frame.

    The virus mutatedmutates so quickly that it develops a resistance to most vaccines.

  3. Use a consistent voice. To change a sentence from the passive voice to the active voice, make the subject of the sentence the performer of the action.

    One group of volunteers was given a placebo, andThe researchers gave one group of volunteers a placebo, and the researchers treated another group with the new drug.

  4. Use a consistent mood throughout a paragraph or an essay.

    Keep your goal in mind, and you need to practice, practice, practice.

  5. Use a consistent level of language. If you find yourself shifting from a formal tone to an informal one or vice versa, choose the appropriate tone and revise.

    Plazas and shopping districts crowded with pedestrians attract more pedestrians

    For some reason, people seem to enjoyget a charge out of gathering together hanging out in public spaces. where lots of other folks are hanging out, too.

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