Tag Archive | verb tense

Getting Tense

samfootpaintIt seems a lot of folks are jumping on the Present Tense bandwagon. Now, don’t get me wrong, present tense can be cool–it can also come across as pretentious. The good news is that at least it keeps you from the mistake of slipping up on using past perfect tense when in past tense. But let’s go over these basics for those who may have skipped this class in school.

Present Tense – This is where you write as if things are happening now. I paint a picture. The sun is setting. It’s all going on in the present. The tricky part of present tense is what do you do with things that have happened–you have to not slip back into past tense.

Past Tense – Things have happened. I have painted a picture. Notice the verb change–we’re now in the ‘ed’ world. This is the most widely used verb tense for story telling. It’s comfortable for a reason. The trick here is when you are in past tense and you’re talking about the more distant past you have to switch to past perfect.

Past Perfect Tense – Things had happened a long time ago that need to be mentioned. Back when I was five, I had painted a picture of my world. The key word is “had.” If I had a nickel for every time a writer needed that had and left it out, well, I’d probably be doing other things with those nickles. Anyway, leaving out the ‘had’ can make for reader confusion. The ones that throw me is when a character is thinking about something that happened in childhood, but due to only using past tense it sounds as if this just happened in the story–and I then have to reread the paragraph and pick apart the meaning. I hate that.


Now there are other verb tenses, and a nice easy list can be found here at English Grammar Revolution. It’s worth the link to nail this down in your own writing, particularly if you plan to get fancy with your writing.


Tensed Verbs

Lately I’ve been seeing  a new trend that I don’t get—are folks not being taught verb tenses anymore?

This issue shows up in manuscripts that I see and not just a couple of them. Now, I can understand coma troubles—there’s a stylistic issue in play, so you can go for the less or more styles. Commas can be tricky and badly used can lead to awkward sentences. However, verbs tell the reader when something is happening. Get the verbs tense wrong and you’ve got a confused reader who has to stop reading the story to figure out what’s going on.

The worst of this shows up with past perfect tense.

If you’re writing in past tense and you need to talk about something in the more distant past, you need to use the past perfect tense to avoid confusion.

An example of this is you have two characters talking. Let’s say Sue and Larry are having dinner in a restaurant. Sue  thinks back to how she bought a gallon of milk yesterday. Maybe you write:

She bought a gallon of milk.

This sounds as if Sue is currently buying the gallon of milk in the middle of a conversation in the restaurant. And the reader goes, “Hun?” The reader now has to stop, reread, and has been thrown out of the story. Do this enough and the reader puts down the book.

The past perfect tense helps the reader figure out the time sequence. She bought a gallon of milk. becomes:

Yesterday, she’d bought a gallon of milk.

Or if you want to avoid “had”:

She remembered buying a gallon of milk yesterday.

Had is not a bad word. Neither is “that” but there also seems to be a trend toward removing both words, and this can make for awkward sentences.

Reading aloud will help you catch these things. So will a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, a handy small book that every writer needs close at hand.