Getting It Right – Tenses for Dummies

Tenses are the way verbs change to show when something happened, either in the past (“She went…”), the present (“She’s going…”) or the future (“She will go…” etc.). Most verbs have two ‘aspects’: continuous (“He was writing a book…”) and simple (“He wrote a book.”), which show whether an action was completed. Obvious enough, but the beginning writer has a number of pitfalls to avoid.

Simple versus continuous

Many beginning writers make the common mistake of using continuous aspects for emphasis, thinking that it will help set the scene, e.g. “The sun was beating down while the traffic was edging forward onto the freeway. John was guiding his pink Cadillac to join the flow, wondering if he should buy a more masculine car.”

This awful example improves immeasurably when the verbs are moved to past simple: “The sun beat down while the traffic edged forward onto the freeway. John guided his pink Cadillac to join the flow and wondered if he should buy a more masculine car.”

Continuous tenses do have their uses, e.g. to show a longer action being interrupted by a shorter action: “John was accelerating onto the freeway when the plane crashed a hundred yards in front of his car.” However, working through your manuscript and removing as many continuous aspect verbs as you can is a vital part of the editing process before you publish. Only leave in a “was/were +ing” if it absolutely has to be there.

Reported speech

In written English, the rule is hard and fast: one tense back into the past:

Direct speech: “I will call you back when the meeting has finished.”

Reported speech: She said she would call me back when the meeting had finished.

This can cause a problem for the beginning writer because, in real-life situations, we tend not to use reported speech. When we take a call as in the example above, it’s natural afterwards to turn to the person next to us and say: “She said she’ll call me back when the meeting has finished.”

Thus, the rule here cannot be consistent. Your characters may not have such good English, so in dialogue reported speech is going to be down to them. If you’re writing your story in First Person PoV, again it will depend on whether your narrator is educated or cares about correct grammar. However, if your story is in a Third Person PoV, then in passages of exposition you as the storyteller have to get reported speech right, e.g. “John slammed the phone down and told Celia that her mother would call back after the meeting had finished.”

Active voice versus passive voice

Much has been written about this, but you should always prefer active verbs over passive verbs. Never write: “The house was painted by John,” if you can write, “John painted the house.” Passive voice forces an unnatural word order which obliges your reader to work a fraction harder to follow the story. It does have its uses: where the ‘doer’ of the action is not important (“The missiles have been launched…”) or unknown (“My car’s been stolen!”), and you might consider having certain characters use the passive voice to clearly distinguish them. In many stories, the villain often uses passive to speak in an aloof, formal manner, while the hero will talk more as an average Joe/Jolene.

However, it’s worth noting that the group of people who use passive the most are lawyers, who, in an effort to be precise, usually end up tying themselves in linguistic knots. If you’ve ever read those terms and conditions that you have to tick on websites, you’ll know that they are not an entertaining read; and if you use too much passive, neither will your story.

Noun/verb agreement

It’s a minor point, but the grammar police do tend to get animated around collective nouns. Compare:

“The management board has decided to invest in futures.”

“The management board are on vacation this week.”

Both of these verbs are correct given the context; in the first the board acts as a single entity, while in the second each board member is separately on vacation. It only needs a little common sense, but a similar issue comes up with other collective nouns, including press, government, band, group, media, etc.

Using the internet

Finally, if you have any doubt over a verb form, fragment or sentence, it’s worth consulting the internet. Put the question directly in the search window, e.g. “What’s the difference between ‘past’ and ‘passed’?” and you’ll get thousands of results which you can consult and compare at leisure. Remember that as an Independent Author, you are taking responsibility for every aspect of the written product you put out there, and nothing shows a newbie up like poor use of English.

Right, that’s enough of the finger-wagging lecture posts from me. I’ll be back later this month with another Indie News Beat column. In the meantime, write on!

Author: Chris James

Chris James is an English author who lives in Warsaw, Poland, with his wife and three children. He has published three full-length science fiction novels and is currently writing a series of short story volumes inspired by characters in songs from the rock band Genesis. For more information, please visit his website or Amazon author page.

26 thoughts on “Getting It Right – Tenses for Dummies”

  1. I just have to say that the prejudice against passive voice is harmful and rests on nothing solid.
    People don’t say “The house was painted by John”
    But they might say, “The house, painted by an art commune many years gone, was generally thought to be a sort of cultural treasure.”
    There is nothing “unnatural” about it, and it’s merely a tool in the hand of a writer’s voice and style.
    Nothing wrong with that sentence…and “un-passifying” leads to the grotesque.
    It’s well to examine these little shibboleths before internalizing them.

  2. Lin, the example sentence you give is a question of style – I wouldn’t recommend having two passive verbs together as you do there, especially as “which an art commune painted…” would be more natural. The “was thought to be” construction is of course fine, but my point in the post is to alert beginning/new authors to the danger of using passive without sufficient reason in a misguided attempt at developing a “style” which over novel length will work against them, and to encourage beginning authors to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of how they write at the fragment/sentence level.
    As with most languages, the most natural English sentence structure is Subject-Verb-Object, not the reverse, and this is, actually, the best way to tell a story, sentence by sentence. It doesn’t mean the new writer should not try to develop their own style, but the old adage “to break the rules, you first have to learn them” applies equally to English grammar as to most things in life.
    In addition, I was also limited by the length of the post, and wanted to cover the other tense issues for the benefit of any IU readers who may not be aware of these things. Certainly a full discussion of passive would require several thousand words, but I wouldn’t expect to have many readers left at the end of it 🙂

    1. It’s a real sentence. Would slow nobody down.
      The Painted by john is not. It’s a clumsy contrucdtion designed to give credence to a fallacy.
      Hate to step on your toes, but this is something I mention wihenever I see it.
      Just as there are no “bad” colors for painters, or “bad” notes or chords for musicians, there are no “bad” voices or tenses or adverbs or whatever for writers. And to say so is harmful to writers who haven’t figured that out.
      We tell our stories the way they sound good to us. If that inolves a pasive voice, then that’s the way it goes and there nobody alive qualitied to say we are “wrong”. Seriously. I’d suggest anybody in doubt of that think it over.

  3. Ahem. “The management board is/are” is more of a Britishism; in the US, you almost never see a collective noun used with a plural verb. To emphasize that you’re speaking of individuals on the board, it’s more likely that the construction would be, “Members of the management board are….”

    Also, sorry to disagree with you, Lin, but passive voice = ewwww phew phew phew. 😉 It wastes too many words. “There is/are” is an empty phrase that just makes for a weeny sentence — dump it and use a good, strong verb instead. (Why, yes, “weeny” is a technical term, thanks.)

    Also, in your second example sentence, “painted by an art commune…” is a, uh, modifying phrase of some kind (can’t remember the term — help, Cathy Speight!) and so “painted” is not functioning as a verb there at all. The “was generally thought” is okay to my ear, though; otherwise, you would have to say “Some people thought…” or “Many people thought…” — which then begs the question, “which people?” So maybe that’s the exception that proves the rule. 😉

    1. Writers who worry about “wasting words” are in deep trouble from square one.
      Let me refer people to my post covering passive voice and other jumped-up bugaboos last march.
      It’s good to be aware of.
      One thing that gets noticed, by the way, is that many who rant about passive voice can’t distinguish it from usages like progressive past tense.
      Best way to deal with it… don’t worry your pretty head

          1. Look, I understand your point. Different styles of writing require different rules, and even then sometimes the rules can be broken.

            *My* point is that reliance on passive voice undercuts the strength of the prose. If your narrator, or a character in your novel, is a passive sort of person, then passive voice would fit, I suppose. But it’s just not a technique I, personally, would rely on. However, my writing background is different from yours. And I’m prepared to agree to disagree. 🙂

          2. This is exactly the reason I take the time to comment on this non-rule stuff.
            Take a look at my link to the piece last March.

            There is no relationship between the technical term “passive voice” and actual passive characteristics. It’s important to realize that.

            It does not, in fact, undercut strength or lead to passivism. Easily acertained by reading some of the powerful passage from major documents…and paying attention to usage in successful novels.

  4. Then there’s the literary past. This concept has always caused me grief. In fiction, if you’re writing in the past tense, the past is the present. So, outside of dialogue, you wouldn’t write “It always snows in Montreal” even though it’s true today.

    1. That’s a very interesting concern, Elissa.
      One thing I’d say–authors DO say things like “It always rains” you see a lot of that.
      I’m thinking that there’s quote a bit of slide between “times” in narration. So much of this stuff is much less rigid than the “rule books” would paint it.
      You even get future slipping into narration. “it’s never going to stop snowing.”
      “Sue’ll catch on evenutally. But at the moment she’s a pain in the butt. That’s how Trish saw it, and she made it pretty clear.”

      We have huge amounts of freedom. Which is why I hate to see writers volunarily surrendering it.

  5. Thank you, Jo. I think clarity in storytelling is the most important thing. It doesn’t mean authors shouldn’t have their own style, but at the beginning, it’s certainly better to take a simpler approach to better tell a story.

    1. I agree completely.
      That’s why I continually advise writers to take a simple approach, concentrating on their narrative voice, and not clutter their head up with a bunch of taboos and fads.
      Just saves energy

  6. Interesting discussion, but I am surprised no one commented on this:
    “If you’ve ever read those terms and conditions that you have to tick on websites, you’ll know that they are not an entertaining read; and if you use too much passive, neither will your story.”
    Tsk, tsk. I realize we have here an implied verb: neither will your story (be an entertaining read). However, it jerked the choke chain on my inner grammarian and I wound up worrying it for five minutes. Why? Because the implied verb is derived from the previous clause and doesn’t flow naturally. The way the offending clause flows onto my brain raises the question “If I use too much passive my story won’t?” Huh? My story won’t what? Now that doesn’t make sense and I have to stop to dissect and process it. I thought we writers are supposed to eschew (o sorry) phrasing that makes a reader chew off a leg to get free of our stuff, be it fiction or non-fiction. Especially in an article about being correct.
    That nit having been picked, may I thank you for an interesting article, Chris. Keep ’em coming.

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