I'm not much for dictionary definitions, but the one for consistency is a good starting point: agreement or logical coherence among things or parts. The "things or parts" that we're going to talk about here are verbs and pronouns. The "agreement or logical coherence" that applies to them is really pretty simple--so simple that you might overlook it in your writing.
To make sure your verbs are consistent, just check their tense (the time they refer to). If you're writing in the past tense, for example, don't shift into the present unless you've got a logical reason to do so. If you do, you may confuse your readers about when something happened or something is happening--and you'll be having a problem with consistency. Look at these examples:
In number 1, the first two verbs ("was") are in the past tense; the third ("falls") is in the present. Why? There's no logical reason for the shift, so the tense is inconsistent. Change "falls" to "fell" and you have no problem.
In number 2, the first verb ("barks") is in the present tense; the second ("crawled") is in the past. Again, there is no logical reason for the shift. Switch "crawled" to "crawls," and you're okay. (Obviously which verb or verbs you change will depend on the meaning of your sentences.)
If you haven't noticed, the key to all this is logical reason. If you need to make a tense shift for your ideas to make sense, then make it. If you write a sentence like, "I live in Amarillo, but two years ago I lived in Atlanta."--there's nothing wrong. You're showing a logical relation between the past and the present.
To make sure your pronouns are consistent, check their point of view (the person they refer to). Person is nothing more than identifying who is speaking or being spoken about. There are three types: first-person ("I," "we"); second-person ("you"); and third-person ("he," "they").
Your point of view is inconsistent if you switch person without any "logical reason" (there's that phrase again). A couple of examples should give you the idea:
Think about it. Why would "you" worry if "I" have a problem? I'm the one who's worried, so the sentence should show that: "I like to eat when Peggy is in the backyard because I don't have to worry. . . ." See the problem and how to fix it?
A final suggestion:
In both sentences, the problem occurs with a shift to "you." Simply avoid using "you" anywhere in your paper. It will help your problems with inconsistent point of view, and it will make your writing sound more objective (but that's different topic). Trust me on this one!
How about a "Self-Test" to see if you really understand.
© Scott Foll 2001. All rights reserved.