Grammbo Speaks: Advice From an Editor

We have a secret editor answering questions today, so please read on!

1. “When is it okay to switch tense? (If it’s ever okay.)”
Hi Windsong5. Grammatically speaking, as long as the construction is correct for the tense, there are no rules on switching tense. Most writers make use of more than one tense in their work. The tricky part is keeping the reader with you. Readers need to know who they’re with, where they are and when they are. The when can be the temporal setting (contemporary, historical, future), as well as a carefully constructed (but entirely transparent) movement between what is happening now in the story, what happened earlier and what might happen yet. These all require a change in tense if the writer chooses to present scenes out of a linear sequence. So tense changes are certainly ‘okay’. How the writer manages the reader’s perspective of when is the key.

A narrative that wobbles between tenses, where the reader struggles in time, unsure when an action took place and in what sequence, that’s a stylistic problem. Often the tense usage will be grammatically correct, but the sequencing of events may not be clear to the reader or the segue too abrupt or not tied well enough to the scene that introduces the tense change.

The most common tense change is from simple past (I ate dinner) to past perfect (I had eaten dinner). Depending on the sentence structure, the first few verbs are rendered in past perfect to take the reader into the tense change and then the narration can switch back to simple past for the rest of the scene.

I’m not sure if that answered your question on changing tenses or not. I hope so. Your use of the ‘ing’ verb (technically a present participle) is grammatically correct. More on that later.

2. Capitalizing titles?
Hi Luc2. Writing in a second language is to be commended. You don’t have the advantage of the language just ‘feeling’ or ‘looking’ right. On your question for capitals:

If the ‘title’ is a family one (mother, father, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, etc.), you only use the capital if the title replaces the proper name or is used as part of the proper name. You don’t use the capital if it is preceded by a possessive pronoun.

I met Mother at the restaurant. (Mother replaces the name here)
I met my mother at the restaurant. (Preceded by a possessive pronoun – my, her, his, their, our)
I emailed Uncle Bob. (Here Uncle is part of Bob’s name/title)
I sent an email to my uncle Bob. (Again, preceded by a possessive pronoun)

You’ll find that most instances of familial titles aren’t capitalized.

Titles of royalty?
Here the tables turn and capitalization is more common since these titles don’t just connote roles in a family (like grandfather) or an office (like professor), but are more often inherited or conferred. If used generically, they are lowercased in North America. In the UK this is not always the case, but then we get into whether a duke is royal or nonroyal and I’m not sure you need that kind of detail.

The duke ate his dinner. (Generic use here, could be any old everyday duke and thus in lowercase)
The Duke of Windsor ate his dinner. (Non-generic use. This is a title and must be capitalized.)

If in doubt, I’d recommend capitalizing a royal title.


There are no grammatical rules on when or where they should be used in fiction. That’s the writer’s choice based on their own style and in the context of the work. Most writers use them in dialogue (unless they have a character whose speech pattern is formal or perhaps a bit affected). They are used in narrative also. I’m using them here because I’m writing in a conversational style. If contractions aren’t used in narrative, they can give the work a scholarly feel which may or may not work, depending on the story itself.

3. Hyphen/En dash/Em dash usage
Hi anonymous.
Hyphen: This is used in compound words (five-year-old), or telephone numbers (123-456-7890), or breaks in words that are wrapped onto the next line in printed text. Also to indicate spelling out a word, s-p-e-l-l.

En dash: This is used to connect numbers and words, sort of like ‘up to and including’. Examples would be 1990–1998, or chapters 1–3. It also has some use with compound adjectives in place of a hyphen. Particularly if the compound adjective is already hyphenated, but most editors would recommend rewriting a sentence rather than get into a series of en-dashed–hyphenated words. Like that one.

Em dash: This can be used to replace a comma or parenthesis or a colon, but no more than two per sentence. The material framed within em dashes may contain punctuation, depending on the usage, but there is no punctuation before or after it. Some writers use opening em dashes instead of quotation marks for dialogue. They are also commonly used in fiction to indicate an abrupt halt in speech or interrupted dialogue:

The world—immense as it seems—is really quite small on the internet.
But Madeline—is she insane?—didn’t appear to care.
“You’re not”—he rolled his eyes—“serious, are you?”

Not too many differences in usage for these between the US and Canada. Americans are more likely to close up a hyphenated word and make it a compound one (antioxidant versus anti-oxidant), en dashes are rarely used in fiction and the em dash is used widely in both countries with no real discernible differences. Some editors prefer the use of em dashes over colons in fiction as they have less of an ‘academic’ presentation.

4. Passive voice
Hi marieconley3. Passive voice is more of a stylistic choice than an issue of grammar. And a sometimes controversial subject for writers. It has a place in fiction when used deliberately by the writer to create a specific effect. How effective it is depends a lot on the work it is being used in. It doesn’t always have to be ‘fixed’. It should be used judiciously, however, as it can distance a reader from the story. But there are no grammatical ‘rules’ on usage other than those writers choose to define for themselves and their own work. Most writers carefully examine passive voice in their own manuscripts by searching for use of the ‘to be’ verb, and then decide if it is appropriate or not in that particular scene, for that character, or in the overall style of the work itself.

The door was opened by Harry. (Passive, the subject of the sentence is not actively doing anything, it is being acted upon.)
Harry opened the door. (Active, the subject of the sentence, Harry, is performing something.)

‘ing’ verbs?
Present participles. If used as nouns, they are called gerunds. Present participles imply ongoing action, something that is not yet complete. They can be used with either present or past tense.

Harry was swimming. (Although this is in past tense, there is an implication that the swimming in the past was ongoing, and the reader can anticipate something happening while Harry is in the water.)
The swimming was fine this morning. (This is a gerund. The present participle is used as a noun.)

Present participles get sticky because of their implied ongoing action. Sometimes their use can make a sentence illogical. The implied action is also an implied simultaneous action with something else that is going on in the sentence.

Jumping out of the car, I stopped. (Illogical. It is not physically possible to jump and stop simultaneously unless this is speculative fiction and the character is suspended in the air.)
She was walking and chewing gum. (Difficult for some of us, but not illogical. It can be done.)

Grammatically, the construction is simple as long as the implied ongoing action fits logically with the rest of the sentence. Stylistically, in a work of fiction, present participles are most effectively used to create a small measure of suspense, where the reader is drawn into the action by a timeless quality and the sense of ‘ongoing’. However, they are noticeable and if overused or used carelessly, they lose effectiveness and can become distracting, appear contrived, or even make the prose seem overwrought. Most constructions with present participles can be simply changed to past tense without diminishing the quality of the sentence. A lot of writers use them freely in early drafts, since they are actively living the scenes as they write them. Once the revision process starts, then the writer can choose which ones to keep (if any, depending on how appropriate their usage is), and which ones to change to a more simple use of the verb.

I would say if you have them everywhere, Marie, you probably have too many. Try changing most of them to simple past when you revise and see if the haunting stops.

5: Toward or towards?
Hi Joan. Depends on where you are. Towards is more common in the UK and Canada. Toward is more common in the US. Both are correct and that’s why they both sound right.


Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Editing Tips, Grammar. Bookmark the permalink.
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Leandro Sigler
Leandro Sigler
2 years ago

I discovered your blog website on google and test a few of your early posts. Continue to keep up the excellent operate. I simply additional up your RSS feed to my MSN News Reader. Looking for forward to studying more from you in a while!…


[…] grammar answers first to make sure your query has not already been answered, you can check here. When enough questions have been asked, we will close the question period and post the answers as […]

12 years ago

Awesome entry! Props to Grammbo!

12 years ago

And another big thank you, Grammbo! I read all the answers with interest, and your explanations are very clear (even to me :_)).

12 years ago

Thanks for the grammar insights! I appreciate the time you took to answer everyone’s questions. This information has been very helpful to me. Thanks!

12 years ago

Thanks so much. Saving your info on my computer.

12 years ago

Thank you, Grammbo! Your answers to all the questions asked have really helped me make sense of of what I see as an arbitrary collection of rules.