Remain In-Tense – Verbs 1

Hourglass 1

Because verb tenses are so very important for communication, I am going to divide a chapter from Really Stupid Writing Mistakes: How to Avoid Them into two different posts. (The whole chapter in one post would be way too long. In fact, please forgive me for the length of this one. There was no good place to break it.)

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Some languages do not use any more than three tenses: Past, Present, and Simple Future: I play, I played, I will play. En­glish has twelve, with copious names for each (e.g., Future Progressive, Future Continuous, Simple Future Progressive, or Simple Future Continuous are all the same description for: “I will be playing.”). And of course, there are the inevitable exceptions and extras. I won’t get involved in lessons, but will comment on those errors or misuses I see most frequently. I don’t even bur­den myself with memorizing the myriad names of tenses — so neither will I burden you — because understanding the concept makes tedious memory work unneces­sary. If you wish to get into a deep study of the vagaries of English verb tenses, there’s the ever-available Internet. (And once again, just because it’s on the Internet doesn’t make it correct.) I’ll provide examples of where writers some­times go wrong in their usage of past, present, future, coulda, woulda, and shoulda, had had, and would have had had I had the forethought, et cetera.

SIMPLE PRESENT
I play, you play, she/he/it plays, we play, they play

SIMPLE PRESENT CONTINUOUS
I am playing, you are playing, she/he/it is playing, we are playing, they are playing

The difference between the Simple Present and the Simple Continuous Present is probably better understood by first giving an example using the Past tense: I played there yesterday means one activity, over and done with. I was playing there yesterday can imply a meanwhile back at the ranch type thing:

I played with my bike in the park yesterday. Usually I play with it in my friend’s yard.

I was playing with my bike when my friend arrived and invited me to go down town with him.

In the Present:

I play guitar.

I am playing my guitar [right now].

SIMPLE PAST
I played, you played, he/she/it played, we played, they played

SIMPLE PAST CONTINUOUS
I was playing, you were playing, she/he/it was playing, we were playing, they were playing

SIMPLE PAST PERFECT
I have played, you have played, he/she/it has played, we have played, they have played

“Have you ever played in the park, Joey?”

“Yes, Officer Jones. I have played in the park. I played there on Tuesday. And yesterday, while I was playing there, Frankie came by and asked if I wanted to go down town with him.”

SIMPLE PAST PERFECT CONTINUOUS
I have been playing, you have been playing, he/she/it has been playing, we have been playing, they have been playing

“I see. Have you been playing in that park all summer?”

“No. I have been playing in that park for only three weeks.”

PAST PERFECT
I had played, you had played, he/she/it had played, we had played, they had played

Almost all books are written in the Past tense, but we think we are reading in the present.

Had is further back than the Simple Past, so writers run across this tense all the time and many writers have difficulty with it.

(1)    He locked up his bike before he went down town with Frankie.

(2)    He had locked up his bike before he went down town.

What’s the difference between examples (1) and (2)? In (1) the boy simply locked up his bike then went down town with Frankie. In (2), we are expecting a but, aren’t we? “He had locked up his bike before he went down town, but somehow it got stolen anyway.”

I’m sure we’ve used something like this in our stories:

“I got something to tell you, Frankie. Something serious,” said Joey, adjusting the phone closer to his mouth so he could whisper, so he wouldn’t be overheard by his mother. “It happened yesterday.”

Before Joey had left for the park the previous day, he had seen some­thing from this very window. He had seen something that had told him it might not be wise to leave his bike unattended in the park anymore. He had seen a strange man lurking in the bushes near the bike lock-up.

While we are writing in this further-back past, we need to use had all the time. This can become tedious for both writer and reader if it goes on too long.

It is acceptable — and in fact, recommended — that once we establish the further-back past, we switch to the Simple Past during our flashback. When our flashback nears completion, we gently nudge our reader to return to the further-back past, then on we go back to our story (in the Simple Past). Still with me?

Perhaps a show not tell:

“I got something to tell you, Frankie. Something serious,” said Joey, adjusting the phone closer to his mouth so he could whisper, so he wouldn’t be overheard by his mother. “It happened yesterday.”

Before Joey had left for the park the previous day, he had seen some­thing from this very window. He had seen something that had told him it might not be wise to leave his bike unattended in the park anymore. He had seen a strange man lurking in the bushes near the bike lock-up.

The man had been wearing dirty clothes. He was unshaven and his beard stretched almost to his belt. As Joey watched, the man reached out with a set of bolt cutters and cut through the chain holding a red Shimano to its post. Joey had been frightened, not so much by the man himself, but by what the man had done.

Joey heard a noise outside his bedroom door. “Gotta go. It’s Mom. Catch you later, Frankie.”

The reason you don’t continue to use the Past Perfect the whole time you’re back there is because it takes away the immediacy of the event you’re writing about. The reader’s mind remains distant from the events: “This went on in the past so I don’t need to concern myself with it.” You aren’t drawing the reader into your world to experience what happened with Joey and Frankie and the strange man.

NOTE
When Joey is speaking, he says “yesterday”. When the narrator is speaking, the narrator must not say “yesterday”, but must say “the previous day”. This is something I run across quite frequently. Making this mistake is actually a very good sign that the writer is in the moment or in his world which is exactly where he is supposed to be. Don’t worry about this kind of thing during your 1st draft. It can wait until the 2nd or even 3rd go-through. Careful of ago and other un-timely expressions, too.

PAST PERFECT CONTINUOUS
I had been playing, you had been playing, he/she/it had been playing, we had been playing, they had been playing

Don’t panic. This is the same as those Simple Past/Simple Past Continuous examples I gave you earlier, except it’s one step further ago. Same thing for Future tenses.

 

Next Post – Remain In-Tense — Verbs 2

Sherrill Wark is the author of Really Stupid Writing Mistakes: How to Avoid Them: http://www.amazon.com/Really-Stupid-Writing-Mistakes-Avoid/dp/1479308226

… and Death in l’Acadie: a Kesk8a story (fiction): http://www.amazon.com/Death-lAcadie-Kesk8a-Sherrill-Wark/dp/1511501154/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

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